God ‘called’ former NFL star Deion Sanders to coach at an HBCU. The money took him to Colorado. What happens next is anyone’s guess.

University of Colorado football head coach Deion Sanders runs onto the field before the school’s Spring football game in April. (Michael Ciaglo/For The Washington Post)


When football prospects first enter the University of Colorado’s sleek recruiting lounge, they’re led toward floor-to-ceiling windows. There, just below, is the Buffaloes’ stadium, Folsom Field. Beyond that are the sandstone buildings that give campus the feel of a Tuscan village, and past that, the easternmost peaks of the Front Range.

Next on the tour are the old trophies and photographs — reminders of conference titles, a Heisman Trophy and a national championship, all collected a lifetime ago. The display is well-choreographed, the opening act of a show.

Finally, players are invited to sit in the center of a tufted wraparound sofa, his parents on either side, and face three empty armchairs. Then they wait, that period of anticipation before the headliner steps onstage.

“Coucher!” says Deion Sanders, speaking French to the Belgian Malinoise panting in his crate near the windows. Lie down.

Such canine linguistics are just one more unexpected dimension of one of the most gifted and consequential athletes of all time. Also a lifetime ago, Sanders became a household name as a two-sport star, eight-time Pro Bowler and two-time Super Bowl champion. He wore a bandanna and jewels, electrified audiences and at times enraged them as he inspired a generation of brash cornerbacks. He collected a few nicknames along the way, but he preferred “Primetime,” because he treated NFL games not just as an athletic contest, but as America’s biggest, most dazzling show.

“Nobody cares about yesterday,” he says from the center armchair. The prospect’s would-be position coach usually sits at Sanders’s left, the primary recruiter at his right. Sanders is the Buffaloes’ first-year coach, a newcomer in these parts, and he’s doing some redecorating. “I’m not just a football guy. I’m a conduit of change. Everywhere I went in my life, I was a conduit of change.”

Now, at age 55 and robbed of his once-silky gait, Sanders — or “Coach Prime,” as he prefers — is a stirring demonstration of change. He hobbles through the lounge and onto the field, his bandanna replaced by a 10-gallon cowboy hat. When recruits face him, they’re at once meeting a stranger and a man they’ve always known.

“I’ve been in all three seats,” Sanders says. “I’ve been the parent, I’ve been the kid, and I’m the coach. So I know what each person is thinking, and that’s very advantageous.”

There’s something interesting playing out here, and, like “Primetime” in the nineties, not everyone loves it. Sanders is carrying the hopes of a campus and a fan community desperate to feel nationally relevant for the first time in decades. He’s also a broader test of the sport’s traditional, if antiquated, paradigm. College sports have always been transactional, but if you work in the industry, that’s never been something you admit. As recently as 2019, when Sanders was still an NFL Network analyst and the NCAA raked in $19 billion in revenue, the fable of amateurism reigned: Athletes came to school for a free education, to experience college, to spend four glorious and mutually beneficial years learning and playing ball amid bucolic surroundings.

“I have never heard a kid say, ‘I came here because the campus is beautiful,’ ” Sanders says. “I ain’t never heard a kid say that. In any place.”

Coach Prime is football’s No. 1 hype man, referring to himself as the most honest coach in sports. In three seasons at Jackson State, the historically Black school whose football team Sanders lifted to unprecedented heights, he jettisoned the folklore. Instead, he embraced the pioneering 2021 policy that, for the first time, allowed players to be compensated for the use of their “name, image and likeness,” either by boosters or the sports car dealership across town. Sanders was paid for his services; why, he told players, shouldn’t they?

He also took full advantage of the sport’s transfer portal, which, beginning in 2018, allowed players to change schools without penalty. Jackson State went 27-6 in Sanders’s three seasons; the Tigers won two consecutive Southwestern Conference titles, appeared in the last two Celebration Bowls (regarded as the national championship game for HBCUs), and inserted Jackson State into the national conversation for the first time since Walter Payton carried the ball there.

“You have that lightning rod and these recruits coming in, and he brought all our old-head fans back,” says Nuenzo Phillips, a longtime Jackson State supporter. “There [was] a renewed vigor and a sense of hope that, by God, man, we’ve got Deion Sanders in Jackson, Mississippi.”

Still, this being college athletics, Sanders was never more important than the school or its mission or its brand. No single person — player, coach or administrator — has ever been bigger than the institution.

Not until Colorado hired Sanders, anyway.

He was yearning to leave Jackson, with its dilapidated facilities and ongoing water crisis, and jump to the sport’s big leagues. The Buffs, after 15 losing seasons in 17 years, were aching to feel the bygone magic of the early 1990s. More urgently, they wanted to become a bigger participant in a college sports gold rush, as schools and conferences compete for nine- and 10-figure media rights deals. Last year Southern Cal and UCLA announced they’d be leaving the Pac-12 to join the Big Ten, with its new broadcast deal worth more than $7 billion.

This led to a marriage of convenience, as Colorado arrived at a reckoning never before seen (or at least never admitted) in college football: that the survival of its brand depended on it being hitched to a stronger, more incandescent one — the brand of “Prime,” savior of programs, icon with a bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, spokesman with the iced-out pendant in the Aflac commercials.

“College athletics has totally changed,” says Alexis Williams, Colorado’s senior associate athletic director. “Twenty years ago, we were talking about our ‘student-athletes’ and this and that. Now it is really about the money.”

Sanders’s cut is $5 million a year, making him one of the Pac-12′s highest-paid but least-experienced coaches. It makes the union between school and coach a controversial and potentially revolutionary one — a look at the future, perhaps, but undoubtedly a repudiation of the way things used to be done.

“Why would we even talk about yesterday?” Sanders says during an interview in the recruiting lounge. “Recruits care about today. How do they fit in today, right now — where we’re headed, where we’re going.”

He chuckles, scanning the lounge and the Buffs’ ancient relics of football yesteryear.

“My brother, I don’t look behind me, man,” he says. Then he smiles. “Only time I do that is when I’m high-stepping.”

During the summer of 2020, the murder of George Floyd sparked an HBCU renaissance. Record donations poured in, applications soared, celebrities and politicians and sports teams rushed to underwrite a moment — the initial steps, it seemed, of restoring balance and funding to schools that’d been left to crumble.

Two moments stood apart: Howard graduate Kamala D. Harris’s ascent to the vice presidency, and Sanders becoming head coach at JSU. “God called me to Jackson State,” he said that September.

For his introduction on campus, he was delivered via Escalade, led by a police escort and flanked by the university’s mighty marching band, the “Sonic Boom of the South.” During his remarks, Sanders’s trademark bluster gave way to emotion.

“Tears of satisfaction. Tears to establish how proud I am to stand before my people,” he said. “I said to stand before my people.”

Within 10 months of the announcement, JSU had received an estimated $12 million in media exposure. Sanders’s deep-pocketed corporate partners committed millions more. Walmart pledged $2.4 million for a new practice field, Gillette donated to the Tigers’ athletic fund, Under Armour and Riddell provided equipment. Michael Strahan supplied custom suits for every JSU player.

The pandemic pushed JSU’s 2020 season to spring 2021, and Sanders’s first game, a 53-0 win, was predictably strange. There was no running water at the stadium after freezing temperatures crippled Jackson’s century-old water system, and a bizarre postgame controversy overshadowed the day. Sanders claimed during his news conference that his wallet and phone had been stolen from the coaches’ locker room, but the school said it was a misunderstanding, leading Sanders to insist on social media the school was “LYING.”

“Thank God I had on my necklaces,” he told reporters. The items were recovered and returned to Sanders.

Still, in Jackson that spring, game days felt like reunions, a throwback to the 1970s, when the program produced all-Americans and NFL stars. Sanders embraced the school’s mantra, “Thee I Love,” making appearances on Thee Pregame Show and leading his team onto the field as the Sonic Boom blared “Thee” alma mater at Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium, known locally as “Thee Vet.”

The following season, a dozen players from Power Five schools transferred to JSU. Two were Sanders’s sons, defensive back Shilo and quarterback Shedeur, and two others played at Trinity Christian School near Dallas, where Sanders had been offensive coordinator during his sons’ high school careers. But dozens of others defected from power conferences, including the mighty SEC.

To make room, dozens of JSU players were encouraged to leave the program and did. But when the Tigers go 11-2, who cares about loyalty? Sanders stormed out of that preseason’s SWAC’s media day after a reporter called him “Deion” instead of “Coach Prime,” but when every Saturday is an all-day block party, who cares if the coach is testy about his brand? When the Jackson, Miss., newspaper wrote about a JSU recruit having been charged with assaulting his girlfriend, Sanders and the school banned the reporter from covering the team. But who cares, right, when the Tigers are winning their first conference title in nearly a decade?

“Deion’s message just resonated with people,” says a former JSU employee, who, like others in Jackson, spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect their relationships with the school and Sanders. “People felt like they could be heard, and people really rallied around that. It was a point of hope.”

And of one HBCU city taking advantage of a moment. NFL legend Troy Aikman attended a game, rapper Boosie smoked weed in the stadium tunnel, Snoop Dogg FaceTimed Sanders on the sideline. Attendance soared. A cynic might bristle at the fact that Sanders’s contract called for him to receive 10 percent of all ticket revenue above 30,000 fans and a slice of season-ticket sales above 10,000. But so? Almost overnight, Jackson State was the coolest place in college football, and its coach had hacked the system. With Sanders in Jackson, Eddie George taking over at Tennessee State and former NFL coach Hue Jackson going to Grambling State, HBCUs were back.

“You really did have fans and alumni believing: If he sticks around another year or two, maybe we could play against a top-25 FBS opponent,” one longtime JSU booster says. “He was bringing the Black community back home.”

The nation’s top junior-college defensive back and the country’s sixth-best receiver signed to play at JSU. Then Travis Hunter, a two-way star who’d committed to Florida State, flipped and instead signed to play for Sanders. Among his reasons: drawing more attention to historically Black schools. And it worked: “60 Minutes” followed with a feature on JSU football, and last fall, ESPN’s College GameDay broadcast live from the Vet.

“This is Black history,” Sanders said at the time. “Let’s not take this moment for granted.”

Thirty-six days after the ESPN crew left Jackson, Sanders did the same. Colorado announced it’d hired him on a Sunday in December, and the school’s football ticket office was like a scene from “The Wolf of Wall Street”: phones ringing, employees fiercely typing as they recorded another $150 nonrefundable deposit, handsets snapped into their cradles an instant before chirping again.

“Sell! Sell! Sell!” Rick George, the school’s athletic director, told the staff when he happened by.

By the end of December, the school had collected more than 5,000 interest forms for season tickets, and its customer retention rate was a record 98 percent. The Buffs’ spring game, to which the athletic department sold tickets for the first time, was a sellout. When Sanders attended a men’s basketball game, senior associate AD Williams says, that program’s social media accounts and ticket sales grew, with fans hoping for a glimpse of Sanders if he returned.

School officials call this the “Prime Effect,” and it can be measured in cash flow, merchandise sales and a few unexpected ways. When Sanders, who grew up in Florida, posted a video that pointed out a local breakfast joint didn’t offer grits, local restaurants quickly added grits to their menus. In March, Sanders joined University Chancellor Philip DiStefano at the state house and charmed lawmakers preparing to vote on funding for public education. A month later, when the university’s BioFrontiers Institute was interviewing a highly regarded professor, DiStefano didn’t meet with the candidate, because she’d requested a meeting with Sanders.

“I’m a closer,” he says.

In fact, his ability to attract talent and generate hype has created an unexpected problem. In 2019, at perhaps the nadir of the Colorado brand, Folsom Field was sold out for a home game against longtime rival Nebraska. Other than the student section, the stadium was a sea of Huskers white and red, the school’s #KeepTheRedOut campaign a disaster. Thousands of Buffs fans had sold their tickets to visitors.

“How did this happen?” George asked his nonplussed staff.

So when the school hired Sanders, with demand for tickets far outpacing supply, the athletic department was determined to avoid a similar fiasco. Which fans had earned the right to buy tickets? Instead of the classic first-come, first-served model, how could Colorado weed out the type of ticket holder who’d sell to Arizona or Oregon fans if the price was right?

The ticket sales department’s job, therefore, isn’t selling so much as it’s data mining and collecting information from would-be buyers. If someone attended a game in the last five years, when the Buffs went 19-34, or went to a volleyball or women’s basketball contest, they’d be given priority over someone who hadn’t.

“ ‘Hey, he’s a Buff fan; a real Buff fan.’ We did rank folks,” says Williams, who oversees the athletic department’s marketing and promotion. “There’s no playbook for this.”

Nor is there for fans told that they weren’t loyal enough and couldn’t buy tickets. Some reacted by erupting at the sales staff; a few issued profanity-laced tirades and even threats. One emailed George and Williams a St. Patrick’s Day poem, a sort of ticketing Hail Mary.

The demand is high, and the tickets few

But John and Amy won’t be feeling blue.

For they know their passion, is as green as clover,

And they’ll support the Buffs, with hearts brimming over.

Alas, creativity aside, those fans were denied. While Colorado is being pickier about who it lets in, among its many ambitions is that Sanders will somehow attract fans who’ve felt unwelcome — namely, Williams says, people of color.

Williams, who’s Black, says the alumni of color she knows tend to skip Buffs games; the stadium and parking lots are filled with people who don’t look like them (even as those on the sidelines do; even in Colorado, football teams are overwhelmingly Black, and Sanders is the program’s third consecutive Black head coach). As of last fall, Colorado’s student body was two-thirds White and just 2.6 percent Black. Boulder is home to an even lower percentage of Black residents.

But unlike Mel Tucker and Karl Dorrell, Williams says, Sanders has those fans’ attention. They remember him returning punts and talking smack in the ’90s, and after his time at Jackson State, they view him as a champion of Black opportunity and education.

“Now there’s a man leading that team, being unapologetically himself, who talks like me, thinks like me, so I can come here and support him,” Williams says. “It’s tough to break this cycle. But this hire? The Prime Effect? I think that’ll be the thing to resuscitate it.”

When George was Colorado’s recruiting coordinator three decades ago, he got prospects’ attention by sending typewritten letters and newspaper articles about Boulder being the nation’s healthiest city. The staff devoted one day a week to recruiting, and George wowed recruits by calling them from the sideline during games.

“Think Colorado!” was how George closed his correspondence back then. This actually worked.

Darian Hagan, Michael Westbrook and Kordell Stewart all signed with the Buffs, and the team won the 1990 national championship. Four years later, Rashaan Salaam won the Heisman, and the Colorado coaching staff signed players from throughout the country, with enough talent to win seven bowl games and two Big Eight titles in the ’90s. It didn’t hurt, George says, that the school has the Rocky Mountains in its backyard.

“We had to get them here,” George says. “If we didn’t, we had no chance.”

There were no recruiting lounges then; no private jets whisking coaches from one place to the next. During Stewart’s official visit in 1990, he went for a walk. Having grown up in New Orleans, he marveled at the clarity of the creek, the crispness of the air, the way the Flatirons stab the sky. When he got home, he called 1-800-GO-BUFFS and informed George he’d be signing with Colorado.

“The scenery was just night-and-freaking-day,” Stewart, a former NFL Pro Bowler, says now. “When you see that stuff, it changes your life overnight. You’d see that and be like, heck yeah, there’s a God.”

But as the ’90s ended, Colorado’s advantage waned. Players were less interested in strolling the prettiest campus when competitors were offering a weight room or dining facility that’d help them reach the professional ranks. Salesmanship, not X’s and O’s, became the hottest skill in coaching, and by the early 2000s, recruiters were calling and texting players around the clock.

Colorado’s profile and ability to draw top-shelf talent, meanwhile, had crumbled. Coach Bill McCartney retired after the 1994 season, and his replacement, Rick Neuheisel, left after four seasons when Washington offered him a then-astonishing $1 million per year. Gary Barnett underachieved, Dan Hawkins never had a winning season, Jon Embree was barely given a chance (and correctly predicted a dozen years ago that, as a Black man, he wouldn’t get a second shot).

As this was unfolding, college football’s titans were doing battle on a new front: facilities. Stadiums with LED lighting and massive video boards, locker rooms with screens and game consoles. By 2016, Clemson’s coaches had a $55 million complex with bowling lanes and laser tag. Three years later, LSU impressed visitors with $28 million in upgrades that added a sleep pod at every player’s locker. A year after that, Alabama added “nooks” with recliners and a room for cryotherapy.

Coaching staffs were filled with recruiters, not tacticians, and head coaches were fundraisers who could enchant rich alumni into another mega-donation. That would help bankroll another new building, which could draw in top recruits, which would then increase excitement and sell tickets and bring in more donations. With so much money flowing, coaches’ pay skyrocketed; Alabama’s Nick Saban became the first to make $10 million a year, and last year the average salary for Football Bowl Subdivision head coaches neared $2 million.

It’s not that smaller schools couldn’t afford to hire great coaches. They just couldn’t afford to keep them. In 2019, the Buffs lured Tucker, a former NFL defensive coordinator and interim head coach, to Boulder. But he left after one season when Michigan State, flush with cash from the Big Ten’s TV deal, offered him $5 million a year.

Three years later, with the Buffs 0-5, Colorado’s AD met with its chancellor. George wanted to fire Dorrell and begin courting replacements. Among the candidates was a surprising one: Deion Sanders.

“To be honest with you,” DiStefano says, “I didn’t think that there was a match here.”

Colorado finished 1-11 in 2022, its sixth straight losing season. Though Sanders had never been to Boulder or even played in an NFL game in the snow, he was willing to listen to George.

“I never seen no mountains, man,” he says. “Haven’t met any bison, first of all. I haven’t met too many horses or cows, either.”

George went to Jackson to visit Sanders. He saw the school’s aging facilities and considered that Sanders had somehow lured blue-chip recruits despite a football budget of $2.1 million. What could he do with a department bank account more than 15 times fatter?

After their meeting, George called an old friend and asked him to put in a good word with Sanders. Kordell Stewart, close with Sanders since their NFL days, told Sanders that Boulder is “the most beautiful place in the world.” Sanders claimed he didn’t care about that. His concern was this: Would Colorado be willing to let him do things his way?

“We’re going to do it like no other,” Sanders says. “We’re going to do it right.”

Within hours of his introduction, 24 JSU players entered the transfer portal, many with their eyes on Colorado. Sanders’s sons Shedeur and Shilo, of course, but also former No. 1 recruit Hunter. Players who’d previously committed to or signed with the sport’s recent heavyweights announced pledges to Sanders, who boasts that he rarely leaves campus and almost never travels to high schools or homes. Colorado doesn’t own a private jet, George says, nor did it know how it would come up with money to pay its famous new football coach — only that it somehow would.

Sanders doesn’t mind about the travel, he says, because players no longer care where they play or even mind-blowing facilities. It’s for whom they play, and whether that coach understands the NFL and, in the NIL age, the paths to an immediate piece of an enormous financial pie.

As an example, Sanders says he recently hauled in a recruit. The player committed Colorado, Sanders says, without ever setting foot on campus.

In Coach Prime’s America, all the world’s a reality show, its players and coaches mere characters. “You Are Being Photographed!” a sign reads outside Colorado’s football meeting room.

The athletic department employs a 13-person multimedia team, with videographers and producers and graphic artists who publish daily. Third-party content creators trail Sanders constantly, filling three YouTube channels as the coach just does Deion Stuff, from him lounging with Gunner the dog to hanging in his office with Lil Wayne. Several times a day this material is posted to Sanders’s Twitter (1.5 million followers) and Instagram (3.3 million) feeds. That’s far more than the accounts of USC’s Lincoln Riley, Georgia’s Kirby Smart and Ohio State’s Ryan Day. Saban famously refuses to use social media.

There’s also a second season in production of “Coach Prime,” the docuseries where, last year, Sanders revealed he’d had two toes amputated after developing life-threatening blood clots in his leg. Revealing as the content may be, it’s also antithetical to the rich tradition of football coaches being secretive. It’s also Sanders’s preferred way to sell himself to recruits, donors and sponsors — the most appealing and bankable version of himself.

Long ago, Sanders showed a deft understanding of showmanship’s role in sports business. “Primetime” wasn’t Deion, he says, because Deion kept to himself, never drank alcohol, never went to nightclubs. He did, however, attach himself to at least one disastrous investment that, among other things, upended the lives of young people. Sanders’s former Dallas-area charter school, Prime Prep Academy, closed in 2015 amid legal, regulatory and financial problems that included $650,000 in debt and multiple lawsuits. Sanders, the school’s founder and football coach, allegedly choked the school’s chief financial officer during a school board meeting and was fired and rehired twice at the school he claimed would do “good in the hood.”

“It’s good to say I played for [Sanders]. I was an athlete for him at his school,” a former Prime Prep player told The Washington Post in 2020, not long after JSU hired Sanders. “But when you look at it, it’s just kind of a huge fallacy.”

So, evidently, was the excitement with which Sanders oozed when he was an NFL Network analyst, gushing about a game, or a particular play, or a superstar he interviewed on GameDay Prime. He actually hated it, he says. Sanders coached his kids’ youth football teams near Dallas, flew to Los Angeles in his coaching attire, spent Sundays on set before flying back overnight so he could drop his children off at school.

“I’m a homebody, man,” he says. “I’m not that guy. I had to be that guy [on TV] because that’s who I was on the field. When the lights are off, I’m not him. I’m in bed by 7, man.”

When he begged NFL Network to let him work from home, it said yes. But when it asked him to take a pay cut in 2020, Sanders said no. A month later, he took the Jackson State job. When he’s coaching, Sanders says, he is “kind of that guy.”

It can be difficult, therefore, to know where Prime ends and Deion begins. What’s real and what’s made-for-TV? Sanders is quick-witted and speaks in coaching mottos, some of which rhyme, a few of which don’t make sense but nonetheless seem to amuse Sanders. “I’m not a typical coach, man. I was him before I was he,” he says, chuckling. “Now that one was good.”

These are but a few of the many adjustments transpiring at Colorado, as the administration and wider campus community have largely deferred to Sanders as they let Prime cook. If he asks to sit in on a meeting about pedestrian traffic at the Buffs’ spring game, or wants to view a working design of a commemorative poster that’ll be handed out to fans, or visit with the marching band to suggest new songs, no one tells him no.

“Coach Prime is more — is ‘invested’ the right word? — engaged than other coaches,” says Williams, the associate AD.

After Sanders noticed how bland the food was in the athletics dining hall, he arranged for John Tierre, who owns Sanders’s favorite restaurant in Jackson, Johnny T’s Bistro & Blues, to visit Boulder, meet with the Buffs’ chef and make a few … suggestions. By the time Tierre went home, the menu had expanded to include New Orleans shrimp and grits, cornbread and beans, peach cobbler. The beverage choices now included sweet tea.

“Our nutritionist cringes,” George says.

Sanders may not think such amenities bring top recruits to campus, but with players now free to come and go among football programs, perhaps they’re key to retaining them. Regardless, Sanders says that with Tierre’s recipes and a case of his Johnny T’s seasoning, the chef is the program’s comeback player of the year.

On occasion, Sanders even concerns himself with changes to the actual football team. He neither designs nor calls plays, operating as a chief executive not unlike the man Sanders played college football for, Florida State’s legendary Bobby Bowden. He plucked Colorado’s defensive coordinator from Saban’s staff at Alabama and convinced 37-year-old Sean Lewis to leave a head coaching job, at Kent State, to be his offensive coordinator. That commemorative poster Sanders was so interested in? Both coordinators are prominently featured.

Sanders also flouts a modern push toward postgame recovery, saying his team practices on Sundays because the previous day’s game is fresh in players’ minds. For all his media and tech savvy, Sanders is old school about some things. He had a sprinting hill and sand pit installed at JSU, and a sign outside the Buffs’ meeting room prohibits earrings and hats.

It’s all part of building a culture, he says, one clearly not for everyone. He has publicly compared the players he inherited at Colorado to furniture and those he’d be bringing with him to Louis Vuitton luggage. During his first meeting with players last December, in a widely circulated video, Sanders encouraged players to “go ahead and jump in that portal” to make space for players who’d be signing in the months to come.

“They told everybody to go,” former Buffs receiver Grant Page told the Denver Post in April.

Page is among an 60 players who have entered the portal, almost double the number of the program with the second-most roster turnover. Of the 83 players on Colorado’s roster last fall, 21 remain.

“We don’t weed anyone out,” Sanders told reporters in April. “They weed themselves out.”

Is this needlessly harsh toward college students, even in the hyper-corporate reality of modern college football? Do highly paid football coaches really no longer have to travel, or is Sanders the homebody just being lazy? Will it continue to be enough for Colorado to pay “Prime” to perform for the cameras if he doesn’t win?

For now, Colorado officials seem satisfied that a coach and his employer, in a business whose many traditions include dishonesty, are speaking truthfully — like it or not — about their motivations and plans.

A thousand miles southeast, Nuenzo Phillips, the JSU supporter, drives past the “WELCOME TO THEE!” banner on University Boulevard. He takes a right onto Walter Payton Drive, where, in the distance, construction equipment encircles the Tigers’ new practice field.

“The only tangible thing we have left,” Phillips says. “We were a character in the movie of Deion Sanders.”

Six months after Sanders announced his move to Colorado, some Jacksonians are still processing it. It’s not that he left, Phillips says. It’s how he left that left a hollow feeling. Many just aren’t yet willing to talk about it. One longtime booster won’t discuss Sanders because, he says, doing so could “put my business in jeopardy.” Others worry about running afoul of Sanders and his vast network of business associates. The school’s athletic director, Ashley Robinson, declined an interview request.

“We got used for two years,” one of the prominent boosters says. “He galvanized the people, used the Lord, used religion, said this was a ‘calling’ and all that other horse-stuff. You know what they say: Don’t meet your heroes.”

On the eve of last year’s SWAC championship, reports emerged that Sanders and Colorado were nearing an agreement. The day’s focus, therefore, wasn’t on the party or the Tigers’ accomplishments. It was on Sanders. JSU beat Southern, 43-24, and as university and conference officials were celebrating at the Vet, Sanders was visibly impatient.

“Let’s go, let’s go!” he said, waving his arms to hurry along the trophy presentation. By then, some fans seemed to have accepted Sanders was leaving, serenading him with the blues song “Keep on Rollin’.

Go ahead and walk out the door.

A few minutes later, Sanders did just that. When he reached the interview room for his postgame news conference, he found it still occupied by Southern’s coach. So Sanders left and returned to campus.

“It is what it is,” he told players, in an address later posted to Sanders’s Instagram. “In coaching, you either get elevated or you get terminated. Ain’t no other way.”

Hours later, he posted again: this time aboard a Colorado booster’s private jet. He was clad in black and gold, surrounded by former JSU coaches and Shedeur Sanders. They were among those who’d join Sanders at Colorado, along with Hunter and six other ex-Tigers. Six of his 10 assistant coaches were with him at JSU, as were several members of the school’s training and support staff.

Even Christopher “Uncle Neely” Neely, a JSU graduate who hosted the popular “Thee Pregame Show,” relocated to Boulder. This was strike two, fans say. It was understandable for Sanders to take another job. But to plunder the football program? To bring on Neely, who hasn’t dropped “Thee” from his show’s name? To continue, months later, trying to raid the best of Jackson? Even Tierre, the local chef, says Sanders keeps trying to get him to move to Boulder, amid Sanders’s promises to take the Johnny T’s spice blend national.

“You can’t steal their culture, even if you’re one of them,” the former JSU employee says. “It’s everything Deion was preaching against.”

Phillips walks through a gate and stands on the JSU practice field. Fans have their memories, the athletic department has the trophies, the school can still capitalize on Sanders’s tenure. Recruiting, Phillips says, remains at an all-time high under new coach T.C. Taylor. The JSU brand remains strong.

But the practice field needs new lights. The athletic department needs a new weight room. The city still needs a new stadium. Students also need access to some of the most basic resources, including clean water. Since 2020, the city has endured an ongoing water crisis, in part due to the crumbling of Jackson’s century-old pipes.

“Just winning games isn’t enough to erase the disparity, the racial disparity. Two years isn’t enough to undo that,” the booster says. “We need a lot of things, but those things didn’t happen. And for a guy who is larger than life like Deion Sanders, that’s what I expected. I guess I expected larger results.”

“Okay, we got on 60 Minutes. Okay, we got on College GameDay. You put a spotlight on it, but that spotlight lasted two minutes. We really needed an influx of money, not just hope.”

Sanders pushes through the doors of the recruiting lounge, into a hallway. Players and coaches are waiting, and a man points his phone to resume recording this experiment and its architect.

“Experiment?” Sanders scoffs after a reporter uses the word. “This ain’t no experiment. You better check your definition.”

His tone has changed from just moments earlier, Deion having given way to Coach Prime. Whatever this is, will it work? Can Sanders revolutionize college football for the second time? Or will he bail once his sons exhaust their eligibility, or if the Florida State job opens, or if building a winner in the Pac-12 (or the Big 12, which has reportedly been courting Colorado) is too steep a mountain?

Still months before the Buffs take their first snap under Sanders, Colorado administrators are thinking of life beyond Coach Prime, if not outright planning for it. The school is acutely aware it needed the Sanders defibrillator to shock its brand back to life. But once it’s detached, whether in three years or 20, can it keep pumping?

“That’s why it’s important for us as an athletic department to not lose our brand within his,” Williams says. “Now we’ve resuscitated fan engagement. How do we keep these folks engaged and not just be CU fans because of who the coach is?”

While Colorado figures it out, Sanders has captivated another audience: fans, rival coaches, other institutions. The story is juicy, impossible to ignore, the sport’s newest must-see reality show.

“Hey Coach,” Sanders calls toward an assistant as he hobbles toward an afternoon meeting. “Is this an experiment we’re doing around here?”

“Nope,” the staffer says.

“Experiment,” he says, chuckling. “This is an opportunity, man.”

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