Editor's note: A version of this column first was published by USA TODAY on Sept. 19, 2023. The Arizona Republic is presenting it as part of the walk-up to Colorado's game at Arizona State this Saturday.
The simplest, most informative way to think about how America is experiencing Deion Sanders in this remarkable start to his career at Colorado is that he is unquestionably the most famous person to ever coach college football.
That might seem obvious. But fame is one of those phenomena where the degrees of fame actually matter a lot. Nick Saban, for instance, is famous in a way that he'd be recognized instantly by any fan of college football and perhaps by a majority of people who watch sports generally (he seemed to experience this in Italy over the summer, where he thought he could go incognito until he realized that football fans take overseas summer vacations too).
But Sanders’ fame exists on an entirely different level from anyone else because he has been part of mainstream popular culture for 35 years in ways that penetrated outside his career as a pro athlete. You were watching him do Pizza Hut, Pepsi and Nike commercials in the early 1990s. He was in rap videos. He’s hosted a Miss USA pageant. He was the star of his first reality show in 2008. In one way or another, he's been in our lives for a very long time.
Based solely on that star power, maybe we should have expected some of the numbers we're seeing Colorado football generate.
ESPN said Colorado’s double-overtime win over Colorado State peaked at 11.1 million viewers, a truly remarkable number considering that the game kicked off after 10 p.m. on the East Coast, a time slot where network execs would typically be doing cartwheels to draw a couple million.
And this wasn’t even Texas-Alabama, which did well the week before but not as well as Colorado-Colorado State. The Deion brand might, in fact, be bigger than the sport itself.
But why? The answer is because of Deion’s most quintessentially American quality.
Though perhaps this was clear to some when he was a multi-sport athlete, a pitch man and a television personality, it has become glaring in his more culturally complicated position as a college football coach: Sanders’ fame was constructed in a way that allows everyone to see what they want to see.
That's not a criticism; it's an integral part of his genius. And it's working on a wide swath of the country to penetrate racial, political and generational lines in a way that hardly anything does nowadays.
A recent headline on Axios declared that Sanders was “making Colorado ‘Black America’s team,’ ” citing increased television viewership in Black households and the star power from the sports and entertainment world that is flocking to Boulder for games.
Meanwhile, Danté Stewart, an author and commentator, posted on the social media site X (formerly Twitter) that “generational hatred…of confident, defiant and joyful black people” is fueling a massive backlash to Colorado football.
And yet there was Coach Prime, the star of “60 Minutes” – maybe the most establishment hour of television in America – with his segment generating nearly 2 million views on YouTube as of Tuesday following the broadcast. The segment with the show’s other big get, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, had 192,000 views.
Even the typically right-leaning sports Web sites that will culture war anything they deem “woke,” especially if it comes from a Black athlete, coach or journalist, have gotten on the Coach Prime bandwagon. Their audience can’t get enough of him either.
How does Sanders get away with that in a time and in a country where everything, including sports, feels polarizing?
A huge part of it, I suspect, is that Sanders has managed to maintain decades of cultural ubiquity without revealing much more about himself than what is necessary to fuel the Prime persona. At this point, we're all in on the joke. And the blank spaces he leaves in between allow for Sanders to be whatever else you want him to be.
The only other sports star in American life who has pulled off anything close to this while having such a constant and aggressive public persona is Charles Barkley. And yet Barkley is far more willing to share his worldview and even offend at times than Sanders, whose bombast is more WWE and whose opinions on anything of substance are pretty much a mystery.
People may roll their eyes at certain things about his swagger or style. They may dislike some things about how he left Jackson State or how he arrived at Colorado and immediately told the bad players to get lost so he could bring in better ones, which by the way is something coaches have been doing forever.
But Sanders generally operates in a world of such broad strokes that the ideological stereotypes we tend to apply to people in his position kind of deflect off him.
He’s appealing to Evangelical Christians because he's been probably most revealing in his personal life about finding his faith after contemplating suicide as a younger man. He taps into old school sensibilities when he says, like he did this spring, that Colorado players weren’t going to be given jersey numbers until they earned them because that’s how he grew up. And when he alludes to being "a confident Black man, sitting up here talking his talk and walking his walk, coaching 75% African-Americans in the locker room" as threatening to the establishment, he appeals to a large group of people — both Black and white — who know that many Black coaches haven’t been given fair opportunities to succeed.
But you'll never really get much beyond that from Sanders because, and he probably understands this as well as anyone, it is precisely because he’s Deion Sanders that his success isn’t going to change the trajectory for Black coaches any more than his three years at Jackson State transformed HBCU football.
He’s one of one. Nobody else can do what he does.
It is natural to look at the way Sanders has taken college football by storm — a sport where the majority of players are Black but the most influential coaches have been overwhelmingly white — and make certain assumptions about his role as a change agent. And his affiliation with Jackson State, brief as it was, connects him to a large portion of Black fans and HBCU graduates in a unique way.
But Sanders also deftly, and probably intentionally, offers the kind of persona that is the opposite of threatening or uncomfortable. Since we don’t know much about what he actually believes in besides himself, he can be the symbol for whatever worldview you want to apply to him.
Consider this: We actually know more about Saban’s politics than Sanders’ — and the former once claimed in 2016 that he missed election day because he was too busy to pay attention. That's not a criticism. Whether he is apolitical or simply private about what he thinks America should look like is completely his business.
But just as an example, Sanders got a little bit of backlash in 2017 when he partnered with the Koch Brothers, some of the most influential donors in Republican politics, on an anti-poverty charity in Texas.
“You're talking about a family that has one desire: to make this country a better place," Sanders said.
One wonders how that quote would land now with a huge swath of his new fan base – not just from the Black community but in an overwhelmingly liberal college town like Boulder — given the Kochs’ political priorities, the programs they’ve funded and associations they've had.
The thing is, Sanders doesn't really need to ever talk about that because he’s always filling the void with something much more exciting.
After the Colorado State game, for instance, the big star of the Prime Show was his mother Connie. During the week, Colorado State coach Jay Norvell seemed to take a shot at Sanders when he said: "When I talk to grown-ups, I take my hat and my glasses off. That's what my mother taught me.”
So it was a pitch perfect way to end his locker room speech — of course broadcast to the world — when he handed the microphone to his mother with The Rock nodding along in the background, and she delivered the line with perfect timing: "I raised him right!”
It was hilarious, but it was also kind of stunning: In decades of watching Sanders, had you ever seen him bring his mother in front of the camera before? At that moment, though, she was the perfect character to bring into the story.
But it was also a well-timed reminder of why he’s breaking through all of these typical barriers and why he just works as a personality. For a guy we've enjoyed having in our lives for decades, we’ll never actually know much about Deion Sanders besides what works to the benefit of Coach Prime. And that's probably the way most of us would prefer it.
This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Colorado's Deion Sanders is the most famous college football coach ever