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Behind the Scenes of Deion Sanders’s Groundbreaking First Days at Colorado

An excerpt from an upcoming book on Coach Prime details his final year at Jackson State and the spotlight that followed him to a Power 5 program.

Adapted from the book COACH PRIME: Deion Sanders and the Making of Men by Jean-Jacques Taylor. Copyright © 2023 by Jean-Jacques Taylor. From Mariner Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.

The news broke on Nov. 26, 2022, during a segment on Fox Sports’ Big Noon Kickoff: Colorado had offered Deion Sanders its head coaching position. “At Colorado, where they’re desperate to pump some life into this program, CU has offered Deion Sanders of Jackson State the job,” Bruce Feldman told Fox host Mike Hill, “and I’m told he has legitimate interest in becoming the Buffs’ next head coach.

“He’s 22–2 the last two years, but he hasn’t really gotten much buy-in from Power 5 jobs and vacancies. I’m told if he can go there—the people at CU are optimistic—he would make this program nationally relevant for the first time in a long, long time.”

Coach Prime had spent the entire season being transparent about his potential interest in a Power 5 job, and his name had been linked to multiple jobs for several weeks, so getting an offer wasn’t surprising.

The news, however, was a problem. His Jackson State team was preparing for the SWAC Championship Game the following week, and now he had to maneuver through a massive distraction no matter how hard he tried to snuff it out. He couldn’t control this story or the narrative that accompanied it.

In his world, Coach Prime always has control because he’s rich, powerful, and an iconic athlete and brand. Coach Prime is involved in every football decision. Travel. Helmets. Uniforms. Practice gear. Coaches’ attire. Championship rings. Facility upgrades. Grass. Turf. Nutrition. Everything.

“Anything that involves football, I’m in it,” he said. “If it has anything to do with the football program, it has to cross this desk. Anything.”

Why? That requires a story.

The year: 1989. The site: RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C. The opponent: Sanders’s Atlanta Falcons against Washington.

From the Atlanta 34, Sanders had man coverage against Art Monk. The defensive play required him to play about eight yards off the line of scrimmage because the Falcons were blitzing. “I looked in backfield, and he stutter-stepped and ran right by me. Touchdown. I didn’t even look back. I just ran off the field,” Coach Prime said. “My coach said, ‘What happened?’ He beat me. Don’t worry, it won’t happen again.

“From then on, I bumped. Bumped. You gonna get me, you gonna get me my way. You’re not gonna get me your way. You got me when I’m backed off, looking in the backfield. I can’t give you credit for that. You got me, but I can’t give you credit. I threw a shutout. They didn’t catch another ball.

“If this program ain’t gonna succeed, it’s going to be my way.”

Deion Sanders after his last game with Jackson State.

Sanders led Jackson State to a 27–6 record and two SWAC titles in three seasons at the helm.

As more nuggets about Colorado’s offer trickled out during the week, including the $5 million annual salary, Coach Prime seemingly leaned toward taking the job. Reports surfaced that some players in the transfer portal had been told to wait a few days before making a final decision while Coach Prime made back-channel calls about potential staff members.

The rumors also started a social media firestorm. All sorts of folks weighed in on whether he should stay at JSU or leave.

Critics questioned his loyalty to JSU, which had given him an opportunity to coach, and whether he really supported HBCUs. Some questioned his faith, and others said they were disappointed that he chased more money.

“Why is everyone so concerned with how my life fits in with theirs,” he said rhetorically. “Sooner or later, you should ask yourself, what’s best for him? Why does my life have to fit in with your happiness?”

By the time Coach Prime walked into Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium at 12:42 p.m. on Saturday, everyone knew the SWAC showdown against Southern University would be his last game as JSU’s football coach. News broke late Friday night that Coach Prime was expected to become the 28th head coach at the University of Colorado.

With Coach Prime expected to leave, how well would JSU play?

The answer came quickly: A tackle-breaking, crowd-energizing 35-yard catch-and-run by Shane Hooks on JSU’s first possession set up a 22-yard field goal, and by halftime the Tigers led 33–10. Late interceptions by Cam’Ron Silmon-Craig and Delano Salgado clinched a 43–24 win, JSU’s second straight SWAC Championship and a trip to the Celebration Bowl in two weeks.

As the game ended, the players poured onto the field with the kind of joy on their faces that can’t be faked. Coach Prime headed to the corner of the end zone, so he could acknowledge the band while it played “Jackson Fair,” the school song. He had his girlfriend, Tracey [Edmonds], to his left and his son Shedeur to his right. His arms were wrapped around each of their shoulders. While Tracey and Shedeur beamed at the crowd, Coach Prime had a faraway look in his eyes. He couldn’t enjoy the moment because a private jet was scheduled to depart at 10 p.m. and take him to Colorado.

The quest for perfection ended with another disappointing finish. Jackson State lost the Celebration to North Carolina Central, 41–34. A national championship had eluded Coach Prime for the second consecutive season.

It was time for players, coaches—everyone—to deal with reality. Or the finality. Either way, life as they knew it had changed.

A couple of hours after the loss, the 2022 Jackson State football team scattered.

Coach Prime, Shedeur, and Shilo and several members of the coaching staff headed to Boulder to officially start their new lives at the University of Colorado.

T.C. Taylor, JSU’s offensive coordinator and now its new head coach, and the bulk of the team took the 80-minute flight home to Jackson, where the players and coaches contemplated their choices. For some, like linebacker Nyles Gaddy and receiver Rico Powers, who were poised to move into high-profile starting roles, it made sense for them to stay at Jackson State. Others, who had been drawn to the cameras and Coach Prime, figured it was better to leave because football at Jackson State just wouldn’t be the same. Another group of players were undecided.

Tight end Hayden Hagler spent the night in Atlanta, replaying the worst moment of his athletic career: the potential touchdown pass he dropped in overtime in the Celebration Bowl. “I knew I was coming back. I couldn’t leave like that,” he said. “I’ve caught that ball a million times in practice. I don’t remember dropping that ball one time all year.”

“I was down on myself, but I’ve been through much worse times,” he said. “I needed to go into that hotel room and hug the people I love. I knew I had overcome worse.”

Hayden Hagler after a catch for Jackson State.

JSU united behind Hagler after a dropped pass in overtime of the Celebration Bowl.

Hagler refused to let a dropped pass define him. He didn’t hide from it or the disappointment. He used that mistake to fuel his offseason workouts, which began alone at a park until he felt comfortable enough to work out on campus with the fellas again. In the locker room after the loss, Coach Prime had gathered his team around him.

“We accomplished some tremendous things,” he said. “Yes, we fell short. Yes, we did. We had some wonderful young men who graduated. They did not fall short. We had some wonderful young men who earned accolades. They did not fall short. We had some wonderful men in here that made changes in their lives that no one even knows about. They didn’t fall short.

“So let’s not blame one man for falling short because you don’t know what he’s come through.”

One last time, Coach Prime wanted the players to hear how much they meant to him. “We love each and every one of you in this locker room. Yes, we chastise you. Yes, we punish you sometimes,” he said. “Yes, we discipline you sometimes. We’re just trying to prepare you for life.”

At Colorado in his new role as head coach, Coach Prime’s mission remained what it had been at Jackson State: Turn boys into men and win football games, and ultimately, championships.

He quickly switched his mindset from Jackson State to the challenge at Colorado because he’s a man who controls his emotions. He takes pride in that, in fact. A quote from Coach Prime on his office wall says, “My emotions ain’t qualified to make a decision, but I am.” This is the same man who has often said, “I never love anything that can’t love me back.”

His job at JSU certainly fell under that category. While he would miss the players and support staff—they could love him—it was easy for him to move on from the job. Besides, Colorado demanded his entire focus.

The only way he could do it was to surround himself with a staff loyal to him, so he brought most of his JSU crew with him. It made sense considering the Tigers went 23–3 in his last two seasons. On the Colorado side, Coach Prime only kept staff members committed to change because, clearly, in his mind whatever had taken place before he arrived had failed dramatically.

“Trust is everything,” he said. “You try to build a collection of people you trust. Some people we have to get out of this building because I don’t trust them. They were here before us and they’re not with our movement, so I don’t trust them.”

Could the support staff he didn’t trust ever earn it?

“No, because they’re not built like that. They’re not built for where we’re going,” he said. “They may be built for where we are, but not where we’re going.”

With him to Colorado, Coach Prime took defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman, linebackers coach Andre’ Hart, secondary coach Kevin Mathis and defensive ends coach Trevor Reilly. Thurman was moved to director of quality control, which meant he helped the defensive staff wherever it needed him. Reilly coached special teams.

Offensive coordinator Brett Bartolone, running backs coach Gary Harrell, tight ends coach Tim Brewster and special assistant Michael Pollock joined him from the offensive staff. So did offensive line coach Mike Markuson, but he lasted only a few weeks as an analyst. He resigned, and Gunnar White replaced him.

Coach Prime hired Mo Sims as strength coach. Graduate assistants Rashad Davis, Anthony Balancier and Andrew Zimmer also joined him in Boulder. Trainer Lauren Askevold came with Coach Prime, as did student trainers Darshena Marion and Asia Lamkin. He also brought recruiting assistant Alexys Ellis and personal assistant Tysha Stewart, who planned most of his team events, whether it was a recruiting weekend or a summer block party.

Coach Prime’s sister, Tracie, was named assistant to the head coach, and Craig Campanozzi was named director of sports video. Of course, Ray Forsett was named chief of staff. He even took his security team of Evis Mcgee and Michael Rhodes with him.

Then there were the players. His sons, Shedeur and Shilo, naturally followed Coach Prime to Colorado, along with receiver/cornerback Travis Hunter, defensive end Jeremiah Brown, safety Cam’Ron Silmon-Craig, receiver Willie Gaines, cornerback Tayvion Beasley, kicker Alejandro Mata and long snapper Jacob Politte.

Shedeur Sanders playing for Jackson State.

In two seasons with the Tigers, Shedeur Sanders threw for nearly 7,000 yards with 70 touchdowns.

Changing the team culture toward a winning one would be a process, Coach Prime predicted—no harder or easier than he expected.

“Nothing is a surprise. Everything I thought it would be, it is,” he said. “That means there’s a lot of work to do.”

He used the offseason workouts in January 2023 to evaluate the roster. He demanded the players practice at a faster pace and forced them to work harder than they believed they could. He created excitement in the community by signing a recruiting class that was ranked 21st overall in February ’23.

It was highlighted by Cormani McClain, a five-star cornerback he flipped from Miami. Coach Prime flipped four-star running back Dylan Edwards from Notre Dame and four-star receiver Omarion Miller from Nebraska. He also signed four-star receiver Adam Hopkins.

Colorado easily signed the No. 1 transfer class in college football. The excitement created from the players he signed and the transfers expected to arrive before the 2023 season is why Colorado’s spring game drew 47,277—the most ever at the school. The game was televised on ESPN, and 551,000 people watched it, the second-most-watched spring game since ’16. Season tickets sold out in April. It marked the first time since 1996 that Colorado had sold out season tickets.

Coach Prime created space for the new players he was adding through the transfer portal by cutting some players. Others left because they recognized they didn’t have a future on the team.

The players who were cut had the option to keep their scholarships and remain students. A couple of weeks after the spring game, Colorado had a staggering number of players in the transfer portal, including Beasley, which created a controversy. Observers wondered what it meant that so many players were abandoning the program that Coach Prime was leading. When the transfer portal closed on April 30, Colorado had 56 players enter the portal, the most in college football. Ole Miss had 33, Texas A&M and Oregon had 31, and Arizona State rounded out the top five with 30. Most of the players in the portal had small roles, if any, for Colorado in 2022.

“I’m looking for players who can compete for starting jobs at Georgia and Alabama. I want guys who can compete at Ohio State because those are the teams consistently playing for the national championship,” Sanders said. “That’s the level we want to be on. Those are the types of players we’re adding.”

Back at JSU, Taylor, four months after he took the job, still didn’t have new office furniture. In fact, the wall behind his desk still had all of Coach Prime’s quotes painted on it.

“You know how the administration is,” he told me. “It’ll get done sooner or later.”

T.C. Taylor coaching Jackson State.

After serving as Deion Sanders’s offensive coordinator, Taylor took over the Jackson State program. 

The bigger issue Taylor faced was maintaining the program’s momentum. Otis Riddley moved from player personnel director to assistant head coach/tight ends, and Brandon Morton moved from grad assistant to running backs coach. Defensive tackles coach Jeff Weeks left JSU in February 2023 to coach high school football in Texas, and special teams coach Alan Ricard joined the University of Alabama at Birmingham in the same capacity. Several other key players who had been seduced by the bright lights, cameras and Instagram fame created by the environment Coach Prime fostered left JSU because they didn’t like the environment without it. Or they wanted NIL money that didn’t exist. Or they wanted to play at a higher level.

It felt, for better or worse, like the Coach Prime chapter had closed, and there would be little evidence he’d ever been at Jackson State in a couple of years. Their spring game, with Coach Prime as head coach, was televised on ESPN in 2022 and had more than 41,000 people in attendance. In ’23, without Coach Prime, only about 1,000 people attended the spring game.

Thunderstorms had been expected on game day, which school officials said kept some fans at home.

Coach Prime believes football teaches young men so many things about how to live. The game, if they let it, he says, teaches them self-discipline and the value of hard work. It teaches them how to weaponize adversity and overcome it. It teaches the difference between pain and injury and how to create mental and physical toughness.

The game teaches how to handle disappointment and failure as well as success and victory.

Even though JSU lost its last game, Coach Prime gave his players, coaches and support staff a game plan to win in life. They simply needed to execute it.

On the day he graduated with a degree in professional interdisciplinary studies, Hagler proposed to his girlfriend of four years, Ashley Patin. He was ready to start his own family before beginning a career as a coach, where he could shape the lives of young men just like Coach Prime.