The Local newsletter is your free, daily guide to life in Colorado. For locals, by locals. Sign up today!
Deion Sanders escapes the nighttime chill and walks into the building where the next chapter of his legacy will be written. It’s winter in Boulder, a few days after the man known as Coach Prime left his job at Jackson State University in Mississippi and signed a deal that made him the 28th head football coach in University of Colorado Boulder history. The list of CU coaches is thick with men who’ve led the Buffaloes to conference titles, to big-time bowl games, and to one national championship—though none arrived on campus with the kind of flash and optimism that followed this 55-year-old NFL Hall of Famer, a man who’d begun his college coaching journey just three years earlier and was now saying that God had called him to this place at the foot of the Rocky Mountains.
He’d taken the job without ever having visited Boulder. His decision was, perhaps, encouraged by divine intervention; accepting the gig sight unseen may have also been preordained by Sanders’ aversion to long-term commitment. This is, after all, the man who won back-to-back Super Bowl titles with rival teams (in 1995 with the San Francisco 49ers and in 1996 with the Dallas Cowboys) and left Jackson State after just three seasons.
A coterie of friends, advisers, and CU staff follows the coach as he works his way through the Dal Ward Athletic Center, adjacent to Folsom Field. He walks with a limp these days, the result of 10 surgeries on his left leg and foot, one of which removed two toes. Sanders’ youngest son, Shedeur—soon to be CU’s new starting quarterback—walks with him, as does his eldest son, Deion Jr., who’s recording the moment for posterity.
Recently, CU had built a loser on the football field—the program had produced only two winning seasons out of the previous 17—and Sanders was brought in to be the cleanup man. The school fired its head coach, Karl Dorrell, near the season’s midpoint this past year and stumbled to a 1-11 record that placed it among the nation’s worst Division I programs. Since 2010, four coaches—Dan Hawkins, Jon Embree, Mike MacIntyre, and Dorrell—had been fired. Another, Mel Tucker, pledged his fealty to CU while secretly negotiating an escape to Michigan State University.
At most academic institutions, having a laughingstock of a football program is bad for a school’s reputation. Sanders’ hire was meant to remedy that for CU. After engineering a widely publicized turnaround at Jackson State—one of the country’s historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs)—Sanders was looking for an opportunity at a Power Five school, the upper echelon of college sports. CU was looking for a miracle, and offering Sanders a $29.5 million contract over the next four years was an all-in move.
Inside the football facility, the coach points an index finger at walls and open spaces of carpet. A staffer on the periphery of Sanders’ contingent nods his head. A woman next to the coach takes notes on her phone.
The players’ hangout area is just off a rock-walled locker room that looks like it was pulled from a resort in Vail or Aspen. Sanders speaks quietly near the middle of the room. A big desk along one wall needs to be hauled away, he says. The massive couches near the block of six televisions need to move. There need to be video game consoles—every brand. There needs to be a pingpong table and an area for two-person Pop-A-Shot basketball. “I like everything that’s competitive,” Sanders says.
He wants a circular, two-foot-tall platform built in the locker room so he can stand above his players during game-day talks. The idea strikes Deion Jr. as hilarious: “His halftime speeches ’bout to be insane!” he says to Shedeur. The brothers burst into laughter.
In a hallway outside the locker room, Sanders breezes past a message written on one of the walls: “To physically dominate is great.… But to mentally dominate is unstoppable.” That will have to go, he says.
The coach eventually finds himself inside the team’s enormous weight room. On one wall, there are five windows overlooking the team’s indoor practice field. Above each roll-up is a word painted in big, black lettering: Trust, Communication, Leadership, Accountability, Discipline.
Sanders points above each window. “Smart, tough, fast, disciplined, with character,” he says, then quickly moves on. And with that, the Deion Sanders era at CU had begun.
Sanders left Mississippi on a private jet on December 4, 2022, bound for the Front Range. His Jackson State Tigers had just won their second consecutive Southwestern Athletic Conference title and would play in the Celebration Bowl—the championship game for HBCUs—ending a run in which the coach had led his program to 27 wins and six losses over three seasons and garnered the type of attention most athletic directors could only dream about.
Despite having never coached beyond the high school level, Sanders was a revelation in Mississippi. His pedigree and confidence—some would say arrogance—had attracted a cadre of the country’s best high school players to Jackson State. He was the hard-nosed on-field general who demanded physical play and mental toughness, but he also “got” the young, modern athlete in ways that more traditional, mostly white, coaches didn’t seem to.
He forbade cell phones in team meetings but allowed players to put their Instagram handles on the backs of their practice jerseys. Snoop Dogg and Rick Ross hung around the sidelines. The Rock visited practice. Sanders talked about players getting paid, about the work it would take for these men to get to the NFL. “He meets these kids where they’re at,” says Jean-Jacques Taylor, a journalist and author who befriended Sanders in 1995 and has written a book, Coach Prime: Deion Sanders and the Making of Men, about the coach’s time at Jackson State that’s slated to be published in October. “Coach Sanders knows Gillie and Wallo, Young Dolph, Key Glock,” Taylor says. “He understands these kids’ lifestyles, and it’s not a front. There’s one Sanders in this world, and no one on Earth can replicate that.”
A national buzz quickly developed around the previously unheralded Jackson State football program. The team was featured on Good Morning America, and Sanders was interviewed on 60 Minutes. ESPN traveled to the school to host College GameDay—its first appearance on an HBCU campus. “I got to win in every facet of life,” Sanders told the 60 Minutes reporter late last year. “I’m gonna win, but not only win, I’m gonna dominate. That’s what I do. That’s who I am.”
Sanders also was involved in the larger community. He secured deals with Under Armour (where he has an apparel contract) to outfit all of the university’s teams; he got Walmart to underwrite a new artificial turf practice field for his squad; and when federal officials declared Jackson’s water unsafe to drink, he bathed in a chlorinated pool and put the clip on his Amazon Prime docuseries, Coach Sanders, to draw attention to the crisis. “I don’t think I can put a number on it,” the Jackson State athletic director, Ashley Robinson, said last year when asked about the coach’s value to the school. “I don’t think there’s enough zeroes.”
For his work at Jackson State, Sanders earned a base salary of $300,000 annually, or roughly one-fifteenth per year of what CU will pay him each season. Since the mid-’90s, CU’s program had gone from one of the most admired in the nation to one that alienated boosters and alumni and became a joke within big-time college football. After bolting the Big 12 for the Pac-12 in 2011, CU has appeared in just two middling bowl games (both losses), posted only one top 25 finish, and had a winning conference record only once. Its 11-loss season this past year was the program’s worst since 2012. CU decided to wager a large sum of money on Sanders to change that.
Sanders’ name was linked to nearly every university looking for a new coach this offseason, but CU was the only one willing to make the weighty investment that included a litany of concessions that would essentially give the coach carte blanche over his new domain. “This is the time for us to put all the chips in the center,” Colorado athletic director Rick George said at a press conference in December, acknowledging the Hail Mary CU was taking with its hire. “[I]t’s time for us to make a significant commitment to athletics and this football program.” (Both George and Sanders declined, through a CU spokesperson, to be interviewed or to respond to emailed questions for this article.)
The new coach immediately brought an urgency to his work in Boulder. Even before the private jet touched down in Colorado, Sanders had begun rebuilding the program. He quickly hired former Kent State University head coach Sean Lewis as his offensive coordinator and brought in an assistant from the University of Alabama to run the defense. He’d also started plotting a course through the most dramatic—and controversial—roster rebuild in Power Five history. Sanders had shed a record 51 players at press time from the 1-11 team (the previous high was 26, set last year by the University of Southern California’s Lincoln Riley); brought in his son Shedeur, the 2022 conference player of the year at Jackson State, to play quarterback; and convinced Travis Hunter, a two-way player at Jackson State and the nation’s top high school recruit in 2022, to transfer, too. A host of four-star recruits and other college transfers followed.
In a few short months, Sanders went from a savior who was remaking the expectations of football at Black colleges to a Rorschach test for a new era of Power Five college athletics. College football has recently been besieged by name, image, and likeness agreements and an ever-churning transfer portal, and Sanders envisioned himself as a visionary in this brave new world. “For anyone who didn’t understand Deion, things in Colorado have become very clear, very quickly,” says Michael Westbrook, a two-time CU All-American who is friends and former NFL teammates with Sanders. “Sanders is not playing around.”
“You can recognize [Sanders’] way of conducting business with this team is against the spirit of college athletics and taking care of student athletes, but times are changing in major college sports,” says Meredith Geisler, a visiting professor of sports management at George Washington University. “To resonate with a fan base and incoming students, you have to have school spirit and happy, proud news about your university. You have to grow in this way. You have to resonate with your fan base. Deion Sanders does that. He’s not an apologist. CU understands all of this. They know what he’s bringing to the table, in terms of visibility, how he wants to develop this program. He’s been given the keys to the car.”
Before his team played its first meaningful game, Sanders had already exceeded most every expectation since his arrival in Boulder. CU set a record for season ticket purchases, and the 2023 home schedule sold out in May. (The team’s first game under Sanders’ leadership is September 2 at Texas Christian University, which lost the national championship game this past season to the University of Georgia.) The sports apparel company Fanatics reported in February that sales of CU merchandise had spiked more than 700 percent over the previous year. April’s spring scrimmage featured hundreds of fans clad in “Coach Prime” sweatshirts and hoodies.
The coach’s impact extended beyond the field, too. In March, Sanders traveled to the state Capitol with CU chancellor Philip DiStefano to speak with lawmakers preparing to vote on public education funding. A month earlier, Sanders spent part of National Signing Day—Christmas morning for football coaches—at the university’s new Center for African and African American Studies. The center offers space for students to meditate, pray, or mediate disagreements and is considered a tool that can be used to help increase Black student enrollment at the school. (Less than three percent of students at CU Boulder identify as Black.) “Deion Sanders is a transformational presence on this campus,” says Reiland Rabaka, the center’s director. “He’s the change we need, in many ways.”
Sanders also worked to repair relationships with CU football alumni, many of whom starred in the NFL and whose college trophies and photographs still line the football facility’s hallways. Former CU quarterback and NFL All-Pro Kordell Stewart gave a pregame talk to players before their April scrimmage. Westbrook addressed the team at an earlier practice. “In all honesty, we’d stopped talking about CU a long time ago, and CU didn’t think football was important to the university anymore,” Westbrook says. “Hiring Deion proved to us that things are changing. The school is seeing the value of football again, and that’s through Deion.”
The sold-out spring scrimmage, on April 17, aired live on ESPN and earned the school roughly $343,000 in revenue. Before kickoff, Sanders jogged toward the middle of the field dressed in an “Ain’t Hard to Find” sweatshirt, gold chains, wraparound shades, and a white cowboy hat. He took a bow toward the cheering fans.
“What we’re seeing is unprecedented,” says Chris Fowler, an ESPN college sports analyst and CU alum who called the scrimmage from the field. “I don’t think there’s ever been an injection of energy in a program that was so lacking. CU had no pulse; it was lifeless on the slab. And the school brought in someone who had the paddles to shock it back to life.”
As Sanders’ successes became evident on campus, he repeatedly pushed aside concerns about his roster construction and whether he was eliminating too many current student-athletes as part of the transformation in Boulder. “Why are u so concerned about what folks say about u?” Sanders posted on Twitter this past May in response to the criticism. “Be who God called u to be & don’t concern yourself with peoples perception & misconception of u.”
The transfer portal became a topic of discussion among faculty who worried about the message the university was sending—and what Sanders’ arrival said about the state of big-time college sports. “I’m absolutely concerned,” says Tiffany Beechy, a CU English professor who chaired the university’s faculty council at the time of Sanders’ hire.
Beechy worries CU entered its marriage with Sanders without having fully thought about the long-term ramifications of the agreement and what his coaching tenure says about the university’s values. “Our university is so desperate for attention and for success in this arena, for the public and Colorado to be behind us,” Beechy says. “This is football and flash. We talk about how young people have been served this debased, decadent lie about fast money and fast popularity at any cost. But that’s what this university now is giving its students. Deion Sanders is an avatar of that; he is a symptom.”
Immediately after Sanders’ hire was made official, the school announced it was offering expedited assessment of transfer credits from other universities. CU’s previous policy held that student-athletes who wanted to come to Boulder could only transfer if they’d completed enough credits toward a degree CU offered or if the student made up credits before playing his or her sport. Just a couple of months earlier, when the school fired then head coach Karl Dorrell, DiStefano said CU wasn’t looking to change its transfer policies to attract athletes. “We do not have physical education here, and we do not have general education,” the chancellor said at the time. “[T]o be honest, that’s not going to change.”
“Desperation creates the need for unusual hires, and CU was desperate,” Fowler says. “The appeal for Deion was a total rebuild at a school that was down but had tradition and history. CU made it possible to give Deion the things he was looking for. There weren’t a lot of schools in that position. When you put together this kind of agreement, you’re saying you have nothing to lose. Rick George made a bold, risky move.”
That move included certain concessions that have not shone a positive light on CU. Faculty members heard rumors that Sanders pushed the school to lower its GPA eligibility requirements for student-athletes to fall in line with the NCAA minimum of a 2.0. (According to a CU spokesperson, the minimum GPA remains a 2.5.) “We had an agreement that was made with very little input from nonathletic department personnel,” says one former official with knowledge of Sanders’ contract, who requested anonymity to explain the school’s arrangements with Sanders. “Rick George was going out and hunting for someone, and very few people made inroads questioning the reasons for hiring [Sanders]. It was, ‘He’s our guy, and this is the contract, and keep your questions to yourselves because he’s taking us to the Promised Land.’ ” (CU did not make chancellor DiStefano available for comment for this article. The university also did not make members of CU’s board of regents—who approved Sanders’ contract—available to 5280. Calls to several regents went unanswered.)
“For some people on campus, football is more important than anything else the university does,” says Roger Pielke, a professor in CU’s College of Arts and Sciences, who spent four years in the athletic department’s sports governance center. Pielke remembers a classroom conversation with DiStefano in which the chancellor said he spent up to 40 percent of his time focusing on issues surrounding CU’s athletics programs. “The athletic department is five percent of CU’s budget; it’s not 40 percent,” Pielke says. “How much time and effort does the board of regents spend thinking about football? These administrators think they’re mini general managers. They get to live out this dream of running a highly visible sports franchise. But what happens if this doesn’t go as planned? What happens if it does?”
These days in Boulder, if Sanders is not on a field with a camera in his face, he’s chilling atop the plush white carpet in his office overlooking Folsom Field with a camera in his face. Or he’s showing off his multimillion-dollar home in Longmont on his oldest son’s YouTube channel. You can see him deplaning a private jet with his Louis Vuitton luggage; or in a GQ photo shoot, wearing $1,850 leather pants; or on the CU campus, discussing the intricacies of Louisiana hot sauces with Lil Wayne. You can see him jamming Boulder traffic with a golf cart; talking about his future hair transplant; and talking up a sandwich shop manager at the Half Fast Subs on the Hill. “You helped me navigate my way through this huge menu,” Sanders says. “God bless you, man.”
CU’s athletic department employs a 13-person multimedia team, and Sanders regularly pops up on third-party content creators’ YouTube channels. His fiancée posted a photo to Instagram of Sanders in the hospital before his most recent blood-clot surgery in June. A second season of the Coach Prime docuseries is in production for Amazon’s Prime Video, and Sanders and his children have previously starred in Deion’s Family Playbook, which ran in 2014-’15 on Oprah’s network.
Sanders has been a star since childhood. He was a preternatural athletic talent as a Pee Wee football player in North Fort Myers, Florida. In high school, Sanders was a three-sport star. Dubbed Prime Time by a basketball teammate, the moniker stuck through Sanders’ time at Florida State University, where he was an All-American in football, started on the baseball team, and ran the 4×100 relay on the track team.
The New York Yankees drafted Sanders in 1988, and the Atlanta Falcons drafted him with the fifth overall pick in the 1989 NFL draft. Less than a decade later, he was at the height of his athletic prowess. He was the most feared cornerback in the NFL, had won two Super Bowls, and had played in one MLB World Series. (He’s still the only athlete to play in both leagues’ championships.)
Despite everything in his life, he’d never felt more lost. He felt tethered to money and power—two words he conspicuously used in the title of his 1999 autobiography, Power, Money & Sex—and admitted to engaging in multiple extramarital affairs. “Visibility, praise, success, all those things go to a man’s head if you’re not well-grounded, and that’s what led to my own situation,” Sanders wrote. “Was it when I started getting all those endorsements and seeing myself on TV, having people throwing money at me everywhere I went? Was it something, maybe, that started back in grade school and junior high? Yes. Probably. All of the above.”
In 1997, Sanders’ agent at the time connected him with a pastor in Ohio—Sanders was in the final year of his contract with the Cincinnati Reds—and he began attending marriage counseling sessions led by another pastor named T.D. Jakes. Sanders’ marriage to Carolyn Chambers eventually ended in divorce, but he and Jakes became close friends. Soon, Sanders was quoting Bible passages and leading team prayer groups. “Before I found Christ I had all the material comforts and all the money and all the fame and popularity, but I had no peace,” he wrote. “When I found Christ, I found what I had been missing all those years. Only then was I able to trust in God’s will for my life and, also, to relax and trust him for the outcome.”
When his football career ended—in 2004, with the Baltimore Ravens—Sanders found he couldn’t quit the spotlight. Since he played his final game, Sanders has been elected to the Professional Football Hall of Fame, raised four children, starred in reality TV shows, served as an analyst on the NFL Network, hawked insurance with Nick Saban and a duck, been investigated by the NCAA on a case in which a college football star lost his eligibility, and helped create and shut down a charter school, Prime Prep, which was the subject of multiple investigations.
Prime Prep’s legacy continues to follow Sanders. During its two years of existence—the charter schools opened in 2013 in Dallas and Fort Worth—the schools endured a litany of embarrassments and controversies. Prime Prep’s elementary school at one time ranked as North Texas’ worst academic institution. Almost immediately after Prime Prep’s founding, the Texas Education Agency began a wide-ranging investigation into the academy that included allegations of conflicts of interest, failure to perform required criminal background checks on potential staff, inadequate financial reporting, lack of qualified teachers, and violations within federal programs.
On top of that, hundreds of laptops disappeared from the school; the high school was kicked out of its athletic conference for recruiting athletes from as far away as Jamaica; and several teachers and administrators later sued the school for back pay and damages. Sanders was hired and fired twice as the school’s head football coach. At one point, a secretly recorded audio tape was made public in which Sanders told school administrators that he wanted a significant pay raise and the job title “HNIC,” short for “Head N—- In Charge.”
In September 2013, Sanders assaulted Prime Prep’s chief financial officer during a meeting, pushing the man against a wall and throwing him to the ground. According to a Dallas police narrative obtained by 5280, Sanders grabbed Kevin Jefferson, the CFO, “by the collar” and “pushed [Jefferson] into the wall, hurting the right side of his back.” Says Jefferson: “I just think [Sanders] saw me as a symbol of everything that was wrong with the situation.” According to the ABC affiliate in Dallas, Sanders was angry that student progress reports hadn’t been turned in on time and that some of the high school’s athletes might not be able to participate in their sports.
Sanders pleaded no contest to a Class C misdemeanor and paid a fine of $765.70. The school’s board fired Sanders after the incident, but it rehired him just hours later. In November 2013, Prime Prep became the subject of an investigation into the mishandling of federal Free and Reduced Lunch dollars. Less than a year later, the Texas Education Agency revoked Prime Prep’s charter.
Deion Sanders Jr. walks through CU’s locker room alone one day near the end of the semester and marvels at the emptiness. The spring scrimmage had come and gone, and now reality was setting in.
The clean sweep within CU’s football program was nearly complete. Scores of players had entered the transfer portal, signaling their intention to leave the team. Eighteen had entered in just the past couple of weeks; 13 left before the end of CU’s spring practices. Most were pushed out, but some were not. Wide receiver Montana Lemonious-Craig caught six passes for 169 yards in the spring game and delivered the day’s most exciting moment: a 98-yard touchdown reception from Shedeur Sanders. The next day, he announced he was entering the transfer portal. He eventually signed with Pac-12 rival University of Arizona. (“It’s a crooked world nowadays, man,” Shedeur posted on his TikTok after learning of his former teammate’s decision.)
Of the 86 scholarship players who played during the 2022 season, just 20 remained on the team. “This is what it is,” Deion Jr.—known as Bucky to his family and friends—says as he pans his camera around the empty locker room. “That’s just how the game goes.”
In the players’ hangout, Deion Jr. finds a few guys who haven’t left. Wide receiver Chernet Estes and backup quarterback Colton Allen are sitting in chairs and tapping on their phones. At the moment, the duo counts as one-tenth of the existing team.
“It just feels empty,” Estes says. “Everybody gone.”
“Everybody left at once, man,” Allen adds. “It’s crazy.”
“It’s wild,” Deion Jr. says. “I’ve never seen anything like it.” He tells Allen and Estes a bunch of people have been reaching out to him who want to know about the situation at the school. “People hit me up, like, ‘What is your dad doing?’”
Sanders’ now famous Louis Vuitton meeting with the team, in December, had been a clear signal that things were about to change in Boulder. To the players in the room, though, it was an opportunity to prove they belonged. “Honestly, I was pretty excited,” says Travis Gray, an offensive tackle from Aurora. “It was a challenge to all of us to step up.”
CU football meant everything to Gray and his family. His father, Lamarr, was a reserve defensive lineman on the 1990 national championship team and helped the Buffs win two Big Eight titles. Gray grew up with stories of All-American Alfred Williams, of quarterback Darian Hagan’s leadership and speed. At six-foot-eight and 320 pounds, Gray had the size to play for many big-time programs, but during his senior year at Cherokee Trail High School, his father pulled him aside and said he needed to seriously think about going to CU, which was in the middle of a 4-8 season. “My dad told me I could be the person who helps bring back the winning tradition,” Gray says. He accepted a scholarship, and his father held back tears on signing day. Coach Karl Dorrell called Gray the “ringleader” of the team’s recruiting class. “My dad was a legacy,” Gray says, “but I wanted to build my own legacy.”
At a spring practice this year, Gray rolled his ankle and had to miss workouts as he rehabbed. Before the nationally televised scrimmage, Gray told the coaching staff he was ready to go; ultimately, he got about five plays and spent the rest of his time on the sideline. The next day, Gray was pulled into a meeting with his position coach. It was time to go, he was told. “I was heartbroken,” Gray says. “You couldn’t have found anyone who was prouder to be a Buff than me. But then you’re told you can go anywhere else, but there’s no home here? It crushed me.”
It crushed Zach Courtney, too. It was always the Texan’s plan to return to CU. The tight end injured his shoulder in late 2022 and, despite still enduring daily rehab sessions, he thought he could find a role in Sanders’ system. He loved the school and his teammates. After Sanders’ hire, CU’s coaching staff had told Courtney he’d have a place on the team when he returned for games, in fall 2023.
As the weeks passed and Sanders didn’t acknowledge Courtney’s presence, he was still hopeful. He called his parents and said it was a “weird situation,” but he’d survive. Then, after the spring game, his position coach, Tim Brewster, asked to meet. Courtney called his family afterward. He cried with his mom. He vented to his dad and brother and sister. “I got a lot of tears out,” Courtney says. He called the girl he’d recently started dating and said he had to leave school. Then he hit the transfer portal.
Courtney could have stayed at CU—the university would have continued to honor his full scholarship throughout his eligibility—but that was out of the question for him. The idea of walking the campus of an institution that had taken away his dream would be too much to handle.
Because Courtney had missed the previous season with an injury, he didn’t have game video to show potential coaches from other programs. When he asked CU staff if he could get videos from his practices, Courtney says he was told no. Practices were proprietary, and coaches didn’t want to show other teams what they were doing. Courtney began reaching out to coaches at other programs, and one said he should bring the issue to social media. Courtney went to Twitter: “For the coaches who are trying to recruit me: I am sorry but I will not be able to get y’all my film from my practices last season since I am not allowed to have it because the head coach at CU won’t allow it.”
The tweet went viral. “People I didn’t even know said I was a horrible athlete and that I was disrespectful, that I’m a crybaby,” Courtney says. “All these people wanted to believe Coach Sanders was in the right and I was in the wrong. Coach Sanders is one of the greatest of all time. It’s hard to go against that.”
The incident opened the door for a larger critique of CU’s rapid roster turnover. “That’s not the way [the transfer portal is] meant to be; it was not to overhaul your roster,” University of Pittsburgh head coach Pat Narduzzi told a reporter from 247sports.com. “The reflection is on one guy right now, but when you look at it overall—those kids…have moms and dads and brothers and sisters and goals in life….”
George, CU’s athletic director, later cited an NCAA bylaw that allows head coaches the chance to flip their rosters when they join a program. George said he had no issue with Sanders’ decisions. Others in Boulder clearly did. “We have an administration that’s celebrating the fact kids were told to leave campus and take their educations elsewhere,” Pielke, the CU professor, says. “Deion Sanders has exhibited the exploitive and mercenary nature of big-time college athletics. But, really, he’s just doing what the CU leaders want him to do.”
The football program eventually handed over Courtney’s practice film and announced that the school would be “happy to provide all game film and any practice film prior to spring 2023 to any student-athlete and institution upon request.” Courtney later signed with Coastal Carolina University and removed the original Twitter post. In the end, he was happy to know the arrows he took might have helped other former teammates get their film to move on to other schools. “I guess I had to take one for the team,” Courtney says. “After everything we’ve been through, someone had to do it.”
For anyone steeped in CU football history, there are obvious similarities between Sanders and CU’s most successful coach, Bill McCartney. Mac, as he’s colloquially known, took the Buffs to two title games. In 1989, his number one ranked team lost to number four University of Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl. The following year, McCartney became the only coach in CU history to win a national title—a split championship with Georgia Tech.
McCartney (who is white) was known for recruiting players from predominantly Black neighborhoods—nabbing several future NFL stars and eventual Heisman Trophy winner Rashaan Salaam. Sanders has shown a similar predilection. McCartney widely professed his Christianity, and so has Sanders. In 1990, McCartney founded the Promise Keepers, an all-male Christian group dedicated to helping men become better husbands, fathers, and community leaders. Two years later, during a speech McCartney gave at CU, he referred to homosexuality as “an abomination against almighty God,” which drew the ire of school faculty and staff. McCartney left CU in 1994 to run Promise Keepers and, for years, continued to deride homosexuality. He apologized for his comments in 2010, the same year in which McCartney made it known he wanted to coach at CU again.
Sanders, likewise, has courted controversy. Speaking about Michael Sam—the first openly gay player in the NFL—Sanders told Larry King in 2014 that Sam’s homosexuality “could be” a choice. Sanders then added he has a gay cousin. “I don’t love what he do, but I love him as a man,” Sanders told King. “I’m not saying I condone it, but I don’t condemn it.”
Sanders wrote in his autobiography that he likes to “reach kids who are leaders, who have strong moral values and a lot of ambition.” He didn’t think there was “any point” in talking to “at-risk or problem children, because that usually develops into a therapy session or a contest of wills.” In February of this year, Sanders stepped up his rhetoric, this time on the Rich Eisen Show. While discussing positions on the field, Sanders listed the attributes he wanted from his athletes. For quarterbacks: “We want mother, father. Dual parent. We want that kid to be a 3.5 [GPA] and up because he has to be smart.” For offensive linemen, Sanders said: “I look for dual-parent homes. A strong father that they adhere to.” Sanders then moved to the other side of the ball. “Defensive lineman is totally opposite,” Sanders continued. “Single mama, trying to get it. He’s on free lunch. I’m talking about just trying to make it. He’s trying to rescue Mama…. It’s a whole bit of different attributes you look for in different positions…. We know what we want, and we go get it.”
The comments stunned members of CU’s faculty. “If I worked in the registrar’s office and said I wasn’t admitting you because you have one parent, I’d lose my job,” says Nicholas Villanueva, CU’s associate chair of undergraduate studies and director of critical sports studies. “I really struggled with what our coach said.”
“It was offensive,” says Beechy, the faculty chair at the time of Sanders’ hire. She was particularly disappointed because, for years, the university had stepped up its student recruitment in marginalized and underserved communities and is working to shed its identity as a school for wealthy whites from outside the state. “Many of our students come from single-parent households, and some grew up in poverty,” Beechy continued. “Is our football coach saying those students are not good enough to be part of this campus?”
Not only were Sanders’ comments seen as inflammatory, but some faculty thought his statements also confirmed the suspicion that the new coach had free rein within the university. “Ultimately, the lack of accountability will be the story here,” Pielke says. At a departmental meeting with faculty, Villanueva—who also serves as a member of the school’s Intercollegiate Athletics Committee—criticized Sanders’ comments on Eisen’s show. He says he was questioned by colleagues. “They thought I was criticizing Deion Sanders because he is Black, that I wasn’t supportive of having a Black coach,” the professor says. The meeting left Villanueva frustrated, but unmoved. “I am very proud of this university hiring a Black man to lead our football program,” he says. “But I’m also going to continue holding our coach accountable for what he says, because it’s important how people are publicly representing the University of Colorado.”
The Intercollegiate Athletics Committee brought its concerns about Sanders’ comments to DiStefano, the chancellor. DiStefano said the issue had been handled internally with the coach and that there’d be no further discussion. Beechy says some faculty members wanted to write a letter to administrators, asking them to denounce Sanders’ statements. Ultimately, they decided against it because they didn’t think CU officials would take the concerns seriously. “This is the flagship university of the state of Colorado,” Beechy says. “DiStefano says the football program is the front porch to the university. I guess this is what it looks like.”
A gauzy haze obscures the view of Longs Peak out the back of Deion Sanders’ home in Longmont on a wet Thursday morning this May. A ditch near the gated community runs heavy with rainwater, and raindrops fall on the surface of the private lake, where boat ramps stand empty.
Thirty minutes south, it’s graduation day at CU. Thousands of people descend on Folsom Field’s rain-slicked bleachers, a kaleidoscope of umbrellas and jackets in the stands. Graduates are hustled to their seats on the field for an abbreviated ceremony. Governor Jared Polis gives the commencement address, and he uses his time to talk about artificial intelligence, the “incredible process” of a CU education, and—of course—football.
“Wherever you go in life, one constant will be this special place, this campus, that you hold in your heart forever,” Polis says. “When you think back to your college days, the late nights at Norlin Library, or maybe the late nights at the Sink on the Hill, you’ll remember the Saturdays spent here at Folsom Field cheering on the Buffs as they lost yet again.
“I happen to be more of a baseball fan than a football fan,” Polis tells the crowd, “but even I’ve heard that the CU football team has a bit of change afoot, is undergoing reinvention, and we’re excited to see the next chapter led by Coach Prime.” The governor then goes on to talk about change and reinvention and finding a new direction.
At home in Aurora this past spring, Travis Gray is still trying to figure out his direction. The former Buff had taken his last finals and left campus a few days earlier with his parents. His mom and dad had helped him toss his pillows and sheets and bags into the family’s vehicle. His father had left CU decades ago with a national championship. Gray had been given a pink slip and a move-out day. “It’s been hard for my dad,” Gray says. “CU is not part of our family anymore.”
With summer on the horizon, Gray is a few weeks from deciding where he will spend the next few years of his life. He’s looking at Pac-12 programs, and he’s searched CU’s future schedules to see if there might be a team that fit, a team that would allow him to play against the Buffs in future seasons. Eventually, he’ll land a spot at the University of New Mexico, which isn’t on CU’s schedule for the foreseeable future and plays in the Mountain West Conference. “A ‘Prime cut’ has agreed to beef up the University of New Mexico offensive line,” read a headline in the Albuquerque Journal on May 22.
At the moment, sitting at home, Gray knows one thing: He’s determined to show his former coaches—and one, in particular—they were wrong about him. “I hope Deion has a great time…and he finds what he needs,” Gray says. “I hope he finds peace.”