With 'Coach Prime' doc premiering, Deion Sanders discusses Colorado's up-and-down season
Deion Sanders is used to his personality ruffling feathers. It’s the same reaction the Colorado football coach received as a college and pro athlete, so it’s expected.
The Buffaloes started 3-0 and once were the talk of college football. Colorado merchandise was selling fast, and television ratings were high for a team that finished 1-11 the previous season.
But as the Buffaloes stumbled to a 4-8 record and lost eight of their last nine games, the critics were loud.
Colorado’s frustrating 2023 is chronicled in the second season of “Coach Prime,” a docuseries detailing Sanders’ arrival at Colorado through the end of the season. Filming wrapped up last week, and in an interview with The Athletic, Sanders spoke about the series, as the first two episodes premiere Thursday on Amazon Prime.
“I want to show the trials and tribulations that I go through, that we go through as a people, as a person, as a team, so that it can give strength,” Sanders said. “We’re trying to instill hope, and that’s what this season was about.”
The show is produced by SMAC Productions and Prime Video Sports. It is executive produced by Michael Strahan, Constance Schwartz-Morini and FredAnthony Smith. Strahan, the Pro Football Hall of Fame defensive end who now is a TV personality, appears in the docuseries to talk about Sanders.
Sanders, 56, said he has no qualms about the production’s looking into a losing season, something he never before experienced as a college coach. He was 27-6 as the coach at Jackson State and won 12 games during the 2022 season.
The docuseries shows how Sanders dealt with a below-average record this season, but he also wants viewers to see that at Colorado, there is a bigger mission than football. Sanders spoke of the positives on and off the field. Colorado saw a significant boost in revenue in merchandise with Sanders’ arrival. Home games at Folsom Field were sold out, and the Buffaloes became a draw on the road, as well. Interest in the school also grew among recruits.
Some will point at the final record and say the season was a failure, especially after a strong start and the national media’s flocking to Boulder. But to Sanders, Colorado’s being a college football conversation piece each week was a victory in itself, given where the program was before his arrival. Colorado won one game in 2022.
“We may have lost games (this season), but we’re not losing in the big picture of things we’re doing,” Sanders said.
That said, Sanders still won only four games in 2023, and there is work to be done. Even though he acknowledged in September that his team needed a few more players to be considered a national contender, the hot start, as well as Sanders’ bravado, kept the cynics laughing as the Buffaloes piled up losses.
Colorado’s highlights, however, still brought national attention. Celebrities were in attendance for games and wearing Colorado gear. The program mattered from start to finish. That is seen throughout the docuseries.
“We were once not even mentioned on a Saturday; now, we’re aforementioned on a Saturday,” Sanders said. “Every darn Saturday, somebody has an opinion. … That’s being a change agent, and I welcome that.”
Sanders also acknowledged that not everyone identifies his decision to coach Colorado as a positive. HBCU fans once happy with his presence at Jackson State brought attention to his leaving and taking talented players with him, such as his sons, quarterback Shedeur Sanders and safety Shilo Sanders, as well as wide receiver/cornerback Travis Hunter.
Some of the questions: Why did he leave a 12-1 Jackson State team for a 1-11 Colorado team? Was it primarily the five-year, $29.5 million contract and the opportunity to coach at a Power 5 program? And why did he leave Jackson State so hastily?
Outside of the economic boom in Colorado, there were better paydays for some of his coaches and support staff at a bigger school, elevating their prospects for the future. That’s part of the message to his critics Sanders wants to spread in the docuseries. The team’s record was subpar, but the overall results were empowering.
“This is bigger than football,” said Schwartz-Morini, who also is Sanders’ business partner and manager. “The opportunities that he’s bringing not just the kids, but the coaches and people that he brought then from Jackson State … that’s what we just kept trying to say: ‘You’re in the spotlight because you have a bigger purpose.’”
Additionally, a significant portion of Black viewers wanted to watch what went on at Colorado, according to data from ESPN research. The team’s first three games were rated 77 percent higher among Black viewers than anywhere else in the country.
But there also were Black critics who were vocal about Sanders’ leaving an HBCU for Boulder, Colo., and its minuscule Black population of 1.3 percent. Sanders recognized some of those critics took glee in Colorado’s struggles over the season.
“The only thing that’s disappointing to someone like myself is when your own people don’t understand the plight, don’t understand the fight, don’t understand what you go through, what you deal with to be where you are,” Sanders said. “You’re coaching probably 75 percent of people that look like you. That’s the part for us African American coaches that is hard to understand. … Like, wouldn’t you want to encourage me and motivate me instead of just aim and shoot?”
Sanders said he is fine with being a target because he doesn’t believe the Buffaloes will be losing much longer. He acknowledged that next season will come with greater expectations. Sanders declared in Episode 2 of “Coach Prime” that “we’ve won everywhere we’ve gone.”
But how can Sanders fix things now? An aggressive recruiting season can help.
“Portal day,” Sanders said, referring to Monday’s being the first day of the 30-day transfer portal window. “The portal opens up where you can pretty much have free agency of college football, and that’s where we gleaned from. We already know what we need. And if you watched us play, you said, ‘Man … offensive (line), defensive line, some players here and there, they’re straight.’
“It’s not just we’re optimistic. We understand the plan and the vision, and we’re right on course with the plan and the vision.”
Smith said Season 2 of “Coach Prime” adds context that can’t be captured on social media. Smith said the ability to ask Sanders about things he says during a game or a follow-up with players, coaches and other staff allows for more of an intimate view of a team that, regardless of wins and losses, received a lot of attention. There are more behind-the-scenes moments, such as the multiple surgeries on Sanders’ foot and leg earlier this year. Smith and Schwartz-Morini said between their docuseries cameras and every major move documented via social media by Sanders’ oldest son, Deion Jr., there isn’t much that’s missed from the season.
From alums to celebrities to casual fans, a lot of eyes were on the Buffaloes. Some were hoping they win; others were watching to see whether Sanders would eat humble pie.
Sanders believed the 2023 season energized the fans — even if there were only four wins to show for it.
“It was instilling hope in the whole fan base in Colorado,” Sanders said. “The people outside of Colorado, they don’t understand, but inside of Colorado, from where we were to now being relevant in college football? Shoot, we did what we set out to do.”
(Top photo: Sean M. Haffey / Getty Images)