The University of Colorado football team won one game last year. Nebraska won four. They played last Saturday in this season’s second week, and almost exactly as many people (8.73 million) watched it as watched Texas and Alabama (8.76 million)—two legacy programs with national championship aspirations—play in a prime-time night game. Colorado also played in the second-highest-rated game of the season’s first week, when its clash with TCU got more than 7 million viewers. Maybe, one would think, that game was such a draw because TCU was a national semifinalist last year. But no—no way. Fox’s promotion of the game treated Colorado like the Harlem Globetrotters and TCU like the Washington Generals, despite TCU winning 13 times as many football games as Colorado in the most recent season.
Nobody has to wonder about the origin of all this interest. Colorado’s new coach is Deion Sanders, by far the most independently famous person to ever put on the headset. Sanders has his own business kingdom and his own army of fans who have brought college football the closest thing it’s ever seen to celebrity stan culture. It all seemed, for many months, like a bit much. Sanders was famous, and he had embarked on an aggressive (and aggressively fast) rebuild of Colorado’s treacherous roster. But he was taking over a 1–11 team in his first year up from Jackson State, where he had been head coach since 2020. Media voters picked Colorado to finish last in the Pac-12, the conference it will play in this year before a death of executive incompetence arrives next year and CU goes to the Big 12, its once and future home. Maybe the Buffaloes would improve to 4–8.
But the damndest thing has happened since the season actually started: Colorado has been great. One-sixth of the way through the year in a sport with a small batch of real games, Sanders has his team 2–0. They’ve eclipsed 40 points in both games, winning a shootout with TCU and then sitting on Nebraska, their old rival from the Big 8 and Big 12. The early success has kicked a media machine around the program even further into overdrive. Both ESPN and Fox have on-site pregame shows that broadcast every Saturday morning, and both of them will be in Boulder this weekend for a game that shouldn’t even be competitive. Colorado is playing Colorado State, a rebuilding rival that has been one of the worst teams in the country of late. Fox is making this trip even though ESPN, not Fox, has the game broadcast. This week’s game, like last week’s, is a sellout for a program that simply does not get sellouts.
There’s no parallel for what’s happening here. Sanders’ debut at Colorado has been one of the most exciting developments of the season. It’s been an unusual case study of how one guy can change the business dynamic of an entire sport. And for Colorado and maybe even the rest of college football, it is everything until it becomes nothing.
All of it is happening because Colorado, for many years—but in particular last year—sucked. The program has had scattered successes over more than a century of playing, and coach Bill McCartney built it into a bona fide power from the late 1980s into the mid-’90s. But the story of CU football is mostly one of wide valleys, and last year was grim: That 1–11 record tied for the team’s worst ever. Colorado was good at nothing, fired coach Karl Dorrell at midseason, and was fortunate to scrape out its single win against a bad Cal team under an interim coach. Colorado in 2022 was the type of bad that would take a precise, perfectly executed rebuild of at least two or three years to even sniff competitiveness.
But that doesn’t sound like a lot of fun, and the school homed in on Sanders as the candidate who could maneuver a quicker turnaround. He had, after all, lifted Jackson State from its momentary status as a mediocrity in the Southwestern Athletic Conference to a back-to-back SWAC champion. He did it by recruiting great players, most famously his son and quarterback Shedeur Sanders and five-star two-way cornerback and wideout Travis Hunter. Both followed Deion to Jackson, and they and dozens of other transfers followed him to Boulder, too. Sanders gathered Colorado players on his first day on the job and told them to get out of town so he could replace them with his own players—his own Louis Vuitton luggage, as he described them. Sanders successfully ran off, or watched depart, most of the existing roster. By the start of the season, his team had 86 new players out of about 110. Again: There’s no parallel for it.
The haters and losers have been wrong so far that Colorado would be too disorganized and too small to be any good. Naysayers did turn out to be correct that the team’s offensive line would be highly suspect (it gave up eight sacks to Nebraska), but Sanders has worked around that with the help of a great offensive coordinator, Sean Lewis, who left Kent State’s head coaching job to be an assistant for Sanders. Lewis will undoubtedly have chances to climb the career ladder after a few more months with Colorado. The Buffaloes are probably not a Pac-12 championship contender, but they now look good enough to make a bowl game and perhaps to finish with seven, eight, or nine wins. The early returns point toward Sanders mounting one of the most successful one-season comeback projects in the history of football.
The Associated Press media poll ranks Colorado 18th in the country. The team has earned it, but it might as well also be a thank-you from the media industry to Sanders for providing endless conversation fodder. The sports media and Sanders are in symbiosis, as Sanders uses microphones to raise his and Colorado’s profiles and media companies use Colorado for ratings, social video impressions, and the like. It is not exactly a love affair in both directions; Deion got weirdly hostile with a reporter after Colorado’s first game for not having sufficiently believed in his team ahead of time, and Shedeur says the media exists to make chaos. But the arrangement is so far working out well for everybody. Sanders gets attention. We, the media, get page views and ratings. Any future Deion-versus-reporter dustups will only reinforce the loop of talking about him at all times.
Sanders has proved to be the singular force of personality that could turn Colorado football into the object of more mainstream fascination than any team in the country. It’s quite possible that Sanders has brought in new fans of the sport as a whole and reignited interest where it had declined. Nobody seems better suited to attract sidewalk fans who want to see what’s going on.
It will be exciting to see how high Sanders can take the program, but what happens afterward is just as uncertain. When Sanders left Jackson State, where God had called him to lift up historically Black colleges, he took his best players with him to Colorado. Sanders cast his move to Boulder as a way to increase Black representation in coaching at power programs and painted it as a matter of necessity. “In coaching you either get elevated or you get terminated,” he told his team as he left. He isn’t wrong, and if he keeps winning, Colorado will eventually catch the business end of the transaction. When that happens, what will be left, assuming that Deion’s most desirable players will get the chance to join him at his next stop? Sanders might leave some gifts behind, but it’s hard to say. (Jackson State has started this season 2–1 without Sanders, but the Tigers have a worse roster and look like they’ve been supplanted atop the SWAC by at least one team, Florida A&M.) By the same token, any new interest Sanders has brought to college football as a whole may not last longer than his tenure in the sport, however long that turns out to be. There could be some fan out there who starts watching games to see Sanders and decides that they want to stick around to watch more Mountain West games between Boise State and Colorado State, but that seems fanciful.
The near inevitability that Sanders will leave Colorado and take the business of Coach Prime with him only makes what is happening now more captivating. Historically, Colorado does well when it has a famous coach who can lift the program’s recruiting capacity and train tons of attention on the program. McCartney, the greatest coach in team history, had that kind of gravitational pull, and the Buffaloes won a national championship and contended for more during his reign. McCartney retired after 1994, by which point he was also a celebrity for noncoaching reasons: He had founded the Promise Keepers, an evangelical, antigay men’s group, and went on to deepen his involvement with it. (One of many Sanders-McCartney commonalities: Groups of secularists have trained their ire on them both for holding religiously tinted team meetings while coaching at a public school.) The evidence says that it’s not possible for Colorado football to flirt with greatness unless the team has one of the biggest personalities in coaching, no matter the complications he brings. The years the program spent in the wilderness after McCartney retired are another reason to enjoy the present with Sanders. So long as Deion is in Boulder, heaven knows you won’t have to look hard to find any of his games, unless Colorado’s conference decides to put one of them on the Pac-12 Networks.