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Deion Sanders and the Reimagination of the College Football Coach

Aggressive player acquisition, swagger, and virality are now just as important in winning on Saturday as having great play design. And college football is a better product because of it.

College football kicked off this past weekend, and for the most part the games went according to plan with plenty of power programs dominating inferior competition (such as Oregon beating Portland State 81-7 and Oklahoma shutting out Arkansas State 73-0). The story of the weekend though was the FBS coaching debut of Deion Sanders. The Hall of Fame cornerback and former head coach at Jackson State brought his Colorado Buffaloes into Fort Worth, Texas and knocked off 17th ranked TCU 45-42.

The win was an impressive one for Sanders, who had his fair share of doubters coming into the season that questioned how successful he could be moving from the SWAC to the more talent-rich Pac-12. As expected Deion had a lot to say to a lot of people in the post game press conference, touching on everything from race-based expectations to the college football establishment being uncomfortable with him as a coach. With this win, Sanders and Colorado are putting the college football world on notice, but not in the way that you might think. Colorado likely isn’t contending for a national championship this year, but what Sanders is showing the world is a new philosophy in coaching that is faster, more aggressive, and headline grabbing.

Roster Overhaul

There is an understood fact whenever a coaching change happens in any sport, that a new coach will want to “get their people” into their program, to change the pattern of losing that was the whole reason that they were likely hired. At Colorado, there was nowhere to go but up as the program was coming off a 1-11 season and having registered only 4 winning seasons in the last 20 years. While historically, the thought has been to let college coaches have a couple of recruiting classes to implement their style and the types of players that they want playing for their teams, Deion Sanders has expedited that process.

Thanks to an aggressive recruiting campaign and the transfer portal, Colorado has added more than 80 new players to the roster this season. Sanders let it be known immediately that players on the team from last year should enter the transfer portal because he already had intentions on bringing in his players and that the incumbents might not have roster spots. The threat worked, with over 50 players entering the portal by May in an exodus of players that is unusual even in modern college football.

What Sanders is doing here is taking advantage of the loosened transfer rules that modern college football has implemented. In the past, transferring from one school to another meant losing a year of eligibility and sitting out a year. For an athlete looking to make it to an NFL roster eventually, this is a nonstarter and was only used if there was no way that they were seeing the field at a school that they committed to. But with the new rules, a player can switch schools in the transfer window and be eligible to play in the next season. It is effectively college football free agency, and even more wide open than professional free agency because the pros have a salary cap to deal with, something that colleges don’t have to worry about.

Deion Sanders has surveyed the landscape of college football and realized that if he plays the games of transfers he can field an elite (or at the very least competitive) team quickly and change the culture at a school like Colorado that has experienced a lot of losing over the last two decades. The players that Colorado have brought in are talented, fast, and will have the team in games on most Saturdays this season. Sanders has brought over his son Shedeur to play quarterback, and after one game he showed composure and ability that have many wondering about him as a pro prospect already. But perhaps the most remarkable player that he has brought in is Travis Hunter, who was simultaneously the number one cornerback and wide receiver prospect in 2022. Hunter put on a show against TCU and is creating a folk hero type aura that makes the Colorado and Deion story that much more appealing.

Travis Hunter, Folk Hero

Years ago, there was a football video game that was released by Midway Sports called “Blitz: The League 2”. It was the sequel to the controversial video game “Blitz: The League” which followed a story of a new team in a fictionalized league where drugs, sex, and steroids ran rampant. But the storyline of the second iteration of this game involved a star rookie nicknamed Franchise, who was the only player in the game to play both offense and defense. This decision speaks to something deep inside of football fans that we all respect: the versatility of the two-way player.

There is a toughness that we associate with someone that plays offense and defense in this sport. Similarly, we often heap the same praise on basketball players that are excellent offensive players in addition to being lockdown defensive players. There is something workman-like about the idea of a two-way player, a clear visual indication that this player is a diligent hard worker to the point that they can become sort of folk heroes. Travis Hunter, it seems, is on the path to being another folk hero in the mythologized world of college football history.

Against TCU, Hunter played a total of 129 snaps on both offense and defense. His impact on the game cannot be overstated. On offense he had 11 receptions for 129 yards (with a couple plays that were very nearly touchdowns). On defense he registered 3 tackles, 3 pass defenses, and had an interception for good measure. Those that watched Hunter in his freshman season at Jackson State know what he is capable of as he recorded touchdowns as a receiver and interceptions as a cornerback.

But the reality is that most of the college football watching public does not watch Jackson State and the games they play in the SWAC. Hunter is not the first player in recent memory to play on both sides of the ball in college football. Two notable names that have done it are Georgia’s Champ Bailey and Michigan’s Charles Woodson. Both of these players went on to have incredibly successful NFL careers as cornerbacks and showed incredible receiving ability in college (Bailey recorded 47 receptions for 744 yards and 5 touchdowns as a junior in Athens). But with the number of targets that Hunter will see offensively, it is not beyond reason that he will shatter the numbers set forth by his predecessors and be a national story in the conversation for Heisman consideration, especially if Colorado keeps on winning.

The war of attrition is what we need to keep in mind with Hunter. To his credit, he said after the game that he could offer even more than what he did, suggesting unreal endurance and stamina. But as the games pile up and the hits also pile up, there will be questions about overexerting Hunter. It remains to be seen how Deion Sanders will choose to manage Hunter's snaps and if he will use him more on one side of the ball over the other. But what we do know is that in Hunter, Sanders has a potential national story that will captivate audiences.

Brand Recognition and Quotability

There is no denying that we live in the age of quick-hitting quotes, sound bytes, and social media influencers. Deion Sanders offers you a bit of all three in a college football coach. His name still holds weight for many people as one of the best defensive backs and most electrifying players the sport of football has ever seen. Deion was never afraid to talk trash as a player, and that certainly hasn’t changed as a coach. He is more than comfortable making the entire room uncomfortable. We saw this in the way he went after a Buffaloes beat reporter in his post game press conference by taking him to task for criticizing the chances that the team has this season.

In that regard, Sanders is activating a formula that many college football fans on social media will fall in love with. By showing a willingness to be combative with media members, he will gain loyalty from fans who may not like how their program has been portrayed in the past. By offering quotes suggesting that Travis Hunter would win the Heisman after one game, he is providing fuel to content aggregators on social media to put even more attention on his team. In short, Sanders is a walking and talking viral social media post that is waiting to happen.

Not surprisingly, the old guard of college football isn’t thrilled at this approach. On College Gameday this past Saturday, former head coach and mascot headwear connoisseur Lee Corso commented on Sanders’ approach, saying that his purging approach wasn’t the way he ran programs in the past. But that is the entire idea when it comes to Sanders. Today’s college football is not the college football landscape that Corso coached in. In the modern age there is a focus on quotability and quick hitting lines that will get reposts on X and be the subject of talking head shows like First Take on Monday. What Deion Sanders understands better than perhaps any other coach in college football, is that being in the news and being talked about is overall a good thing.

Win Now, At All Costs

We live in an age in the sports world where teams that are aggressive are rewarded with championships whereas teams that play it safe are often mired in mediocrity. When the Los Angeles Rams won the Super Bowl a couple of years ago it was because they were aggressive in trading for veterans like Matthew Stafford and Jalen Ramsey. The Golden State Warriors were a great team and then they got aggressive and acquired Kevin Durant and won two more championships. In today’s sports, aggressive wins. It is a world where what you do this year matters more than the potential repercussions in the future.

In college football, this is even more true as players are routinely swapped out year after year. All that matters is winning games on Saturday. This has always been the case, but with new mechanisms in today’s game (such as the transfer portal) it has never been more important. What Deion Sanders understands, and what some more tenured coaches may be missing, is that all that matters is hitting the ground running. To constantly be in the mix to get the players that will put you over the top, and to execute on gameday and win as much as possible…as quickly as possible.

So while many in the old guard of college football may not like his methods, the reality is that the early returns are overwhelmingly positive. Above all else, Sanders realizes that this is a business before anything, and what keeps the money coming in is winning and being loud about it. In the wake of the win against TCU, interest has been sky high for the Buffaloes next game against Nebraska. I cannot remember the last time a Colorado-Nebraska matchup (former foes in the Big 12) had this much intrigue. That is the Deion Sanders effect.

The success that Deion is enjoying at Colorado will no doubt be emulated. What he is doing is providing a blueprint for other coaches around the country. We have seen this sort of aggression in the transfer portal by Lincoln Riley at USC, but what makes Sanders so unique is that he has always had the swagger to back up the aggression. If the success continues, we will see athletic departments all across college football start to look for the next Deion. We are witnessing a changing of the guard in the approach to coaching that requires aggression, machismo, and a little bit of ego. Deion Sanders checks all three boxes, and in the process has made this college football season infinitely more interesting.

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