Wilner Hotline: Colorado hires Deion Sanders: A spectacular move by the Buffaloes, for better or worse

Arizona Sports News online

For the vast majority of the past 20 years, Colorado languished on the outskirts of the college football solar system, like one of those asteroids drifting through the Kuiper Belt beyond Pluto.

That all changed Saturday evening, when the Buffaloes hired Deion Luwynn Sanders Sr. and were instantly transformed into one of the brightest objects in the night sky — one guaranteed to transfix the sport.

“Coach Prime,” as Sanders is known, has taken over a program desperate for prime time.

And that makes perfect sense, for this fascinating, unconventional, astonishing hire is rooted in desperation.

They were the worst team in the Power Five this season.

They have churned through head coaches like nobody else in the Pac-12, leaving behind a demoralized fan base, barren roster and anguished administration.

It all led to Sanders, 55, who played football at the highest level — he is arguably the greatest cornerback in history — but has coached a grand total of 32 games, all of them in the FCS with Jackson State.

This is a spectacular hire in every sense, folks: The “Coach Prime” experiment could flourish or flop, but it will be absolutely riveting to watch.

After so many years in the wilderness, the Buffaloes are now the object of our gaze.

Thoughts on the hire …

— It’s a blowout victory for the Pac-12 at large, immediately elevating the profile of a struggling program and making the conference more interesting by a factor of 37.

Sanders is a sports celebrity and athletic icon who happens to be an inexperienced but promising football coach.

Everything he does and says will be a story, creating light where a black hole existed.

Recall that last spring, ESPN chose to broadcast live from only one spring game, USC’s late-April scrimmage, because of the hype surrounding the arrival of coach Lincoln Riley and quarterback Caleb Williams.

Don’t be surprised if something similar happens in Boulder a few months from now. And if not the spring game itself, other CU football events will generate immeasurably more interest than they have across the eons.

Anytime a low-level program becomes a source of national interest, the collective benefits.

That it’s happening at this moment in time, with USC and UCLA about to depart and the Pac-12 staring at an uncertain future, only benefits the conference.

And if Sanders actually wins at a high level in the next few years … oh, boy.

Bottom line: There has never been a Pac-12 hire like this.

— The responsibility for bringing Sanders on board, for better or worse, falls entirely on Colorado athletic director Rick George, who also hired Mel Tucker and Karl Dorrell in recent years.

(The former was moving in the right direction before Tucker abruptly left for Michigan State; the latter began in positive fashion, then unraveled completely.)

George met Sanders years ago, when they both lived in Dallas — George as an executive with the Rangers, Sanders after his playing career.

In most respects, Sanders seems like a poor fit for Colorado, for Boulder, even for the Pac-12, which generally leans into boring, low-key hires.

But the power of Sanders’ fame and personality — and the manner in which he connects with players — is light years beyond fit.

Colorado chancellor Phil DiStefano and university system president Todd Saliman didn’t agree to the move without understanding the contortions necessary to make it work.

Everything has changed for Colorado — the football program, the athletic department and the university.

— One crucial element is the transfer portal.

As both Arizona and USC have shown, to varying degrees, the portal can expedite rebuilding. A process that once took new coaches three or four years now takes one or two with the right influx of talent.

Sanders didn’t take the job expecting to toil for multiple seasons. He expects to use the transfer portal to fuel an instant turnaround.

And yet that plan seemingly collides with Colorado’s institutional approach to transfer credits from other schools, which has limited the football program’s ability to mine the portal for help.

However, DiStefano revealed Saturday that the school is adjusting its policy on credit hours with a “pilot program.”

If it works as Sanders expects, look for the Buffaloes to fare well in the portal over the next few weeks.

If there are obstacles, then internal frustration and friction could develop.

— Sanders will upgrade the roster immediately — of that, we have zero doubt.

His success at Jackson State (27-5 over three years), his name recognition and his connections throughout the Southeastern quadrant of the country will produce immediate recruiting wins.

But what about the actual, um, coaching?

Will Sanders hire coordinators or assistants with Power Five experience?

Will the Buffaloes play with an identity on offense and defense, or morph by the month based on the talent available at any given moment?

It’s impossible to know how Sanders’ success at Jackson State will translate to the Pac-12.

— Another area of interest: NCAA compliance.

Our guess is that Sanders and his staff have little regard for many of the arcane, outdated and nonsensical rules that govern the sport.

After all, Sanders himself played for Florida State — or “Free Shoes U” as Steve Spurrier once quipped — during a time when NCAA hypocrisy was first gaining traction.

The scrutiny will be greater at Colorado than Jackson State.

Arizona State’s transgressions under Herm Edwards — another coach dropped into the Pac-12 from an alternate universe — should serve as a warning.

— How long will Sanders last in Boulder? Probably not more than three or four years.

If it doesn’t work out, he’ll step down.

If it works out, he’ll leave for a bigger, more lucrative job.

And that’s just fine, because the Buffaloes aren’t taking a long-haul view.

They are lunging for instant relevance on the field, an immediate connection with fans and recruits, and traction within the conference.

If Sanders thrives and leaves in a few years, the Buffaloes will be exponentially better off than they are now.

If he flops, they will have lost no ground.

The risk-reward calculation is heavily in CU’s favor.

In some respects, the Sanders hire has already served its purpose.

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