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Prime Time

It may have been after 2 a.m. Eastern Time in what turned into early Sunday morning last weekend, but it was very much still Prime Time. That’s especially true for ESPN, which had over nine million people tuned in for a late-night college football game, the most in the history of that time slot. That game was Colorado/Colorado State, a game that in previous years would have barely registered with fans and would have been found in the nether channels of streaming purgatory. But not this year, now that new Colorado head coach Deon Sanders has taken over and brought his brand of showtime to the Rockies. Sanders came to Boulder after three years at Jackson State, where he lifted an otherwise downtrodden I-AA program to a 12-1 record in his final season. Sanders also brought a whole bunch of new players to Boulder as well, including two of his sons, one who is now the team’s star quarterback.

Of course, what made Deon Sanders such a big story and worthy of nine million viewers on a Saturday night wasn’t his winning record at Jackson State. And it wasn’t even his surprising 2-0 record going into the game, including an opening win over then ranked TCU. It’s the confluence of bravado and star power he brought to an otherwise hippie college town that had fallen far from relevance in the top heavy landscape of big time college football. Sanders brought his Prime Time persona to the job and served as a magnet for anyone with a camera or a microphone, a break through story in the often staid landscape of conservative coach speak. All just to get a closer look at the man who wears sunglasses to every indoor press conference, glasses now selling like hotcakes online. It’s also why Colorado’s sideline Saturday night felt more like courtside at a Lakers game, with everyone from The Rock to Lil Wayne wanting in on the action. And even though Saturday’s game wasn’t expected to be close, some name calling by Colorado State’s head coach during the week heightened the drama. Not for nothing, Colorado won in double overtime in a game that was just was unnecessarily violent as it was dramatic.

All of this means a few things. First, Sanders – who I still remember as Neon Deon from his Miami playing days – is already the most polarizing figure in college sports, a place that Nick Saban held for seemingly decades. People weren’t just watching Saturday night’s game. They were actively rooting for or against teams they probably knew nothing about, other than the brash coach for one team and the coach of the other team that called him out. It’s the kind of character polarization we’d expect to see in professional wrestling more than college football. Second, if you thought that college football wasn’t going to change in the world where players can easily move schools and earn money off their name, image, and likeness, and colleges change conferences on a dime to chase TV dollars, you are officially proven wrong. The Colorado team of 2023 couldn’t have happened 10, or even five years ago, and Coach Deon Sanders is a far more effective operator today than he would have been before. Perhaps better put, love him or hate him, Deon Sanders may be exactly the kind of coach that wins in the current genesis of the sport.

But maybe the bigger question is, can college football handle this – or perhaps the universities that oversee it. Make no mistake, Deon Sanders, behind the glasses and celebrities and bravado, is an unapologetic professional. He speaks in language of money, opportunity, promotion, winning, and selling – the same things you’d hear in an NBA front office. Colorado Football isn’t an NCAA product. It’s a Hollywood production. And Sanders is the director, leading a squad of stars who understand why they’re there. And if this experiment works out, and it just might, expect a whole lot of other college AD’s to take notice and adjust accordingly. Which means any last pretense that big time college football is some kind of co-curricular activity for college students is as dated as dressing up for classes. Make no mistake, this is a new model – and likely inevitable. How that plays out is still anybody’s guess.

Of course, Sanders could get blown out in the next two games against Oregon and USC, and things might die down, at least for a little while. Even so, I think Prime Time is coming soon.

Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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