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Unpacking "Coach Prime" Deion Sanders's impact on the Colorado Buffaloes

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

One man is captivating the college football world, and he's not a player - Deion Sanders, aka Coach Prime. The legendary football player is in his first season as head coach at the University of Colorado, Boulder, a team that won just one game last year. This year, the Buffaloes are undefeated. Last night, they defeated bitter in-state rival Colorado State in a thriller.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Into the end zone. In the crowd. No good. Picked off by Woods, and it's over. Buffaloes win it.

RASCOE: That's from last night's broadcast of the game on ESPN. David Ubben has been following Deion Sanders closely. He's a senior writer for The Athletic, where he covers college football. Welcome to the program.

DAVID UBBEN: Thanks for having me.

RASCOE: So Deion Sanders, coach of the University of Colorado football team, but he's also one of the most gifted athletes we've seen in American sports. Remind us, though, who is Deion Sanders?

UBBEN: He is a guy that a lot of people consider the best cornerback, defensive back to ever play the sport of football.

RASCOE: He's a Hall of Famer. He's, you know, won two Super Bowls. He even played baseball and made a World Series appearance. Like, so he's done a lot. So he's that type of athlete that is very well-known.

UBBEN: Yeah. So the fact that they're off to the kind of start that they're off to has turned Boulder into the center of the college football universe and has turned Colorado from irrelevant and bad to a good football team but the most relevant football team pretty much overnight.

RASCOE: The Colorado team was pretty bad last year. I mean, can you talk a little bit about where things stood when he took over? He didn't take over, like, a winning team, right?

UBBEN: They were the worst Power Five team in the country last year. They played five or six games where pretty much the other team could've scored as many points as they wanted to. I think they had 1,800 - something like that - people show up for the spring game last year. And this year, you had a packed house of almost 50,000 despite a huge snowstorm, and that's only carried over to the season.

RASCOE: So let's talk about how the start of the season has gone for them. And, like, why are people showing out like this?

UBBEN: Well, there's an excitement there. I think there's a swagger. There's a cool factor to all of this. And, you know, there's a lot of people in the coaching community and in the world of college football that don't like Deion, that are rooting against Deion, and he's winning in spite of them and let them hear about it on the way. And there's not a lot of people that operate and conduct themselves that way. And I think he causes a lot of people to gravitate toward him. And it looks and sounds a lot like Deion the player, who had the same effect on people.

RASCOE: Let's talk about that. What is Deion Sanders as the coach? What is his philosophy? And why does it rub some people the wrong way?

UBBEN: Well, the biggest thing is cutting players and flipping the roster and using rule changes that were basically meant so that coaches could have 85 scholarship players and not have to play three, four, five years where they were down a few scholarships. He used those rule changes to flip his roster, and he did it by the rules but not by the spirit of the rule. And that infuriated a lot of coaches. But then the way that he conducts himself and the swagger and the big talk and all that stuff, I think fans - that doesn't really rub them the right way. So you're gaining all of this notoriety within the sport, and then you win on top of that, and then you let people hear about it. It's sort of a perfect storm of something that we literally have never seen in this sport before.

RASCOE: Well, can I ask you, too, about, like, you know - you almost can't separate, like, kind of the race aspect of this, as well, because he is a Black football coach when there are not a lot of Black football coaches at that level of college football. Am I right about that?

UBBEN: Well, it's not even that he's a Black football coach. It's that he's a Black football coach who doesn't code switch, who is himself all of the time...

RASCOE: Yes. Yeah. Yes.

UBBEN: ...Who wears the glasses, wears the hat...

RASCOE: Yes.

UBBEN: ...Does all those things and is unapologetically Black in all spaces.

RASCOE: He's not conforming to...

UBBEN: Yes.

RASCOE: Yes.

UBBEN: And if you are a Black head coach in college football - there's not a lot of guys who are talking about this, but you're different when you're on the recruiting trail versus when you're dealing with boosters at a wine and cheese function. That's just the reality of college football. There are not very many of those people. And so Deion is Deion, and I think that's part of what attracted him to Colorado - is that they were desperate, and they needed him badly. And he feels like he's a change agent. He feels like he wants to come in and have sort of the rule of the roost. And they've allowed him to have full autonomy to do these things that a lot of presidents and athletic directors would have cringed at in terms of how he flipped his roster and to be himself.

RASCOE: And two of his kids are also playing football for him at Colorado. Talk about that. Is that unusual? The...

UBBEN: Very.

RASCOE: ...Nepotism? Like, what about that?

UBBEN: So it's a complicated thing because one of the things that Deion has talked about is when you get Deion, you get the whole family. So Shedeur is there, and he is a guy that is not a nepo baby. He was a high three-star recruit who had offers from Georgia, Alabama - basically, if you can name a big-time program, he had an offer from them. But Shilo Sanders, one of his other sons, followed him over there. He originally started at South Carolina, followed him to Colorado now.

And his daughter, Shelomi, is playing basketball at Colorado. And Deion Sanders Jr. has the most popular of three YouTube channels that follows the everyday goings of the team that have gained them this huge following online of people that don't care about college football or even Colorado, but they care about Deion. And you get, you know, through two weeks, 16 million viewers on two of the biggest stages that you've got in the sport.

RASCOE: And I saw that Deion Sanders - because he ranks his children, like, by who's the most - who's favorite at the moment, and now Deion Sanders Jr. has gotten the No. 1 ranking by Deion as his favorite child (laughter). So - but it's...

UBBEN: So speaking of things that cause a reaction in people - yeah.

RASCOE: (Laughter).

UBBEN: If there's one thing that that nobody ever has a reaction to, it's parenting philosophies that some people might disagree with. But yeah, it's how he ranks them and how those power rankings shift. You get a different answer out of him the different - the few times you ask him.

RASCOE: He ranks all his kids.

UBBEN: So it's unclear how they get that.

RASCOE: That's David Ubben. He's a senior writer for The Athletic. Thank you so much for joining us.

UBBEN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRIME TIME KEEPS ON TICKING")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Prime time keeps ticking, ticking.

DEION SANDERS: (Rapping) This type of thing happens every day.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Prime time keeps ticking, ticking. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.