Merton Hanks was a veteran starter for the San Francisco 49ers when Deion Sanders joined the team in 1994.
“Let’s make no mistake about it: we were already good,” Hanks said. “We were a Super Bowl-caliber team.”
Sanders made them better, helping to lift the 49ers to a victory in Super Bowl XXIX during his one season with the team.
“Deion pulled off two things,” Hanks told BuffZone in a recent interview. “He was humble, but he was transformative in his approach to the 49ers, because the 49ers at that time were very much stoic, very businesslike and Deion added more fun, more flair to that team and that’s what that team needed at the time.”
Now the executive associate commissioner of football operations for the Pac-12, Hanks believes Sanders can make a transformative impact on the University of Colorado, as well.
A Pro Football Hall of Famer and arguably the best cornerback in NFL history, Sanders was hired as CU’s head coach on Dec. 3, and Hanks is excited to have his friend and former teammate in the Pac-12.
“Quite frankly, I don’t see a downside. I think the upside is so massive,” Hanks said. “It’s the type of hire that lets the fan base know that the Buffaloes are not only an elite academic institution, but wants to position itself to be elite in all aspects of its athletic endeavors. That’s why you bring in a guy like Deion Sanders.”
Certainly, the 55-year-old Sanders isn’t the same guy as the 27-year-old who joined the 49ers in 1994, but there are characteristics he still carries today, Hanks said.
“What I’m seeing, quite frankly, is a more mature version of the person I worked closely with and remain great friends with,” Hanks said. “This guy will help elevate whatever he’s a part of, and I think not just the football team, not just the athletic department, but the community of Boulder.
“Just a tremendous, tremendous athlete and it’s clear that he’s translated that drive, that commitment to be the very best into his coaching endeavor.”
Sanders joined a 49ers team that had five other future Hall of Famers, including Jerry Rice, Steve Young and Bryant Young. There were a lot of other stars, too, including Hanks.
Sanders’ experience of playing with other stars with the 49ers and other teams will benefit CU, Hanks said.
“Inherent to Deion’s approach, just by his training and what he’s seen to be successful, it’s elite level people at every position: the trainer, assistant coach, academic advisor,” Hanks said. “Then, we’re gonna go acquire elite level talent and combine those and then go from there because that’s how you build a long-term winner. We’ve all carried those lessons in our various endeavors and I think the University of Colorado and by extension the Pac-12 will benefit greatly.”
Sanders’ arrival at CU comes at an important time for the Pac-12.
The conference has had some lean years recently in football, but 2022 was a success, as six teams finished in the Associated Press Top 25: Washington (No. 8), Utah (10), USC (12), Oregon (15), Oregon State (17) and UCLA (21). Washington State also played in a bowl game, while Arizona took a significant step forward under head coach Jedd Fisch.
“The Pac-12 really, in my mind, righted the ship in regard to respect for our institutions, respect for our football teams,” Hanks said.
The conference should be loaded with good teams – and great quarterbacks – next year, as well. And, with UCLA and USC leaving the Pac-12 for the Big Ten in 2024, the conference needs as many good teams as possible.
“The fact that all of the (remaining) 10 are clearly and demonstrably getting better is a good omen in that respect,” Hanks said. “It’s not a situation where those two are leaving and now the conference is irreparably broken.”
Coming off a 1-11 season, CU is at the bottom of the barrel right now, but Hanks sees that changing with Sanders.
“We kind of live in a microwave generation where we think everything’s gonna be fixed immediately,” he said. “Nothing happens overnight but certainly in my mind, Colorado has the right person at this point in the football program to help lead it forward in Deion.”
With the talent in the Pac-12, Colorado’s road could be tough, but that’s not going to faze Sanders.
“Colorado has got the right guy to go fight the fight with those institutions,” Hanks said. “When you have that type of competition, you need a leader that inspires and raises the bar as far as being competitive.
“Can you get your team to fight tooth and nail not only on game day, but in the classroom; in the community; to be better than what we were; be better today than we were yesterday? That’s what Deion brings to the table and I’m really excited for certainly the University Colorado, but I’m excited for the conference because for me, as you can imagine, that’s just another great head coach in the coaching room and that’s just going to drive great competition within the conference.”
Hanks was a sophomore at Iowa when he and the 19th-ranked Hawkeyes faced a still-building Colorado team on Sept. 17, 1988. Hanks scooped up a blocked punt to score a touchdown, but Sal Aunese and Eric Bieniemy led CU to the 24-21 upset.
That CU team was only four years removed from a 1-10 season but was on the verge of national prominence. Coach Bill McCartney led the Buffs to a national title in 1990.
A similar – although possibly quicker – resurgence could be underway at CU with Sanders.
“I’m intimately familiar with what a resurgent Colorado Buffalo football team can look like,” Hanks said. “That’s why I say you absolutely got the right guy in Deion and we look forward to seeing the process unfold.”