UNDER FURTHER REVIEW – ‘What might have been’ looms in Prime’s spring

In December 2020, Karl Dorrell said: 

“I have been waiting for this day for quite a bit. I am excited about this class. It is a very important class. They are really going to impact our depth and how we play. 

“It is exciting for our future.”

Dorrell, then University of Colorado football coach, was commenting on CU’s incoming recruiting class, on the day when high school football players were permitted to sign their national letters-of-intent to commit to their colleges of choice.

Fast forward to late 2022. Fired five games into a dismal season, Dorrell is gone, if not forgotten.  It’s a new era, called “Prime Time.”

In his first “team meeting” after being hired as CU’s new head football coach, Deion Sanders—“Coach Prime”—told returning players, some who were in that 2020 recruiting class:

“I want ya’ll to get ready to go ahead and jump in that portal. The more you jump in, the more room you make.”

It was an unusual beginning, to say the least, and many, especially players’ parents and families, friends, and their high school coaches, called those comments disrespectful and insulting.

But on the podcast The Pivot, Sanders later disagreed.

“How’s that disrespectful?” he began, following up with:

“How did I get here? You know how? They were 1-11. 

“Who respects 1-11?  . . . Nobody.

“I wasn’t being disrespectful,” he went on. “I was being honest. There’s a difference.”

The “portal” that Coach Prime referred to is the NCAA Transfer Portal. 

Any player can declare his intention to transfer to another school by placing his name on the list of those seeking an opportunity elsewhere. College coaches court these players in much the way they recruit high school prospects.

“Prime” describes his “teambuilding” approach as the 40-40-20 model—40 percent graduate transfers, 40 percent undergraduate transfers and 20 percent high school recruits.

It may not break down exactly that way in 2023, but the emphasis is obvious. Sanders’ 2023 roster includes the No. 1 transfer class in the nation.

Even though not everyone is enamored with the idea that incumbents are expendable, those reservations seem overshadowed by the expectation that Colorado once again will field a championship football team, however it’s comprised.

“For the culture: CU football’s hiring of Deion Sanders is a game changer,” read one headline back in December. Intended or not, it was a precursor of that blunt first meeting between returning players and their new coach.

“Prime” was hired last December 3 to resurrect CU’s gridiron fortunes, as Bill McCartney was in 1982. But times are different.

McCartney went 2-8-1, 4-7 and 1-10 in his first three seasons as CU’s head coach, and didn’t reach the national championship game until his eighth, winning a share of the title in his ninth. 

The portal didn’t exist back then; teams were built almost exclusively by recruiting high school talent.

This time around, CU fans see a more rapid—overnight, maybe?—turnabout in the making. Nearly 97% of 2022 season ticketholders have renewed, and CU reports another 3,000 new commitments—with more than five months until the season opener against TCU on Sept. 2.

After 15 losing seasons in the last 17, including two 1-11 years, almost anything would be a step up. 

Coach Prime’s first spring practice begins Sunday—the official unveiling of at least some of the new talent that has attracted national attention and acclaim. 

The anticipation is palpable.

The Buffs’ annual Spring Game is scheduled for April 22, and going into the start of spring ball, more than 24,000 tickets already have been sold, at $10 apiece. It’s the first time since the 1980s CU has charged to attend this showcase.

Adding the roughly 6,000 free tickets claimed by students, Coach Prime’s coming-out party will set a CU spring attendance record. (Turnout for all of the past seven Buffs’ spring intrasquad skirmishes, combined—when admission was free—was 30,450; the current attendance record is under 18,000 in 2008.) 

Many of those players who heard Coach Prime say he was “bringing his own luggage,” a reference to the seven transfers from his former university, Jackson State, will not be part of drills or the spring scrimmage.

They’ve moved on, to Cal, Utah, Boise State, Charlotte, Miami (OH) and other programs.

Unknown is how many of them contributed to the losing, and how many could have helped Prime win if given the chance.

Denny Dressman is a veteran of 43 years in the newspaper business, including 25 at the Rocky Mountain News, where he began as executive sports editor. He is the author of 15 books, nine of them sports-related. You can write to Denny at dennydressman@comcast.net.