Today, I sat down between meetings to write this post to you as I prepare to attend the 49ers vs. Giants home game with Chris Sears and many other friends later tonight. Go Niners!
Excitement for the game—and chatting with Tom Ferry—has me thinking about leadership, football and coaching, which was already on my mind as I watched the latest “60 Minutes” episode featuring Deion Sanders, or “Coach Prime,” a former NFL player-turned- college-football coach. He won Super Bowl XXIX with the 49ers then Super Bowl XXX with the Dallas Cowboys, and played professional baseball during his epic athletic career. He’s typically known as a cornerback; however it must be noted that he sometimes came in on offense and played receiver.
And if you’ve been following the sports news lately, it’s hard not to come across an attention-catching headline about Deion Sanders’ near-legendary turnaround of the Colorado Buffaloes.
The story begins in December 2022, when it was announced Sanders would leave his position as head coach of the Jackson State University Tigers to become the new head coach of the Colorado Buffaloes. Sanders had his work cut out for him. Colorado Buffaloes are in the NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision (previously known as Division I-A), the highest level of college football in the U.S., but at the time, they were infamously flailing. They’d just come off a disappointing 1-11 season, and it was now Coach Prime’s job to turn things around.
In a recent memo to his team, ReeceNichols Real Estate SVP of Brokerage Chad Dumas talked about Sanders’ leadership, writing: “There are so many things he has done and said in the last couple of years that I think we can learn from as leaders, but I want to hone in on what I believe is a masterclass on recruiting and attraction.”
At the first Buffaloes team meeting in December, Sanders didn’t mince words, encouraging players to enter the transfer portal and find other schools at which they could play. “I came to the conclusion that a multitude of couldn’t help us get to where we wanted to go,” he said during the “60 Minutes” interview.
Immediately, 41 scholarship players transferred out and when the 2023 season began, Sanders had just 20 of the 83 scholarship players from the 2022 season still on his roster. Yet he was able to replace them in a few short months with new talent. In fact, in Colorado’s opening game against the TCU Horned Frogs (a team that played in last year’s national championship), the Buffaloes defeated the Horned Frogs 45-42 in a dramatic and much-talked-about double-overtime victory.
How was he able to recruit top players so quickly?
Sanders’ mantra is “I ain’t hard to find,” and it’s a testament not only to his visibility in the media and accessibility to his team (he’s been on “60 Minutes,” ESPN, and conducted a host of other high-profile interviews) but also to his candor and honesty during those interviews. Coach Prime says it like it is – the good, the bad and all the confidence you’ll find in between. As Chad said in his memo: “There’s never been a time where is easier to do than now, but it takes discipline and a plan and a belief in yourself that when you are easier to find and putting yourself out there more, people will be attracted to you.”
Of course, being transparent and visible requires a high level of self-belief, which naturally plays into Coach Prime’s tough-love coaching philosophy. “If you went for that, if you were able to let words run you off, you ain’t for us,” Sanders said of his now-famous speech to the Buffalo players about finding another school. “We’re an old-school staff. We coach hard. We coach tough. We’re disciplinarians. If you’re allowing verbiage to run you off because you don’t feel secure with your ability, you ain’t for us.”
And for those players who heard his words and wanted to remain on the team? “Stay,” Coach Prime said. “Prove it.”
Sanders’ tough-love mentality extends to his kids, including Shedeur Sanders, quarterback of the Buffaloes and Shilo Sanders, Colorado’s starting safety. Coach Prime said if his kids called him up and said their coach told them to get in the transfer portal, he’d tell them they must not be playing as well as they should. “You should be an asset and not a liability,” Sanders explained.
As an example of Sanders’ unwavering confidence,after “60 Minutes” asked him about the best coach in college football today, he replied: “Let me see a mirror.” He did go on to clarify how much he admires University of Alabama head coach Nick Saban, and how just sitting in his presence is a gift and a reminder to be a perpetual student of his craft. “He’s forgotten more things than I may ever accomplish, so I am a student looking up to this wonderful teacher saying, ‘Just throw me a crumb of what you know.’”
So, what’s the message? Coach Prime says being a coach means you have to understand that what your team wants from you is a leader who will be honest, fair, tough, disciplined, supportive, visible and there for them, always. “I ain’t hard to find,” he says, and every player on his now 3-0 Colorado Buffaloes team knows it’s true.
This article is adapted from Blefari’s weekly, company-wide “Thoughts on Leadership” column from HomeServices of America.