Jackson State University head football coach Deion “Coach Prime” Sanders drove his golf cart past new Tigers offensive lineman Tyler Brown.
“We’re gonna call you Roc,” Sanders told him one day last summer.
The 6-foot-3, 320-pound Brown wasn’t going to argue with his head coach, who just happens to be a Pro Football Hall of Famer and one of the most dynamic personalities in sports.
“I looked at him and I said, ‘Yes, sir,’ and it stuck,” Brown said. “I love it.”
Eventually, Brown learned the origin of the nickname. Sanders thought Brown looked like Charles S. Dutton, who starred in the 1990s sitcom, “Roc.”
“When Prime meets you and you look like somebody, that’s your name,” said C. Daryl Neely, a JSU alum and supporter who produces Thee Pregame Show on YouTube and works as a special assistant to Coach Prime.
That’s why the Tigers this season had linemen named Roc and Levert (named after late R&B singer Gerald Levert) and a kicker named Squiggy (from a character on “Laverne & Shirley”), among a host of other nicknames.
It’s one of the quirks and endearing qualities of a program directed by Coach Prime.
“Oh, it’s going to be a team full of nicknames at Colorado,” Neely said with a laugh.
Prime Time in Boulder
Sanders completed his three-season run at Jackson State on Dec. 17 in the Celebration Bowl but now takes on the task of rebuilding the Colorado Buffaloes. Following a dismal 1-11 season, the Buffs hired Sanders on Dec. 4 to become the 28th full-time head coach in program history.
The 55-year-old Sanders is best known for his brilliant playing career, along with his flashy and brash personality. He did, after all, create the “Prime Time” persona that has stuck with him for more than three decades.
In addition to his Hall of Fame football career, he played a decade in Major League Baseball, cementing his spot as one of the most remarkable all-around athletes in history.
If there was a Hall of Fame for confidence, he’d be a charter member.
“That’s my natural odor. I don’t even wear cologne. That’s confidence I’m wearing,” he said during his introductory press conference three weeks ago.
In hiring Coach Prime, Colorado knows it’s getting a celebrity with swagger and the ability to make a significant impact on a program that’s been irrelevant for two decades.
The Prime Effect has already seen CU shatter program records for season ticket requests and merchandise sales. CU’s social media platforms have exploded with thousands of new followers since he was hired.
CU is also getting head coach who knows the game, creates nicknames, inspires players and staffers and has plenty of substance to back up his style.
“Because of the substance, it creates the style,” said Duane Lewis, Jackson State’s associate athletic director for public relations and sports media. “Without (the substance), the style is hollow.”
While the world knows Prime Time or Coach Prime, those at Jackson State were significantly impacted by a down-to-earth, God-fearing man who vacuums his own office carpet every morning, loves breakfast and truly cares about the young men and women in his program.
“He’s a country boy,” said Brown, who announced earlier this week that he’s transferring to CU. “He loves fishing, loves being out and having his own space. He’s very humble and he’s very down to earth. That’s what a lot of people don’t know. I’ve loved getting to know Coach Prime the person over the guy who’s seen on TV.”
Touching lives at JSU
Sanders admits he knew very little about Jackson, the capital city of Mississippi, before getting the opportunity to coach the Tigers. Once at Jackson State, however, he was all-in, making his mark on players, coaches and anyone else involved with the program.
“He’s impacted me, like, 100%,” said Darshena Marion, a JSU junior and one of the Tigers’ student athletic trainers. “He’s the reason why I chose to stay at Jackson State. … He is my motivation to keep doing what I want to do because he put that in me.”
Marion, who grew up in Chicago, didn’t care about Sanders’ fame when she joined the Tigers’ program.
“I really wanted to know, who was Coach Prime. Like, who is this man coming in?” she said.
She quickly learned that Sanders doesn’t just throw out catch phrases; he lives by them and wants those around him to live by them, too.
During Sanders’ first season, in the spring of 2021, he came up with the mantra, “I believe.” In his second, that fall, he challenged the program with, “What’s your purpose?” Marion bought in to the messages and what Sanders has taught her individually, as well.
“Wow, I’ve learned a lot,” she said. “Coming in as a freshman, very immature, not knowing much, but he tightened me up real quick. He made me grow. He made me believe in myself.
“He taught me to be myself. He’s always himself, no matter where he is, who’s around. He’s gonna always be Coach Prime. He taught me to always be Darshena. He said, ‘You’re Darshena and no one can change that.’”
JSU junior Asia Lamkin works with Marion. She grew up playing sports in McComb, Miss., before joining the training staff at JSU. Sanders has taught Lamkin about professional opportunities in the training business and she smiled when expressing the confidence she’s gained at JSU as her graduation draws closer.
“I don’t know what my experience would have been (without Sanders at JSU),” Lamkin said. “I don’t know if my life would have been affected as much if I wasn’t on this team. I don’t know if my mental would have been at its capacity.”
Being in Sanders’ program is rewarding, but it’s also a lot of work.
“He’s a perfectionist,” said Marquas Wallace, a student and football equipment manager at JSU. “He wants a lot, but I’ve loved it the whole time. I’d do anything for him. It’s just been amazing working with him and the things he’s done while he’s been here.”
Wallace was on active duty in the United States Army for seven years before enrolling at Jackson State, so he was used to a structured and disciplined lifestyle. Sanders has added to that and challenged Wallace in new ways.
“He put me in charge (of equipment) my first semester, so I was kind of shocked by that,” said Wallace, who is nearing graduation. “I didn’t know what I was doing, but I learned. It helped me a lot, man. I learned a lot, I’ve done a lot and I just appreciate everything I’ve learned from him.”
Willis Patrick thought he knew all about Coach Prime before he came to Jackson State earlier this year. JSU’s starting right tackle this season, Patrick grew up in Grand Prairie, Texas, in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, where Sanders founded a youth sports program, Truth.
“I knew everything about Coach Prime,” Patrick said. “He’s one of the greatest of all time, so I knew everything about him.
“Everybody wanted to play for Truth. Everybody wanted to play for Prime. Everybody. And his team was the best.”
Patrick didn’t play for Truth, however, and after high school he went to Angelo State, where he excelled on the offensive line from 2018-21. When he put his name into the transfer portal last winter, he didn’t want to go to Jackson State, instead hoping for a Power Five offer.
Within a couple days of going into the portal, Patrick was pursued by JSU, connected with several coaches and finally got a chance to play for Coach Prime. And, he quickly embraced the family culture created by Sanders.
“We pray in the morning before the team meeting,” Patrick said. “Then he speaks to us and really feeds into our life. That’s the first thing we do in our team meetings every morning. It’s not surprising (JSU has a family atmosphere) when your coach or your leader is that type of guy. He’s really a people person. He’s about his business, but he looks out for us first.”
Brown, who earned first-team All-SWAC and third-team FCS All-American honors this season, didn’t truly realize Sanders’ impact until early this season. Brown struggled with performance anxiety, feeling the pressure of playing for a Hall of Fame coach. A perfectionist, Brown would focus on every little mistake he made and felt panic the night before games. It impacted his play and Sanders noticed.
“Coach Prime called me in to meet with him,” Brown said. “He’s like, ‘You’re OK. … Roc, you gotta remember the good stuff, too. You have to put good things in your mind.’ We did that every single week (the last 11 weeks of the season). Every Thursday I’d meet with him and get to talk with him. It was like a therapy session really. It was everything I needed to help me.
“I was embarrassed from what I was going through, but him accepting me for me and taking the time to talk to me every single week and make sure Roc was OK, that’s what helped me to be able to become a first-team player and All-American. … He’s one of my favorite people. That, to me, was the highlight of my season when he told me, ‘It’s OK, Roc, I love you for you. You’re great as you.’ For him to say that and do that, that meant everything to me.”
Sanders won at Florida State, won two Super Bowls in the NFL, played in a World Series with the Atlanta Braves, enjoyed a successful broadcasting career and has led JSU to back-to-back SWAC titles. He’s not shy in saying the Buffaloes will win, too, under his watch. Competition fuels Sanders, but so does the opportunity to impact the lives of people around him.
When the Tigers got to Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta on Dec. 16 for their last practice ahead of the Celebration Bowl, Sanders and his staff walked among the players as they stretched. As they usually do, they talked to the players, made eye contact and, most importantly, made physical contact, such as a quick touch of a shoulder or a pat on the back.
“If you read the thought process of a physical touch on another human being, it’s phenomenal,” Sanders said. “Those are the things that I study and I try to pass it on and make sure that we’re maximizing all our moments with these young men.”
The physical touch is enhanced by the fact that people have bought into a message that Sanders backs up through his actions.
“It’s not just you playing for the star,” said Zach Breaux, the Tigers’ starting center this year. “You’re playing for a great coach, somebody that’s really trying to instill values and work ethic in a young man.”
Yeah, the flash and extreme confidence is on display with Sanders, but his foundation is deeper than that.
“The media portrays him as a flashy guy, but man, (he’s got) a blue collar work ethic,” Breaux said. “He ain’t about the glitz and glam. He wants everybody to look the same. He wants everything to be done the same way at all times. And he’s a decency and order guy. … That’s his thing: consistency.”
Numerous players and support staffers praise Sanders’ consistency and that attribute has made an impact on many.
“He makes me want to be a better man ultimately, because of the way he carries himself,” JSU running back Sy’veon Wilkerson said. “He’s truly a man that handles his business on and off the field no matter what it is. … He makes you want to be consistent and it’s actually helped me throughout this entire year be more consistent in my daily life; not just football, but my everyday life.”
Lewis, who previously worked for a decade in the NFL, grew up watching Sanders as a player and said Sanders is successful as a coach because his approach hasn’t changed in over 30 years.
“What gets overlooked and misunderstood about him the most is two things: his consistency and his discipline,” Lewis said. “Because he’s consistent, he’s disciplined. The discipline creates consistency that also leads to the great performance that we’ve seen as a player, as a brand, as a business man, now into collegiate coaching and as a father.”
Deion vs. Prime
One of the remarkably consistent attributes Sanders has is the ability to be Deion when he needs to be and Prime when the lights are on.
“Both (sides to Sanders) are confident,” Lewis said. “I think that’s in the family crest in terms of confidence, but Deion cares about the people, cares about the kids, wants to help people to get to the next level in life, whatever it is for them.
“Prime is an entertainer. He’s a marketer, he’s a brand, he’s an influencer. He’s confident and it’s outward. It’s all the things that are inside of us, but he lets it out with the flair, with the style. He is his own person. He is his own brand. But he is who he is in a way that only he can do.”
Being Sanders means that he will bring swagger to Colorado and he’s going to be in front of cameras — a lot — talking about lofty goals for the Buffaloes. But, being Sanders also means he’s going to make the Buffs work for those wins.
Coach Prime demands the best out of his athletic trainers, equipment staff and coaches. And he demands a lot from his players.
“Get ready to work,” Brown said when asked what he would tell Colorado’s players. “He’s very gracious and he takes care of us but he expects something in return. If you’re not giving him anything, you’re gonna have a rough time. If you’re willing to work and go the extra distance, put in the extra time, put in the extra film to be better, he’s gonna bless you.
“(The Buffs) are gonna be just so grateful and thankful that he’s there because he’s gonna work you hard and he’s gonna love you harder. He’s gonna make sure you’re OK, but he’s gonna work you. That’s what I love about Coach Prime is every day is work.”
Prime’s next chapter
Those who have put in the work at Jackson State have felt blessed to have Sanders leading them. And, they’re all eager to see what he does at Colorado.
“It’s gonna be something historic,” Wilkerson said. “Same way it was historic at Jackson.”
Leading an historic run at Jackson State provided Sanders the opportunity at Colorado, but his move to CU has been polarizing. He’s been criticized nationally for leaving an HBCU (historically Black colleges and universities) school and conference for a PWI (predominantly white institution).
Those who have played or worked for him, however, expressed excitement for Sanders’ opportunity to move up in his coaching career, while also being grateful for the long-lasting impact he’s made on them.
“We’re nothing but happy for him because he’s done so much for us,” Brown said. “There’s so much that Coach Prime has done for us that people don’t know and that’s what makes me so upset when they badmouth him and say all these terrible things. He’s done a lot. … He’s going to do amazing things at Colorado.”
Jackson State won’t be the same without Coach Prime, although the Tigers are confident in new head coach TC Taylor, who Sanders publicly endorsed to be his successor. While the program will be different, those touched by Coach Prime expressed gratitude as he moves on to a new challenge.
“All I can do is congratulate him and appreciate everything he has done here because he already set everything in motion here,” Marion said. “It’s time for him to go and build a dream somewhere else so they can continue to build this path. I’m happy that he’s able to go inspire someone else.”