During four thrilling weeks, Deion Sanders emerged as the larger-than-life epicenter of the college football universe, calling out any haters in his orbit, taking a flamethrower to the sport’s long-standing norms and attracting a level of attention to Colorado that would far exceed the otherwise rigid bounds of the sport. Along the way, Sanders made a point of stacking whatever slights he could find to fire up his team.
When Colorado upset Texas Christian in its opener, Sanders told reporters after the game that he’d kept receipts and wondered aloud if now they believed. The next week, he riled his team over four-month-old comments Nebraska coach Matt Rhule made about the transfer portal, only for Nebraska to add fuel to the fire when it gathered on the Colorado logo at midfield before the game.
Before long, as the spotlight on Sanders and the Buffaloes brightened, opposing coaches simply couldn’t help themselves. Colorado State’s Jay Norvell took a shot at Sanders for not taking off his sunglasses and hat when talking to reporters. Oregon coach Dan Lanning made sure to invite cameras into the locker room before the game as he declared Colorado was “fighting for clicks, we’re fighting for wins.”
But as Lincoln Riley and USC prepared to share the stage Saturday with Sanders and Colorado, there were no potshots, no sarcastic slights, no bulletin board material of any kind.
Instead, Tuesday became a battle of which coach could offer the more glowing praise of the other, as Riley heaped compliments on his counterpart for helping transform Colorado from a hopeless 1-11 program into the biggest story in sports.
“He’s done a great job,” Riley said. “I mean, look at the results. At the end of the day, our job as coaches is to do what’s necessary to help make these programs that give us an opportunity the best we possibly can. That’s kind of the end of it.”
A few hours earlier, Sanders took the same approach, expressing admiration for USC’s coach at the top of his news conference.
“I have the utmost respect and love and appreciation for their head coach. This is a bona-fide winner,” Sanders said. “He’s one of the upper-tier coaches, and I admire him tremendously.”
The coaches have yet to meet, but the admiration clearly flows in both directions. While some detractors have made known their distaste for Sanders’ brash approach, Riley deemed it “very genuine.”
“Everybody has got different personalities,” Riley said. “When you’re fake and you’re someone you’re not, people see right through that. Regardless of what your characteristics are, of your personality, if you’re yourself, you can be a great leader. He certainly seems to do that, seems to be very genuine, and certainly his guys have responded to that.”
Tuesday’s fierce battle of compliments between the opposing Pac-12 coaches took on a distinctly different tone than Sanders has been accustomed to since taking the job. Even before his larger-than-life personality rankled some across the sport, his bold approach to rebuilding Colorado through the transfer portal upset many observers.
Upon his arrival from Jackson State, Sanders wasn’t shy about pushing out dozens of Colorado players in order to restock the roster with his own recruits and transfers. When all was said and done, he added 86 new players, including a record-setting 53 transfers.
The approach wasn’t all that different from what Riley engineered at USC, albeit on a much larger scale — and with a camera crew recording.
“We’ve all seen it here,” Riley said. “There’s a lot more similarities in the transformation here and what coach has done at Colorado than there’s not. I see right where he’s coming from. He’s done a great job with the roster.”
Whether that rebuilt roster can match up with what Riley has built at USC is another question entirely. With its brightest spotlight yet last Saturday, the Buffaloes were silenced by Oregon 42-6. After the game, Sanders said that his team had “played like hot garbage.”
Could the loss — and their coach’s words — be enough motivation for Colorado players previously powered by potshots? That remains to be seen. But if the Buffs were looking for bulletin board material from USC, they weren’t going to get it from the coach.
“We haven’t been focused on opponents or any of the outside things,” Riley said. “To each his own, and we’ve got to stay focused. We’ve got plenty of things that we’ve got to get better at and be ready to handle that have to do with us, and if any of our focus is going anywhere else then that’s not the big thing for USC.”