The transfer portal era has turned college football upside down, with more than 1,000 players currently seeking a new home, and the pros and cons of this new wave of player freedom are hotly debated. But incoming University of Colorado coach Deion Sanders, a disruptive marketing machine and one of the sport’s all-time self-promoters, has leveraged this changed landscape as well as anyone.
“It benefits coaches who are personable,” Washington State deputy athletic director Ike Ukaegbu said in a phone interview. “During the short transfer portal windows, recruits are trying to gauge whether they will have a personal connection with the (head) coach and whether they will fit within their culture. Charismatic and energetic coaches have a better chance of giving recruits who are in the transfer portal a glimpse of their culture and leadership style.”
Sanders’ charisma and energy have bolstered the Pro Football Hall of Famer’s self-reinvention as a college coach at Jackson State over the past three years. He turned around a moribund team, in part by making use of his star power and recruiting skills in the transfer portal. That skill is already showing some results in Boulder, where former No. 1 recruit and Jackson State star Travis Hunter may join Sanders’ own sons, Shedeur (a record-setting quarterback) and Shilo (a safety), in transferring from JSU to the Buffaloes. Sanders has also used the portal in the opposite direction, frankly encouraging 2022 CU players to move on to other programs.
The transfer portal has allowed programs to attract talent more readily, especially after the NCAA Division I Council eliminated the limit of 25 scholarships per recruiting class in football for the next two academic years, creating more flexibility for FBS teams that only need to stay under their 85-scholarship limit. The previous years of the portal have worked against Power Five schools with dormant programs, such as Colorado, that have lost talented players to teams with better NIL opportunities.
The Buffaloes have summoned Sanders to rejuvenate their once-esteemed football squad into a national contender again. The two-time Super Bowl winner heads to Boulder after a successful three-year run in Jackson, Miss., where he posted a 23-3 record and brought exposure to both the rich traditions and glaring disparities of Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
Colorado poached Sanders by offering the most lucrative package it has ever given to a head football coach. The university’s Board of Regents approved the reported five-year, $29.5 million contract without having the money ready. The board is betting the “Prime effect” will drive enough alumni donations, ticket sales and sponsorships to justify the gamble, which includes allocating a $5 million salary pool for Sanders’ support staff.
Sanders’ coaching style is to put on a show, which takes money. That’s fine with Jim Packer, an entertainment exec who’s a Colorado alumnus and a committed football donor. Packer, now the president of worldwide television distribution for the motion picture studio LionsGate, compared the Sanders hire to his company’s acquisition of the Hunger Games trilogy. “That excitement that I felt for our [Hunger Games] franchise is the same excitement that I’m feeling for my alma mater. You must understand where we were,” Packer said, adding that CU football has gone overnight from “not being in the conversation at all to being in it in a significant way.”
Sanders’ predecessor Karl Dorrell, who got an $8.7 million buyout as part of his termination, lost more than 20 players to the portal, many of whom were recruited by Mel Tucker, who coached one season in Boulder before bolting to Michigan State in 2020. Dorrell watched his top players exit before his ultimate demise amid an 0-5 start this past season. The school has since launched its Buffs4Life NIL collective, but Dorrell won’t see how the collective can improve the roster. Sanders will.
The NIL push and Sanders’ promotional skills won’t be confined to the transfer portal. Four-star high-school running back Dylan Edwards flipped his commitment from Notre Dame to Colorado two weeks ago. Four-star wide receiver Adam Hopkins is among the players the Buffs landed during college football’s national signing day on Wednesday.
“It must be the money,” Chad Brown, former Colorado star linebacker and NFL Hall of Fame hopeful, said in a phone interview. “A guy who was about that as a player is going to be about that as a coach. He’s going after recruits who aren’t coming to campus for the prime tradition of the Colorado Buffaloes but those who want to show out so that they can get paid … It’s a whole different ball game.”
Sanders’ relationship with SMAC Entertainment is also noteworthy, since it provides another resource in the age of NIL. The agency, which represents Sanders and other former NFL stars including Tony Gonzalez, helped procure deals for Jackson State players and partnered with Amazon to distribute a docuseries on Sanders’ final season as coach. Sanders also has a media deal with Barstool Sports, the popular-but-controversial culture-focused media brand that recently featured him checking out local eateries in Boulder.
Colorado’s president emeritus, Mark Kennedy, believes the transfer portal era boosts the role of a high-profile head coach and rewards those who can create excitement. “We hope coach Sanders elevates the program and gets people excited and [secures] quality recruits and finds success a little bit quicker in the era of the transfer portal,” Kennedy said in a phone interview.
Sanders didn’t waste any time informing the world of his plans to use the portal, beginning with Shedeur, who secured NIL deals from Beats by Dre, Gatorade and BRADY Brand while in Mississippi. “I’m bringing my luggage with me, and it’s Louis [Vuitton],” he said.
Sanders is also bringing his own baggage. Despite his accomplishments at the HBCU level, Sanders comes to Colorado without any Power Five coaching experience. He also has scars from his now-defunct Prime Prep Academy, a sports-centered high school that closed its doors in 2015 amid financial insolvency and academic scandals.
But the CU leadership believes his ability to attract high-level recruits in a challenging environment, where many elite players are seeking both NFL exposure and NIL-related opportunities, minimizes other deficiencies.
Colorado, ranked No. 42 among all public institutions by U.S. News & World Report, has been known as difficult school to transfer into because of its academic requirements. Chancellor Phil DiStefano said at the recent introduction presser he will look to ease transfer restrictions to help Sanders make his pitch.
“College football programs have to get people excited now,” Packer said. “You must get fans, student athletes and those who go to the school excited. All of that has been done with this one move.”
(This article has been updated with a new photo illustration and information about CU’s recruiting on national signing day.)