BOULDER, Colo. — Rick George was trying to focus on the task at hand, but he had pressing issues back home.
The Colorado athletic director was sitting in a second-floor conference room at the Gaylord Texan in Grapevine, Texas, fulfilling his duties as one of 13 members of the College Football Playoff committee, piecing together the final Top 25 and helping slot bowl matchups for the New Year’s Six.
But 400 miles east, Deion Sanders was putting the finishing touches on his second consecutive Southwestern Athletic Conference title with the Jackson State Tigers. Sanders had called the Colorado athletic director earlier that week with a simple message: “I’m comin’.”
That alleviated some of George’s anxiety around his high-profile, two-months-long search for a head coach. One truth about coaching searches, and Sanders especially, remained.
“You never know if he’s coming until he’s actually coming,” George said.
Two months earlier, Colorado’s early season trip to Arizona had gone awry. The Buffaloes were 0-5, and those losses came by an average of 29 points while dropping coach Karl Dorrell to 4-13 in his past season and a half running the program.
“This program has flat-lined. There wasn’t even a heartbeat,” Jeremy Bloom, who starred for the program from 2002-06, told The Athletic. “As a former player, as an avid fan, it’s been sad to watch this thing.”
George’s choice was obvious: He had to make a change. A program with 26 conference titles now was mostly uncompetitive in the Pac-12. Dorrell was out. The coaching search was on, but it was only October.
“It gives you anxiety for two months versus two weeks,” George said.
Immediately, Sanders was a candidate. But the Buffs weren’t alone. A year earlier, Sanders interviewed with TCU before it hired Sonny Dykes as Gary Patterson’s successor. This fall, South Florida and Georgia Tech had also shown interest and for good reason.
Sanders was in the midst of a 23-3 run in the final two of his three seasons at Jackson State, including a 16-0 record in SWAC play. Most importantly, he recruited an astounding roster at an FCS program that ranked 67th nationally in 247Sports’ Talent Composite, higher than five Power 5 programs and more than 60 spots higher than any other FCS program.
The Tigers hadn’t enjoyed a season with fewer than two losses since 1996 and since then, had won the SWAC just once. Sanders did it twice in two seasons, and only two of their 16 conference wins came by single digits.
They’d become Sanders’ favorite word: dominant.
He’d done more than just win.
He’d shocked an entire sport by flipping Travis Hunter, the top-ranked recruit in the class of 2022, from Sanders’ alma mater Florida State on signing day. In the fall, “College Gameday” arrived in Jackson, too. The program had never seen anything like it. Sanders was doing impossible things as a first-time college head coach.
“He was somebody I had in mind from the start. He had the ‘60 Minutes’ special. Reading and seeing some things he had done, he had the energy that we were looking for, the ability to recruit. He’s got strong morals, and the person he was, I felt he would be a really good fit here, even though a lot of people would say, ‘Is that a good fit?’” George said. “From a football perspective, we were looking for someone dynamic that can relate to 18- to 23-year-olds and has the passion to recruit and to mold young men. I felt like he had all those things.”
Added Bloom: “I was convinced that he was the only guy in the country who could re-energize this program.”
The day George fired Dorrell, Bloom called George. During the Sanders-centric conversation, George asked: Do you know him?
Bloom didn’t, but he knew people who did. He immediately called retired NFL receiver Steve Smith, who had known Sanders during their playing days. Both worked for the NFL Network after retiring.
Bloom asked Smith to place a call to Sanders on his behalf, encouraging him to meet with George. He wasn’t making the case for Colorado, but pleading with Smith to help Bloom, a former alum who loved the university and wanted the Buffs to thrive again, at least make a connection.
“I knew if I could help Rick get a meeting, Rick could close it,” Bloom said. “I thought Rick George is a secret weapon, and I knew that if Deion felt compelled to take that meeting, not just as a courtesy call but a legitimate opportunity, I thought he had a chance.”
Bloom hung up with Smith and called Brandon Marshall, a retired NFL receiver to whom Sanders had also grown close. Then he called Shawne Merriman, the former linebacker. Then Myron Rolle, a former college star and friend of Sanders.
All four agreed to reach out to Sanders on Colorado’s behalf and vouch for Bloom and George.
“Four guys I knew that Deion really respected,” Bloom said. “So within an hour, he got four texts and four phone calls.”
It worked, and George and Sanders connected on the phone.
George was realistic about the job he was shopping. His football team was struggling to an ugly 1-11 season. The Buffaloes had just two winning seasons since 2005, and one came during the COVID-shortened 2020 season.
“Everything’s not wonderful,” George said. “We haven’t had a lot of success here. There’s a lot of reasons not to come, so it was really important to me to talk about the reasons to come, and I was very honest, the good and the bad.”
They started getting to know each other, strangers feeling one another out. They talked about their families and children, their shared faith, morals and values.
And eventually, George made the case for Sanders to make Boulder his new home.
He told Sanders about his days working in recruiting and administration under Bill McCartney during the program’s proudest era when it captured the 1990 national title and its run of four top-five finishes in eight seasons, with four more top-20 finishes during that run from 1989-96 under McCartney and Rick Neuheisel.
They talked about what it’s like in Boulder when the once-proud football program is flourishing and what it might be like if the program rose to relevance once more. George walked Sanders through the school’s academics and academic support, picturesque backdrop among the Rocky Mountains and most importantly, its institutional alignment among George, chancellor Philip P. DiStefano, president Todd Saliman and the university’s board of regents.
“We’re going to provide the resources the coach needs to be successful,” George told Sanders.
Sanders had questions, most notably what the school planned to do to make it easier for incoming transfers to be admitted to the university.
“We talked through that,” George said. “We felt like we were a sleeping giant. We have all the elements in place and what we needed was leadership at the highest level in our football program.”
Sanders had one other concern: It’s cold in Boulder. And there’s a reason he had made his home in Dallas and then taken a coaching job in Mississippi. George couldn’t do much about the climate, but their first conversation was productive. Sanders was interested. How much? George wasn’t sure. But they agreed to continue the conversation at a later date, ideally in person.
For the weeks that followed, George sporadically texted Sanders — by design. Sometimes he’d hear back immediately. Sometimes, his texts would be left without a response.
“His focus was always on Jackson State and what they were doing,” George said.
One snow day, George texted Sanders a photo of snow-covered Folsom Field from his office overlooking the stadium. He then texted him a photo that afternoon of the same field cleared of snow.
“I told you it was gonna melt off,” George texted. “That’s what it does here.”
He and Sanders shared a laugh as Jackson State continued to pile up wins. After the Tigers’ regular season ended with a 24-13 win over Alcorn State, George and Sanders set up a meeting. George flew solo to Sanders’ 5,000-square-foot home in Canton, Miss., about 20 miles outside of Jackson. For about two hours, they resumed the conversation they’d had on the phone.
Sanders made the case for what he could do in recruiting and how he would assemble his staff. After taking the job, Sanders brought Kent State head coach Sean Lewis aboard as his offensive coordinator and Alabama associate defensive coordinator and safeties coach Charles Kelly as his defensive coordinator. Sanders and Alabama coach Nick Saban have struck up a friendship in recent years, and that friendship was unshaken by Saban baselessly alleging last summer that Sanders landed Hunter at Jackson State thanks to an NIL deal worth seven figures.
The opening scene of “Coach Prime,” the reality series chronicling Jackson State’s 2022 season on, fittingly, Amazon Prime, features Sanders and Saban meeting on the set of their joint AFLAC commercial, their first meeting since Saban’s allegations.
“I knew what he was trying to say, what he was trying to accomplish. And you can’t judge a man by the thought process of the moment,” Sanders says in the show as the makeup artist touches up the color underneath his eyes. “So we’re not going to let a moment dictate how I feel about that man.”
Their meeting was roughly two months after Saban’s comments.
“When I said what I said, my point was, ‘Is this what we want this to be?’” Saban tells Sanders as the cameras zoom in on him in his trailer. “Because that’s what it’s turned into now.”
Sanders, however, recruited his roster to Jackson State without the backing of a deep-pocketed collective, and with George sitting in his home, Sanders laid out his vision that was similar to what he’d done in Jackson. Sanders refers to it as his 40-40-20 model.
That’s a roster made up of 40 percent graduate transfers, 40 percent undergraduate transfers and 20 percent high school signees.
“There’s a lot to him. And having met with him and spent the time I did with him on one occasion, I said, ‘Man, this guy is special. And I believe that today,’” George said. “I would say I’m a pretty detailed guy and he was more detailed than I was.”
George left Mississippi believing Colorado had a good opportunity to land its man, but it was impossible to read Sanders’ mind. Was he angling for more leverage at Jackson State? Was he using Colorado as leverage for another job? George didn’t think so, but he’d undergone enough coaching searches and heard enough stories of searches to sprinkle in plenty of skittishness amid his confidence as he boarded the plane back to Boulder.
“I felt like we were in a good spot,” George said, “but you never relax until it’s done.”
On Nov. 26, Sanders had an offer from Colorado. Later that week, Sanders called George.
“I’m comin,’” he said.
After Jackson State beat Southern 43-24 to win a second consecutive SWAC title on Dec. 3, Sanders canceled postgame media availability and called his team into the meeting room to break the news. He was leaving for Colorado.
His son, Deion Sanders Jr., chronicled the meeting for his YouTube channel.
“In coaching, you either get elevated or terminated. Ain’t no other way,” Sanders told his team.
He explained he was taking another job but would be staying with the team through the Celebration Bowl and discouraged players from reflexively jumping into the transfer portal. He also recommended tight ends and receivers coach T.C. Taylor, a former Jackson State player, to succeed him as the head coach before he opened the floor for his players. (Taylor was promoted to head coach last month.)
Then Sanders boarded a plane to Boulder. Colorado announced the hire just before 10 p.m., introducing him as coach at a news conference Sunday.
AD Rick George has named COACH PRIME @DeionSanders to be the 28th full-time head football coach at CU.
Welcome Coach Prime to Colorado!
— Colorado Buffaloes Football (@CUBuffsFootball) December 4, 2022
“We’re going to be good,” Sanders told an audience of media, alums, boosters and university leadership. “We’re really going to be good.”
He also introduced his son, Shedeur Sanders, as Colorado’s new quarterback before later mentioning he would have to “earn it.”
After the news conference, Bloom finally introduced himself to Sanders. He explained what he did behind the scenes and the two shared a laugh.
“He goes, ‘Wait a second — you set up all those calls? You’re the reason I’m here? You’re the guy pulling the puppet strings? I had no idea Colorado had that kinda clout,’” Bloom said.
Sanders was officially on the job.
“He’s everything I thought he’d be,” George said. “I think this certainly is the coach that can lead us to a championship game in our conference and nationally. In time.”
On his first full day as coach, he received a commitment from Winston Watkins Jr., a five-star receiver in the class of 2025.
After his introduction, he met with his team, and once again, Deion Jr. chronicled it.
That video earned more than 4 million views.
“I’m bringing my luggage with me. And it’s Louis,” Sanders said, noting he already had taken care of a few positions.
Sanders wasn’t bluffing. Eight Jackson State players (so far) have transferred to Colorado, highlighted by Shedeur Sanders and Hunter.
Controversially, his plan also included not honoring the commitments of players Sanders didn’t want as part of the program’s future.
He flipped four-star running back Dylan Edwards from Notre Dame a week after taking the job, giving Colorado its first four-star signee since 2020. He added two more four-star high school signees and so far has the nation’s No. 3 transfer recruiting class, helping the Buffs’ 2023 class ascend into the top 25.
Colorado’s four-year average recruiting ranking had been 51.75.
“I don’t think the fan base and this institution have ever been this energized,” Bloom said. “The portal is an absolute game changer for a guy like Deion.”
The first order of “Coach Prime” gear at Colorado’s team store – around 500 items available only in store – sold out in less than a week. Another order – this one three to four times as large – was slated to arrive after Christmas.
As Sanders started building his program at a new location, it’s clear he’s doing things his way. SMAC Entertainment, his self-contained PR arm that also produces his reality show, operates independently of Colorado. All his interview requests go through SMAC and not the school, an unprecedented approach in the sport. Even the sport’s biggest coaching names, like Saban, Clemson’s Dabo Swinney or Georgia’s Kirby Smart, leave it to their schools to handle who gets access to them and when.
He’s already filming the newest season of his reality show that’s part of his recruiting pitch: Come to my program and get exposure and followers.
Season 1, which chronicled the 2021 season alongside Sanders’ struggles with blood clots in his leg that landed him in the hospital for 23 days and required the amputation of two of his toes, aired online at Barstool Sports and its YouTube channel. Amazon Prime purchased Season 2.
In the meantime, his son’s YouTube channel, “Well Off Media,” produces near-daily updates. Early on, those videos often included restaurant reviews as Sanders made his way around Boulder for his favorite meal: breakfast. At one of his first stops, Village Coffee Shop, he was pleased but docked them for not having grits on the menu. (They do now.)
Dru Libby, the manager of The Buff, saw the video and drove to a nearby store to purchase a large bag of grits at 6 a.m. the next day. Food Network has visited The Buff, and so have Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders on the campaign trail. She wanted to be prepared for another dignified guest.
“I kept it in the back of my mind, if he orders it, we’re going to learn real quick to make grits,” Libby said.
At 7:30 that morning, Sanders arrived with a group of four. The hostess ran to Libby’s office to notify her.
He ordered steak and eggs. And he was a good tipper.
“A number of people have come in and asked to take a photo with me, which is awkward and weird because I’m a nobody. People drive in from Denver, Aurora,” Libby said. “We have a lot of fans that work here and this season it was kind of like ‘womp womp.’ You want people excited. It’s good for the city. It’s good for local business.”
Elsewhere downtown, a blackboard sign outside Pasta Jay’s, which hosted a dinner during one of Colorado’s first recruiting weekends, reads “Welcome Prime Time!!!”
Ryan Henkel, who owns Village Coffee Shop with his wife Shana, points out the booth where Sanders sat after he arrived to eat on cornerbacks coach Kevin Mathis’ recommendation.
“I was a little starstruck. He’s actually here,” Henkel said.
In the meantime, Sanders has continued his chief task of rebuilding his team through the portal. He already convinced Hunter, the No. 1 overall recruit in the class of 2022, to follow him from Jackson to Boulder. He’s also collected players from Clemson, Florida, Arkansas, Kentucky, Arizona State and West Virginia.
“My expectation is we compete for and win championships in football. That’s where we need to get to. That was in the forefront of my mind. The person we hire has to get us to a championship. We have everything we need here,” George said. “We were just missing one piece.
“And that was Coach Prime.”
On Jan. 9, before Georgia eviscerated TCU in the CFP national championship game, Sanders met with Saban on the set of ESPN’s pregame show, offering yet more unprecedented exposure for Colorado’s program.
Once he made it to the field, his eyes scanned the palatial SoFi Stadium through brown-rimmed sunglasses, the bill of his hat tucked beneath his custom “Coach Prime” hoodie underneath a dark blazer. Over and over, he repeated the same four words.
“We gotta get here.”
— The Athletic’s Bruce Feldman contributed to this report.
(Illustration: Eamonn Dalton / The Athletic; photo: Paras Griffin / Getty Images)