Prime'd and ready: Deion Sanders' Power Five debut takes him back to a familiar place

Deion Sanders prepared for this upcoming job interview like all the rest.

By this point, in November 2021, he’d been through this process — interviewing to be a Power Five head football coach — a few times. Sanders exhaustedly rehearsed the plan. He’d memorized a binder’s worth of talking points. He’d prepped for specific questions and readied clever one-liners.

But this interview was different from the rest.

“We didn’t tell the TCU folks he was in the hospital,” says Constance Schwartz-Morini, Sanders' longtime manager and confidant.

Sanders, then completing his first fall season as Jackson State’s coach, was recovering from surgery for blood clots in his foot during his interview to replace Gary Patterson as TCU’s coach. On the other end of the hour-long FaceTime call was TCU athletic director Jeremiah Donati, who originally planned to fly to Jackson for an in-person interview before the coach’s health issues.

Hospital or not, Sanders left Donati “blown away” by his vision and his plan, so much so that he was one of four finalists for the gig. And while Donati eventually hired another candidate (Sonny Dykes), the athletic director told anyone who’d listen the same refrain about Sanders.

“He is going to be at another major school and soon,” Donati said.

Less than two years later, Sanders readies his Colorado Buffaloes for a game against TCU in a fitting debut of his Power Five head-coaching career. Fitting for a few reasons, in fact.

Sanders returns to a place where he starred as a player (the Dallas Cowboys), broke in as a coach (three Dallas-area high schools) and still owns a 100-acre estate he frequents often (Country Prime Ranch).

For Sanders and many of those around him, Colorado’s season opener this Saturday afternoon is more than just about football. It’s about home.

“It’s really a home game for us. It’s our backyard,” says Andre' Hart, Colorado’s linebackers coach whose journey with Sanders began as a youth league coach in Dallas more than 15 years ago.

Will the Colorado Buffaloes find success in their first year under coach Deion Sanders? (Michael Ciaglo for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Will the Colorado Buffaloes find success in their first year under coach Deion Sanders? (Michael Ciaglo for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The game, chock full of storylines, has drawn enough attention to garner Fox’s traveling pregame show, "Big Noon Kickoff," and the Big 12 commissioner, Brett Yormark, who will be in attendance.

The reigning national runner-up Horned Frogs meet Coach Prime and his Buffaloes for an afternoon kickoff where temperatures are expected to reach 100 degrees. The most inspiring turnaround story of the 2022 season meets the most hyped offseason story of 2023.

Brash and bold, Sanders spent much of the offseason unapologetically flipping Colorado’s roster while at the center of viral video clips that rankled some. The wide-brimmed cowboy hat, the dark glasses, the nickname, the cocksure attitude, the unorthodox ways.

For others, Sanders and his social media and marketing team are providing a refreshing approach, lifting the veil on the coaching industry’s obsession with secrecy. There is a method to this flashy madness though: acquiring talent.

He brought in more than 40 new players in a plan he foreshadowed during his first team meeting. In a speech in which his video team documented and eventually publicized to the masses, Sanders told some Colorado players that they should enter the transfer portal because, “I’m bringing my own luggage with me and it’s Louis [Vuitton], OK?”

The Buffaloes are somewhat of an enigma, an unpredictable hodgepodge of talent from various other leagues and levels, all melted together in Coach Prime’s pot. They enter Saturday’s game as 21-point underdogs.

Don’t tell that to Sanders. In typical fashion, he’s bursting with confidence. During an interview last week to also discuss his new partnership with California Almonds, the coach described his specialists as “unbelievable,” his skill players as “really fast and fluid” and his linemen as having “size” and being “nasty.”

“I can’t wait to play and get it on,” he said.

An offseason of talk has arrived here — to the opening act of Sanders’ coaching career at the highest level of college football. The highest level? He chortles from the other end of the line. Football is football no matter the level. Enough with all of this level stuff, he snaps.

“I don’t know if you know it,” he said, “but we played in a Super Bowl or two.”

The latter of those, Super Bowl XXX, came in 1996 while he played for Dallas’ hometown team. Roughly a decade later, Sanders began his coaching career, schooling youths in the Dallas area as part of his Truth Football Organization. Hart recalls one of their first tryout sessions at Cotton Bowl Stadium when he stood amazed as more than 800 kids arrived.

Even at the elementary level, Sanders could attract talent.

He served as head coach at two Dallas-area high schools: Prime Prep Academy, which he founded, and Triple-A Academy, before he coordinated the offense at Trinity Christian. Hart, a native of Dallas, coached with him along the way as an assistant at the first two stops and as head coach at Trinity.

It was the beginning of what the country saw Sanders do for two years at Jackson State and now today at Colorado, says Hart: mentoring under-privileged, inner-city Black young men.

The adjustment from Dallas to Jackson was one thing. The move from Jackson to Boulder? That’s been another.

“We went from one of the blackest cities in the world to one of the whitest,” Hart said. “When you enter something that's the polar opposite, there is a culture shock and a getting used to how things are done.”

Why take on such a challenge?

“We thought there was an issue with coaches in some schools relating to Black players,” said Hart, who is Black. “Our ‘why’ is sometimes much bigger than other ethnicities. Some of these kids are trying to save their own families through sports. They carry the weight of their neighborhoods. Sometimes that weight leads to people acting out in passion.

“We know how to deal with that,” he continued. “A lot of the kids we brought in at all those schools were rejected kids. We took these kids and brought them back together. A lot of people say, ‘They just get all the talent!’ Well, a lot of these kids were deemed talented, but thrown away because they acted out.”

Sanders says his “relatability” to college football players is one of his greatest gifts and advantages. “I come from where most of them come from,” he said. “I’ve been where most of them are trying to go.”

He’s been the highly touted prospect whom coaches wanted. He’s been the parent of the highly touted prospect whom coaches wanted. He’s now the coach who is recruiting them both — prospect and parent. “And,” the Hall of Famer adds with a chuckle, “I’ve got a durn gold jacket that I didn’t buy.”

The return to Dallas-Fort Worth brings the memories flooding back. Sanders adores this area. He returns frequently to visit his 100-acre ranch near Canton, Texas, about 60 miles east of downtown Dallas. “Any time I get a break,” he said, “I’m down there fishing.”

Country Prime Ranch is equipped with a lavish spread of amenities. The main residence is in the style of an Italian Villa. There are two guesthouses, two lakes, a fully equipped gym, theater, football field, spa and all of the ranch equipment one could need — multiple four-wheelers and pickup trucks.

“It’s his version of paradise,” said Schwartz-Morini.

Sanders’ health issues have made his life on the ranch a bit less active. In all, he’s undergone nine surgeries on his left leg as a result of complications with hereditary blood clots. In 2021, doctors amputated his left big toe and second toe.

Circulation issues have lingered, and he walks with a limp. At one point, doctors feared that they’d need to amputate his leg below the knee. That’s no longer the case.

He underwent the latest surgery about a month ago, one expected to return full circulation to his foot. He is planning to shed a walking boot this week and hopes to slip on a pair of specially made Nike shoes for the game Saturday.

Sanders’ motivation goes beyond the game. He wants to restart a tradition with son Shedeur, his quarterback. Since Shedeur was young, the two carried out a pregame jog along the sideline together. The two used to jog the sideline before every game.

“It used to be a jog. Now he’s hoping it’s at least a walk,” Schwartz-Morini said.

Colorado coach Deion Sanders hits the field before the start of the spring game at Folsom Field. (Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports)
Colorado coach Deion Sanders hits the field before the start of the spring game at Folsom Field. (Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports)

Wouldn’t it be something — father and son stalking the sideline ahead of their first Power Five game? The fact that it will unfold at TCU’s Amon G. Carter Stadium is a dash of irony.

Sanders made the final cut to four in the job hunt to replace Patterson in November 2021, joining then-SMU coach Dykes, then-Louisiana coach Billy Napier and then-Clemson assistant Tony Elliott. All four participated in final interviews during Thanksgiving week of that year, sources with knowledge of the search told Yahoo Sports.

Hart recalls Sanders interviewing for the gig. He thought at that point, “If they do [hire him] and let us come home, we will change Texas,” he said. “The connections we have there. All the players would have come to us. Recruiting would have been bananas.”

Donati declined to release sensitive information about his search, but he did discuss his time with Sanders.

“He was on the short list of names that it came down to. It was an incredibly refreshing and impressive interview,” the athletic director said. “He had some clippy one-liners. One had something to do with graveyards, backyards, stockyards, and it had me doubled over. He’s got a tremendous personality.”

Sanders lauds Donati for his eventual hiring of Dykes, a man who took the Horned Frogs to the national championship game in Year 1. It was a great decision and Dykes did wonders last year, Sanders said. “I’m a fan of his.”

“God has a way of doing things,” Sanders said. “He closes doors so you can get to another one.”

On Saturday, amid the Texas heat and in his own backyard, Sanders makes his long-awaited debut as a Power Five head coach. And maybe — just maybe — he’ll show those at TCU that they made the wrong decision.

“It’s come full circle,” Hart said. “It’s surreal.”