Why the Leadership Style of Deion Sanders Is Working for Colorado Football

Why the Leadership Style of Deion Sanders Is Working for Colorado Football

  • Deion Sanders has been praised and criticized for his leadership style at the University of Colorado.
  • He sees nothing wrong with his scorched-earth policy: “I think truth is good for kids.” 
  • A big pet peeve of his is when athletes say “my bad.” 

For most people, coaching a team that went 1-11 last year would be a daunting challenge.

For Coach Prime, it’s a normal day at work.

Three weeks into the college football season, the University of Colorado Buffaloes are putting on a clinic in domination, including a double-overtime thriller, handily beating rival Nebraska, and notching a win against nationally ranked TCU.

Their new head coach, Deion Sanders, has been praised and criticized for his leadership style, especially after cleaning house immediately upon arriving from Jackson State. He famously told dozens of Buffaloes to “jump in the [transfer] portal” during his early days in Colorado, to make way for his handpicked replacements. More than 50 transferred out, and others — including his son Shedeur and highly recruited two-way phenom Travis Hunter — were brought in.

He’s unapologetic about the whole ordeal. “You take a team that’s won one game, and you fire the whole coaching staff. So, who did the coaching staff recruit? The kids. So the kids are just as much to blame as the coaching staff and I came to the conclusion that a multitude of them couldn’t help us get to where we wanted to go,” he said during a recent 60 Minutes interview.

Sanders saw nothing wrong with his scorched-earth policy, perhaps rightfully so. “I think truth is good for kids. We’re so busy lyin’, we don’t even recognize the truth no more in– in society. We want everybody to feel good. That’s not– that’s not the way life is. Now, it is my job to make sure I have what we need to win. That makes a lot of people feel good,” he told CBS’s Jon Wertheim.

Whether or not the Buffaloes continue to rack up the wins (their remaining schedule includes top-10-ranked national powerhouses Oregon and USC), Sanders’s coaching and leadership style will be hotly debated for seasons to come.

“I make a difference,” he said during the 60 Minutes interview, when asked if he’s “the ultimate change agent.”

Sanders’s leadership style — which, along with the requisite intense physical training, has a dose of brutal honesty and not much humility (he asked for a mirror when quizzed on the best college football coach) — is getting results, and has invigorated a campus while driving the national conversation. Granted, he’s not the first college football coach to be in the news every week (hi, Nick Saban).

“I make folks nervous. I get folks moving in their seat. I get folks twiddling their thumbs. I get them thinking and second-guessing themself.”

Here are four lessons CEOs should take from Sanders, whose credentials include the NFL Hall of Fame, two Super Bowl Championships, and stint in MLB that included a World Series appearance.

Don’t sugar coat

“I’m not going to lie to you,” Sanders told People magazine earlier this month. At his previous coaching gig at Jackson State, as well as at the University of Colorado, some have criticized his brutal honesty, like when he said only his son Shadeur and Travis Hunter had guaranteed starting positions.

Head coach Deion Sanders of the Colorado Buffaloes celebrates with quarterback Shedeur Sanders #2 after a fourth quarter touchdown against the Colorado State Rams at Folsom Field on September 16, 2023 in Boulder, Colorado

Head coach Deion Sanders and his son Shedeur.

Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

I don’t care. My team knows me, with social media I’m talking to the country but I’m really addressing my team. So, I’m telling my team there are only two starters here, everyone else is going to have to work…The coaches think that. I’m just the one who isn’t scared to say what I feel,” he told Complex.

Sanders is keenly aware of his job as a coach, leader, and mentor. “They are leaving home for the first time and a big guy hasn’t gotten that attention that he is receiving now because he has people at him left and right. I’ve got to teach him not only the game of football, I have to teach him the game of life. So I’ve got to bring in experts, that’s what we are doing, bringing in experts to teach them the game of life, because that’s the game they play everyday, not football.”

Be authentic

There’s general agreement that with Sanders, what you see is what you get. “It’s that he’s a Black football coach who doesn’t code switch, who is himself all of the time,” David Ubben of “The Athletic” told NPR. He “does all those things and is unapologetically Black in all spaces.”

Of course, Ubben pointed out Sanders has latitude. The university president and athletic director “allowed him to have full autonomy to do these things that a lot of presidents and athletic directors would have cringed at in terms of how he flipped his roster and to be himself,”

But Sanders knows his methods work. “I don’t have to trick or treat when it’s not October. I’m just simply who I am and have shown consistency throughout the years. You’re not just recruiting that young man, or young woman, to your program, you’re recruiting their parents as well, the community leaders,” he told Complex.

“We don’t have the resources to compete with the dormitories and things that big universities feature on campus, but if a mother sees that if she sends me a boy, I’m going to try my darnedest to send her back a man that has discipline and has been prepared for life with character,” he added.

Lean into accountability

One of Coach Prime’s biggest pet peeves is when athletes say “my bad.”

“I can’t stand that — ‘my bad.’ I know it’s your bad,” he said earlier this summer. “Coaches hate that. Parents hate that. Don’t say it’s my bad because we know it’s your bad.”

His preference? “Shut up and just do it over. Ain’t no ‘my bad.’ Just shut up and do better.”

Show your team you believe in their full potential

While Sanders’s own athletic career is storied — he’s considered by many to be the greatest NFL cornerback ever, and he is the only person to play in both a Super Bowl and World Series — his biggest impact may be off the field with what he’s done for HBCUs while head coach of Jackson State University.

HBCU football programs are often “overlooked and underfunded,” as Sanders put it and the Ringer noted that Black college football had more been known for its “a high-stepping marching band and a blowout loss.”

But the “Coach Prime experience has produced something remarkable: an HBCU team playing to its fullest potential in front of huge crowds in games that are nationally relevant, the Ringer wrote. “For the first 20 years of this century, it seemed that elite football prospects had stopped going to HBCUs. Then along came Deion Sanders.”

But it’s not just Jackson State, but HBCUs, overall. “Oftentimes we settle for less because we don’t know any better, we settle for this because we have never been there to see that. I just hope that I can provoke that change so that we can identify what we are and who we have,” he told Complex.