Making Deion Sanders the Head Coach of CU Football is Paying Off | Westword

Prime Numbers: Hiring Deion Sanders Could Add Up for the University of Colorado

Even before the games begin, Coach Prime is winning students...and cash for CU.
Getty Images/Matthew Stockman
Share this:
Of the approximately 100 football players Deion Sanders addressed after he was hired to be the next head coach of the University of Colorado Boulder’s football program, just 28 are left.

“We've got a few positions already taken care of, because I'm bringing my luggage with me, and it's Louis [Vuitton]," Sanders said in a YouTube video posted on December 4 by Well Off Media, which is run by his son Deion Sanders Jr. “Some of y'all that really got it, that really want it, that really deserve it, and you've got to play beside a fool that don't want it, don't deserve it, that don't even love it. I promise you it's my job to get rid of them."

And the charismatic coach, a former National Football League and Major League Baseball phenom, has made good on that promise, bringing change to Boulder — along with his family, with two sons now playing football at CU while daughter Shelomi has joined the basketball team.

“Usually when God sends me to a place, he sends me to a place to be a conduit of change,” Sanders told the student athletes back in December. "It's going to be a different place, a different feel, a different attitude, a different energy, a different work ethic, a different want, a different hunger.”

Even after returning receiver Montana Lemonious-Craig dazzled in the team’s April 22 spring game, he ended up entering the transfer portal.

“There was a sense that we probably weren't at the level we needed to be for the coaches,” says punter Mark Vassett, an Australian native and Louisville transfer who’d made the move to CU before the spring but after Sanders arrived.

As space cleared on the roster, Sanders brought in new athletes. Their ranks included sons Shedeur, quarterback, and safety Shilo, along with two-way player Travis Hunter, who’d shocked the football world by choosing to play for Jackson State — the historically Black school in Mississippi where Sanders coached from 2020 to 2022 — instead of one of the many traditional Division I football schools that had recruited him.

“Every position group has taken leaps and bounds,” Sanders said at the Colorado Football & Olympic Sports Media Day on August 11.

If it is to succeed, CU's football program needs to take leaps and bounds after the team managed just one win in 2022 and head coach Karl Dorrell was fired before the season had concluded. The hunt was on for the next head coach in a long line of disappointments, with Sanders emerging as a favorite.

On December 3, CU Athletic Director Rick George confirmed that it would soon be "prime time" in Boulder.

During his days as an athlete, Sanders created his “Prime Time” persona with his larger-than-life personality and on-field feats. He’s the only athlete ever to play in both the Super Bowl (in 1994 and 1995) and the World Series (1992). At Jackson State, he led the school to a 27-5 record over three seasons, with back-to-back Southwestern Athletic Conference championships in 2021 and 2022.

And CU gave him a prime deal: a five-year contract with a base salary of $500,000 per year, as well as significant salary supplements and other performance incentives that could increase the total to nearly $30 million over those five years.

For starters, Sanders will earn $1.75 million this year for his media appearances, and that amount will increase by $100,000 annually. He gets the same bump for assisting the athletics department with promotion and fundraising activities, and he'll receive $1.5 million for “development of the student-athlete.”

The school also agreed to provide Sanders with either "the use of two (2) courtesy cars...or, in the University’s discretion, Supplemental Salary in the amount of $1200 per month in lieu of courtesy cars, automobile allowance, or reimbursement of any expenses (including mileage and parking) for in-state automobile travel.”

His budget is $200,000 a year for private air travel to use while recruiting, as well as ten football season tickets and four season tickets for both men’s and women’s basketball. He’ll be subsidized for joining the Boulder Country Club or another country club that would allow him to promote the interests of the school (CU says he has yet to access that particular benefit).

Finally, Sanders will make more if the team is better. If the Buffs win six games during the regular season, he will get $150,000, as well as another $150,000 for every win over six out of the twelve-game season. Additional incentives will kick in if the school is invited to a bowl game or wins a championship — or if Sanders himself wins a Coach of the Year award.

But will these Prime numbers pay off?
click to enlarge
Deion Sanders brings a big persona to the University of Colorado.
Courtesy CU Athletics
Sanders has brought in an extremely experienced coaching staff; his budget to hire assistants is $5 million, or $1.2 million more than Dorrell had. But he says he needs that crew if he's going to rebuild the team with athletes who not only love the game, but live it.

“It was tremendously tough, because you had some young men that just didn't want to play the game. They don't love football,” he said at the August 11 media event. “It's hard for me to be effective if you don't love it. If you don't like it. If you don't want to live it.”

Of last season's 83 scholarship athletes, just ten are returning, while only three starters are coming back. Eighteen of last year's team members graduated or had no more NCAA eligibility. There are a total of 28 returning players on this year's roster of 114 athletes, along with 86 newcomers, including transfers and high school signees.

Many of those transfers say they think CU now offers one of the best chances to play professionally, thanks to Sanders and the coaching staff he’s built.

Linebacker LaVonta Bentley is a graduate transfer from Clemson University — a school that has won a College Football Playoff National Championship in the past thirty years, unlike CU. But he's more optimistic about his chances of making the NFL and supporting his family while playing in Colorado. “It's a bit different as far as the great coaching staff that I'm around,” he admits. “Football is football, and I'm learning as I go, so I really can't say there’s a big difference other than how we do it here. It's business.”

The transfers feel that Coach Prime cleaning house evened the playing field. “We're all new. It's all the same scenario,” says kicker Jace Feely, who transferred from Arizona State University. “That brings us closer as a team, closer as specialists and closer with coaches and players. We all are doing the same thing. … It's completely different to be actually wanted.”

Coaches have made it clear that they're willing to move on from players who aren’t up to their standards. That doesn't worry Bentley; he says it just shows how hard he needs to work.

Gerad Christian-Lichtenhan is one of the few athletes left on the roster from last year. “The sense of culture has really changed,” he says. “Coach Prime has brought a lot of what he believes in — his mantras — over, and they work for us, because everyone here wants to win.”
click to enlarge
Coach Prime and team members during a workout.
Courtesy CU Athletics
Sanders has sparked more than just the athletes on the field. His presence has been a financial and reputational boon for the school — dubbed the “Prime Effect.”

According to CU, Colorado Athletics alone garnered $28 million in donations in fiscal year 2023. In 2022, it raised $20.2 million. At least some of this can be attributed to the excitement around the new coach.

“In fiscal year 2022, [CU] had 15,592 alumni donors contribute a total of $50,846,783, and in fiscal year 2023, we had 13,650 alumni donors contribute $52,785,243,” says Steve Hurlbert, director of communications and chief spokesperson for the school.

Merchandise sales increased by 505 percent in December after Sanders was hired. Year to date, sales are up by 69 percent — but those stats include the five months before Sanders came to town.

Coach Prime has a licensing agreement with the school that allows him to co-brand his catchphrases with CU intellectual property. The royalty revenue for the 2022-2023 fiscal year totals $1,998,699. Of that, 29 percent is from Sanders and CU co-branded merchandise. The coach gets 12 percent, CU gets 12 percent, and the rest goes to the manufacturer.

As a result, Sanders and CU have both made just over $69,500 through that licensing agreement to date.

If Sanders wants to engage in any athletic-related endorsements or sponsorships outside of the university, he must run it by the school, according to his contract. He can keep or extend deals he had before he was hired.

Buffs Football became the first team in the nation to sell out of 2023 season tickets, marking the first time it’s sold out of season tickets since 1996. It sold over 22,400 season tickets. The 11,600 student passes it offers sold in less than an hour.

Despite the hefty single-game price — a minimum of over $100 and much more for most games — the team’s first home game of the year, on September 2 against rival Nebraska, is already sold out. According to Hurlbert, the games against Colorado State University and the University of Southern California are nearly sold out, too.

“Coming off a 1-11 season makes the feat even more remarkable and shows the power of the Prime Effect,” the school’s media day guide declared. CU Football has also gained one million followers across its social media platforms since Sanders was hired.

The school’s first two games, away at Texas Christian University and home against Nebraska, will be aired on Fox’s Big Noon Kickoff, marking the first time in CU history that the team will have its first two games on network television.

“When you really just look at the numbers from last year to this year — the merchandise sales, the season ticket sales, spring game, all that stuff — it's unheard of,” Feely says.

“The hiring of Deion Sanders has been transformational not just for CU Athletics, but for CU Boulder as a whole, as it has demonstrably raised the excitement for our football program throughout Colorado and across the nation,” according to a joint statement from CU Athletics and the university.

During his summer classes, fellow students who saw him in team gear were excited to talk about the Buffs, Christian-Lichtenhan says. That didn't happen in his previous years at CU. “It’s correlated with something good now, and so it's exciting to be a CU football player,” he adds. “Our athletics have been good for previous years, but football has been struggling.”

The shift in expectations for the team may have helped create a new culture on campus, but don’t ask Sanders if that's seen on the field, too. On August 11, Coach Prime informed the media that he doesn’t like the word "culture" because he finds it too ambiguous. Rather, he wants to create “a winning atmosphere,” he says.

“I know it's a huge overhaul, but it has to be done,” he adds.

One example of that overhaul: Sanders’s comments after a fight broke out at practice on August 15. Christian-Lichtenhan was at the center of the scuffle when he moved to protect running back Anthony Hankerson after safety Jaden Milliner-Jones made a late move on Hankerson.

The entire exchange — and Sanders's thoughts regarding it — was documented in a video on Deion Sanders Jr.’s YouTube channel. And it wasn’t the athletes who fought with whom Sanders took issue.

“I saw two of y’all walking off over there, and you got a teammate fighting?” Sanders questioned. “Where they do that at? If one fight, we all fight. You understand that? I don’t want to see y’all walking off when somebody’s fighting. Never again.”

On August 17, when another fight broke out, everyone joined in — as documented in another Sanders Jr. upload.

According to Hurlbert, Sanders’s sons don’t have any licensing agreement with the school for its intellectual property — including logos, slogans, trademarks, service marks, copyrights or color scheme. Nonetheless, Well Off Media has continued to document Sanders’s time at the school. The channel shares a video nearly daily with clips from practices, meetings with position groups and documentation of recruiting visits.

Before he came to CU, Sanders had signed on for a Prime Video docuseries video called Coach Prime. Its first installment covered his final season at Jackson State and his transition to Boulder; that show will return for a second season.

Hurlbert says the documentary crew got release signatures from all the student-athletes and coaches who wanted to participate right before fall camp started. “To date, no players, coaches or staff have declined to participate in the documentary,” he notes. “The players, especially, actually think the whole thing is pretty cool.”

According to Sanders, there's no right or wrong way to deal with cameras and the rest of the media; it just depends on the coach’s personality.

“I want the kids to get the exposure that they want to receive, which ultimately helps them getting to the next level and reaching their goals and ambitions,” he says. “So I'm all for it.”

In fact, Sanders has all of his players sporting their social media handles on the back of their practice jerseys to increase their potential for exposure.

Shilo Sanders, the third of Deion’s five children, says his father has taught him that “chasing clout” with social media and brand deals isn’t as important as doing your job well. Shilo told the media members gathered on August 11 that he doesn’t have time to post much lately, but that Sanders Jr. has been filming videos with his friends since he’s not 100 percent occupied with football.

While Bentley has participated in a few videos, the volume of cameras around Coach Prime marks a big difference from his time at Clemson from 2019 to 2022. He says he’s not typically someone who runs to the camera, but he’s not hesitant about it, either. If you’re acting right, “the camera gonna find you,” he notes.

Christian-Lichtenhan says the cameras reinforce what the team is trying to accomplish. Though he’s typically someone who keeps his head down, he appreciates that cameras help with everyone’s work ethic, because each high and low is documented.

And Sanders wants those highs to continue off the field, Christian-Lichtenhan adds. To help players reach their goals, the coach has brought in financial and spiritual advisers, and also introduced the team to the school’s mental health services.

“We are great men on and off the field, and even if football doesn't work out, we have plans to support us,” he says. “That's a huge key to his whole coaching persona: Make sure these guys are set up for life, not just football.”
click to enlarge
Sanders and former Denver Bronco Shannon Sharpe.
Courtesy CU Athletics
A key part of setting athletes up for life, particularly those who don’t end up playing football professionally, is academics. Sanders’s contract grants him a $50,000 bonus if the team attains a high Academic Progress Rate rating.

When Bill McCartney took over the football program back in the 1980s, the players he recruited had trouble adjusting to Boulder, often being met with suspicion by the city's residents and running into legal dilemmas.

But these athletes really haven't gotten around town at all. On August 11, Hunter told the media that his favorite thing about Boulder is how quiet it is. Other team members cited the beauty of the Flatirons and the proximity to nature.

Feely is a golfer (he recently played a round with Donald Trump), and says he's enjoyed testing out some of the courses around Boulder. Christian-Lichtenhan plans to get his teammates out to try some of the city's good cuisine. For his part, Sanders inspired several restaurants to start serving grits after he expressed disappointment that the Village Coffee Shop didn't serve the Southern side.

Vassett and Bentley want to learn the area better before their parents come to watch them play. This will be Vassett's family’s first time outside of Australia; it will be the first time on a plane for Bentley's mother.

Football has always been a family affair for the Sanderses. Shilo inherited the vivacious spark that’s helped make his father famous. “He's been our coach for a long time,” Shilo says. “We've been winning since we were younger. He's always able to get good players and to be a good leader for us and bring a winning culture.”

But how many games can the Buffs realistically win, especially given their tough slate of opponents? This is the team’s last season in the Pac-12; it will move back to the Big 12 in 2024. The Pac-12 preseason media poll predicted the Buffs will finish second to last, despite Sanders’s overhaul.

If you ask the players on the team, though, they say they expect to win every game.

“We got some real doubters, and when we jel together like we’ve started jelling together, it’s definitely something special,” Shilo adds. “We're bringing an intensity that I don't think has been seen before here.”

Christian-Lichtenhan says the team is excited for Folsom Field to fill with fans who are re-energized about CU football, and he doesn’t think the energy will fade even if the team takes a few losses. “The excitement's there because it's Coach Prime. He's such a legacy,” he explains. “The excitement is going to come as long as he stays here.”

Sanders is just excited for the season to begin, and says he isn't worried about his team's performance.

“I don’t care what conference, who we’re playing against — we’re trying to win,” Sanders told the media. “All this is about money. You know that. It’s about a bag. Everybody’s chasing the bag."
Can you help us continue to share our stories? Since the beginning, Westword has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver — and we'd like to keep it that way. Our members allow us to continue offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food, and culture with no paywalls.