Whether you like him or loathe him, nobody can debate the fact that the most intriguing narrative in college football right now is about Coach Prime and his University of Colorado program. And there really isn't a close second.
Every weekend there are games and then there are storylines, and what Deion Sanders is doing goes beyond any single game to become the national storyline.
It's no coincidence that one of the most bankable athletes of the 1990s has been the coach who is thriving in college football's new era of the NCAA transfer portal and NIL deals. Coach Prime was a brand influencer before we knew what that meant 30 years ago.
As one of the greatest two-sport athletes ever, there was Deion Sanders and then there was the Prime Time persona that helped cash in on his on-field success — he won two Super Bowl titles and played in a World Series — becoming a national pitchman for Nike, American Express and Wheaties among others, plus hosting "Saturday Night Live," appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated five times and even having his own video game.
Prime has high-stepped and hailed himself into being a national conversation topic for decades, so the glaring spotlight he's working under now is nothing new.
It's why, at a time when only vampires and parents of newborns would normally be awake — the game ended around 2:30 a.m. Eastern on Sunday — Colorado's matchup versus Colorado State drew 9.3 million viewers last weekend. That's roughly 8 million more than watched the last time those teams played one another in 2019, and it also marked the second straight weekend the Buffaloes drew the largest viewership of any college football game. Their home opener against Nebraska drew 10.3 million viewers which was even more than watched the Texas-Alabama game played, ironically, in prime time.
There are certainly detractors lining up and waiting for Colorado to be humbled in Pac-12 play over the next two weeks against top-10 foes Oregon and Southern California — teams with much more established rosters of talent — but using those two matchups solely as fuel against Coach Prime would be short-sighted.
To look at the broader picture is to understand we're witnessing a cultural movement that stretches beyond just on-field X's and O's and is something that comes along only every so often. Anyone who pays attention to what's being said by the younger generation across social media — particularly Black teens — will suddenly have flashbacks of significant sports moments such as the Fab Five in college basketball or Ken Griffey Jr. in Major League Baseball back in the early 1990s.
When five outspoken freshmen showed up at the University Michigan together, they were ridiculed by adults but adored and imitated by an entire generation of kids. Seemingly overnight, everything from their baggy shorts to the music they endorsed became trendy.
Likewise, when Griffey began wearing his cap backward during batting practice, thousands of young players began emulating him on the diamond.
Since he was named Colorado's coach, it has become increasingly impossible to scroll through any social media or even television channels and not see Prime's face or hear his voice, or at least hear someone else talking about what he's doing at Colorado.
The trickle-down effect has affected merchandise and will certainly alter the recruiting landscape.
According to college sports business reporter Pete Nakos, the Nebraska game brought in an estimated $18 million to the city of Boulder. Earlier this week, Allison Hartel, assistant director of marketing at the University of Colorado, told me: "I've worked at this university for 24 years, and I've never seen anything like the excitement we have now. We are sold out of all sorts of merchandise.
"Anything with the CU logo and of course Coach Prime printed on it is selling like crazy. I don't have the figures to compare to last year, but I can tell you there's noticeably more sales. Like a lot more."
So while middle-aged pundits gripe, the people whose opinions actually matters when it comes to changing the complexion of a program — high school athletes with four and five stars next to their names as college recruits — are paying close attention and admitting there's something appealing happening.
Among the visitors for last week's game were Bradley Central's Boo Carter and former Brainerd star Martels Carter Jr., a four-star athlete now playing at Kentucky's Paducah Tilghman High School.
"It was a very different vibe than anywhere else I've visited, and I loved it," Martels said. "You could just feel it. Sort of like a big family reunion. It was epic, and it's a movement already.
"It was basically a rap concert in the locker room after the game. Coach Prime brings that swag to coaching with the sunglasses and his whole style. The only other person who has drip like that as a coach, as far as what he wears and how he acts, is (Ole Miss coach) Lane Kiffin.
"He's winning without a loaded roster right now, so imagine what he'll do once they get the type players (he wants). I know guys are going to want to play for him because he'll let you be yourself unapologetically."
Coach Prime has also stayed in contact with Bradley Central defensive back Marcus Goree (who, like his teammate Boo Carter, is committed to Tennessee) and former Red Bank four-star athlete Daune Morris, who has rushed for 11 touchdowns in five games since transferring to Murfreesboro's Oakland.
"I heard someone say it's like the BET awards on their sideline because of all the entertainers and athletes on the sideline, so I can't wait to experience it," said Morris, who will attend Colorado's game against Southern Cal in two weeks. "Some people don't understand his approach, but he connects with guys who grew up without having much because that's how he came up.
"From my perspective, more than any other coach, when he started recruiting me it let me know that I'm a dawg, because that's who he wants on the field. We see what he's done, and it's like you believe if you listen to him, he can help get you to that point, too. To me he's a good coach and a good role model."
There is no middle ground when it comes to Coach Prime. You either love and embrace what he's about or you despise it, but the one thing that's impossible to do is to ignore it. And at a time when every teenage athlete understands the importance of self-marketing, playing for a mentor who originated that idea will become impossible to ignore, too.
"The old-school college football model is dead now," said Baylor School coach Erik Kimrey, who worked as an assistant at the University of South Carolina for one season. "Like it or not, money and production talks, and Deion has that figured out.
"But there's more going on than the glitz and glamour. There's a core message and a lot of good coaching, and I think those four- and five-star kids are noticing. If he ever lands at an SEC school, watch out!"
Contact Stephen Hargis at [email protected].