July 15, 2024

Deion Sanders may be the Big 12’s top entertainer, but Year 2 at Colorado will test his coaching chops

LAS VEGAS – The phenomenon of Deion Sanders started early Wednesday morning at Big 12 Media Days. Before a network interview began in the bowels of Allegiant Stadium, Sanders directed a cameraman. 

“Turn the [monitor] around for me and let me see the shot real quick, please” he directed. 

Properly satisfied and situated in a sports jacket and hoodie on a 116-degree day (outside), Coach Prime then began using his inside voice to own the day, even if not the conference just yet. 

You may not have gotten the memo, but until further notice, the face of the new Big 12 is a bankable brand endorser coming off a 4-8 season. 

“Man, I love Deion,” gushed Texas Tech coach Joey McGuire, who coached Sanders’ son, Deion Jr., in high school. “He doesn’t make any excuses, and he doesn’t take anything back. He’s going to say what he believes in and say what he thinks.”

When Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy was asked who the new face of the league is without Texas and Oklahoma, he told CBS Sports, “It would probably be me, right?” 

A case could be made. Along with Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz and Utah’s Kyle Whittingham, Gundy (19 years with the Cowboys) has the most seniority of any FBS current coach at a single school. Gundy has won 166 games and a Big 12 title. 

Then it was suggested to Gundy that Sanders might be that face. 

“He’s Taco Bell, Aflac, he’s got so many other things going on,” Gundy said of Sanders’ endorsements. “When it comes to just that football aspect of it, [I] would probably be an accurate answer.”

Gundy was speaking tongue-in-cheek for half that answer; the coaches mutually admire each other.

But he may be right. Don’t call Deion the face of the best team — or even the best program — in the Big 12. Think of Coach Prime in his own category as the best entertainer in the Big 12. Maybe in all of college football. A man with more “College GameDay” than game. And in his day and age — certainly in this conference — that matters on some level.

Considering everything he brought to the game, Prime had one of the best Septembers in the history of college football last season, going 3-0 before losses to Oregon and USC. The ratings were so good they extended across every demographic and beyond sports. 

“I’m judged on a different scale,” Sanders said during his podium availability.

That judgement isn’t going to stop; it may just be beginning. The Hall of Fame player and pitchman might be the best thing the new Big 12 has going for it. Ratings! Hype! Commercials! Entourage! Sunglasses! 

“They got the juice, they’re national,” UCF coach Gus Malzahn said of CU.

Sanders just might be what the newly expanded, still-being-shaped Big 12 needs: attention. Commissioner Brett Yormark boldly kicked things off Tuesday by saying his league was the third best in FBS – a clear shot at the ACC. He went on to say the league was open for business – again. (Hello, Florida State?)

The two influencers hugged warmly in a hallway before Sanders’ Wednesday appearance on the podium. It can be argued Yormark wouldn’t have been able to pull off his bold Four Corners expansion without Sanders’s brand — and the coach’s desire to get back into Texas recruiting.

Just don’t zoom in on the football. Not quite yet. Coach Prime’s coaching chops at this level are still under construction. That’s because Colorado enters 2024 on a six-game losing streak. Going 27-6 at FCS Jackson State is one thing, resurrecting a moribund Power Five is another. Sanders is at a school that will tolerate a slow climb to success because, well, he’s Deion. That soothes things when the program claims just one winning non-COVID season since 2004. 

“My wins are totally different than your wins,” Sanders told one media member. “Your wins are just judged on football … The expectation is greater. But it’s not just football. It’s been like that all my life. I’ve always had a greater expectation for myself.”

But then someone finally asked the question that needed to be asked: Why is Colorado going to be better in 2024? Prime said the offensive line is improved, the defensive line coaches are demanding, the running backs are being led by a former walk-on, special teams, etc. He mentioned a record team grade-point average and 150 years worth of NFL experience on the staff that now includes fellow Hall of Famer Warren Sapp as a graduate assistant

But it shouldn’t be surprising. This is still America, where flash sometimes triumphs over substance. 

Nevertheless, Colorado enters the season balancing a dichotomy. Despite last year’s losing record, it returns two of the best players in the game — Sanders’ son, quarterback Shedeur Sanders, and two-way star Travis Hunter, who has been named the Big 12 preseason Defensive Player of the Year. Both are considered strong candidates to become first-round NFL Draft picks next spring. Malzahn even went out of his way to mention he offered Shedeur as a ninth grader over a five-star prospect who had attended an Auburn camp.  

“Shedeur was better than that guy as a ninth grader,” Malzahn recalled. “I brought him up to my office. Of course, I’m a big Deion fan … I offered Shedeur right on the spot. He was better than that five-star big shot.”

Predictably, one of the first questions of the day-long interview car wash had to do with those two players in the Heisman race.  

“That’s going to happen,” Sanders said. 

Not for much longer if Shedeur can’t stay upright after enduring the most sacks (56) by any Power Five quarterback since 2012.  In fact, Prime’s debut exposed a glaring weakness. Despite an initial transfer portal takeover, the Buffs were woefully undermanned in both lines. The defense finished second-to-last in the Pac-12 and No. 115 nationally in yards allowed per play (6.27). 

Now what, Coach Prime? 

“I don’t care how you see me, how you look at me,” he said. “I’m more apt to understand how I see me and how God sees me and how He looks at me. Nothing I do is never going to be enough.”

Certainly not four wins again. Take a look at the schedule. FBS-killer North Dakota State comes to town for the opener. Then, there are road trips to Nebraska and Colorado State, both of which are looking for revenge after last season’s losses. Based on results to date, it’s hard to envision the six wins needed for bowl eligibility. 

The face of this new, expanded Big 12 then went introspective. 

“I’m a brother from Fort Myers, Florida, I’m sitting up here in the darn end zone in Las Vegas talking to the whole darn country about a childish game I played when I was a shortie,” he said. “This is a moment, man, you better maximize it.”

Mixing in a bowl appearance would help, too.