Over the last few years, the Pac-12 coaching carousel has spun at high speed. That has meant that I’ve written profiles of coaches for a majority of the conference in that time. It’s safe to say that there hasn’t be a new head coach with as much intrigue or as high of a profile as Deion Sanders at Colorado.
I’m squarely in the Coach Prime demo. I came of age as a football fan when he was arguably the best defensive player in the universe. He made First-Team All-Pro six times in seven years. I remember the hype around his baseball career. His move from the Super Bowl Champion 49ers to their NFC archrival Cowboys felt like an earthquake in the sports world and he punctuated it with another Super Bowl victory.
How He Got Here
Primetime originally became Coach Prime at his own Prep Academy in 2012. While nothing in his playing career- on or off the field- made me believe he would want to be a coach, he has put in real work across three high school programs. In 2020, he took the head coaching job at FCS Jackson State. It was not an easy or high-profile job; the team went 4-8 the year before Sanders was hired and hadn’t had a winning season since 2013. Sanders went 4-3 in his first year, which was shortened by Covid, then went 23-3 (including 16-0 in the SWAC) over the next two seasons.
Sanders won so much at the FCS level largely because he leapfrogged the rest of his conference in talent level. His profile, charisma, and resume made him Jackson State an attractive destination for players coming out of high school and the transfer portal. In his first off-season, Sanders took eight transfers, including five from the Big 10 or SEC. The next year, that number exploded to 21, including 11 from P5 conference teams. Several of these players were heavily pursued by major P5 programs. He also flipped the national #1 recruit, Travis Hunter, from FSU to Jackson State. Sanders is clearly a talented recruiter. He elevated the talent level well beyond not only what was present at Jackson State, but well beyond any other program in the SWAC. He lapped the competition and it showed on the field.
Nobody expected Sanders to stay at Jackson State long-term. He publicly stated that he interviewed for three P5 jobs after the 2021 season, including the TCU job that eventually went to Sonny Dykes. It was no surprise to see him jump to a P5 position in 2023, though the fact that he landed west of the Mississippi at Colorado was a bit unexpected.
What to Expect
The first question many fans asked when Sanders took the job at Colorado was whether he could follow the same blueprint of talent infusion in a conference with a significantly higher baseline. Whether it works or not, Sanders as definitely followed the same game plan with the volume turned up to 11. Since he took the job in December, Colorado has enrolled 49 players from the transfer portal and seen 51 players leave the program. Deion’s son QB son Shedeur is among the incoming. Some players are on both lists after joining and leaving without playing a game. He has publicly joked about players getting new luggage. In the net, 247 ranks Colorado’s transfer haul as the best in the nation, right ahead of LSU, Auburn, and USC.
While I’m skeptical about whether the talent infusion will catapult Colorado as immediately as it did Jackson State, there’s no doubt that the refresh was needed in Boulder. Karl Dorrell lost his job after a 4-8 2021 and an 0-5 start in 2022. Mike Sanford closed the year at 1-6, the only win coming against an extremely depleted Cal roster. The team ranked 127th in points per game and 131st (dead last) in opponent points per game. They were outscored 534-185 for the season. The team’s only strength was its availability; they did not forfeit any games, but even those results wouldn’t have been much worse.
Does any of that matter? The current projected two-deep depth chart anticipates 40 transfers in the rotation out of 44 players. I have no doubt that Colorado will be much more competitive. The problem is that they will compete against much better teams than what Sanders saw in the SWAC. They will win more games and keep others closer. Still, I think the talent level still lags well behind the likes of USC, Washington, Oregon, and Utah. On top of that, Sanders has proven that he can win with superior talent. He has not demonstrated an ability to win with equal or lesser talent than his opponents. That is not to say that he can’t beat superior teams, but the job description is different.
What will be the reaction if he wins 4-5 games? Will the roster turnover even more next year? It might sound counter-intuitive, but I think it would take Sanders several years to consistently and incrementally raise the talent level of the roster. He is a good enough recruiter to bring Colorado’s roster near the top of the conference (which will be the Big 12 rather than the Pac). Of course, that begs the question of whether Sanders will be around long enough to see those results come to fruition. He did not come to Boulder for a love of skiing or family connections. It was the best opportunity for him at the time and a better one will come if he is successful. It’s still a good tradeoff for Colorado because they had bottomed out so badly that they needed a drastic change to restore competitiveness. T
he next hire after Sanders may be even more important because that coach will have to transition from “competitive” to “very good,” arguably a more difficult step. It’s similar to UW hiring Chris Petersen after Steve Sarkisian restored respectability. The fact that I’m already jumping to the conclusion that Sanders will make Colorado decent is a big win for the program. It will take years to find out if they can take the step beyond decency.
How many games will Colorado win in 2023?
This poll is closed