Think of some of the best return men in NFL history. What are some of the qualities that separated those great punt/kick returners from others? They had the ability to make big plays. They were dependable and didn’t cost the team by making costly mistakes in pressure situations. Brian Mitchell possessed those qualities during his 14-year NFL career.
If you think about it, the same characteristics help radio hosts and sports analysts stand out as well. Unsurprisingly, Mitchell shines in those areas too.
The Louisiana native provides pre and postgame coverage of Washington Commanders football on NBC Sports Washington. Mitchell also has a weekday radio show, BMitch & Finlay, on 106.7 The Fan with his co-host and friend, JP Finlay.
We chat about Mitchell’s time in the NFL, his strong golf game and his broadcasting career which began in D.C. in the early ‘90s. Mitchell also talks about his four kids, the way he tortured himself during his career, and owns one of the best email address of all time — punt2me. Enjoy!
Brian Noe: What are a couple of things that a lot of people don’t know about you that you think they should?
Brian Mitchell: Youngest of seven. I absolutely love cooking. I think I take more pride in cooking than I did playing football. I went to school on academic scholarship. Before they even started recruiting me as a football player, I was offered an academic scholarship. I majored in chemical engineering. I didn’t want to be a media guy and I ended up being that.
I’m a golf watcher more than I am anything else. I’m a 6 handicap, so I’m okay now. It was way lower than that, but I started working again. I was a 2.1. From a military family. My mom and dad lived all over the world. I was born in Fort Polk, Louisiana. JP always tells everybody my secret; everybody thinks I’m this tough guy, he always tells people how nice I am and how giving I am. I say, hey man, you’re messing up my street cred. Don’t do that.
BN: [Laughs] What service were your parents in?
BM: My dad was in the Army and my mom went along with him. My dad, when he was in high school, his mom wouldn’t let him play football. He dropped out of high school to get his GED and then joined the military. Stayed there 20 years. I was 14 in the ninth grade — my junior high school was eighth and ninth grade — I’m the starting quarterback of the varsity football team. My mom, he’s too small, I don’t want to let him play. No, no, no. My dad looked at her and said, remember what I did and y’all say he’s just like me.
Well, she let me play. I built her a house. I said, remember you didn’t want me to play football? She said, get outta here. [Laughs] What he went through, she did not want to deal with that because everybody said I’m just like my dad. I had a mind of my own; I was gonna play football one way or the other.
BN: [Laughs] That’s great, man. Where is your hometown?
BM: Plaquemine, Louisiana. I grew up down there right across the river from Baton Rouge.
BN: How would you describe the vibe in your hometown compared to D.C.?
BM: Ah, rather slow. [Laughs] The street I grew up on in Louisiana, everybody was related. But you had a lot of fun. D.C. is the hustle and bustle. It constantly moves. I live outside of D.C. I live out in the suburbs and come into D.C. My neighborhood is all lots that are five acres or more. I kind of live like I grew up. The rural area. When I want to go somewhere, I go. When I want to get away from it, I go back home.
BN: You brought the country to D.C.
BM: There ya go.
BN: Did your media career start back in 2003 or before that?
BM: Probably a little bit prior to that. I think it was 2002. No, no, no. Hold on, let me go back, 1992. In ’91, ’92 I was listening to somebody on radio talk about what they would and wouldn’t do. So many people like to say how they will react to things, but you’re dealing with split-second decisions. As an athlete I just always hated the fact that most of the guys I saw on TV, or even on the radio, they were non-athletes. They were talking about what they would do. I just started to pursue an opportunity to be able to talk. I’ve never been afraid to voice my opinion.
I went to a little event they had, it was WHUR radio. They were looking for someone to do anywhere from five to 10 minutes on Monday to talk about what you did in the game, and on Friday what you’re going to do in the game. I started doing that and after about four or five weeks, the actual station I work for today, they picked me up to start doing the Monday Night Football show. I would do that prior to the Monday night game. Monday Night Football used to come on at like 9 o’clock back then. About a year or so later, I started doing a TV thing, and I’ve been doing it ever since.
BN: Did you enjoy doing the broadcasting stuff from the beginning?
BM: Yeah, I did because it gave me a chance to voice my opinion and also give the opinions of a lot of my teammates. A lot of people always wondered, how will I be able to talk about the guys that may have had a play, a blunder that cost us a game? What I learned, when you’re playing ball, and I was always a quarterback growing up, you know what they’re going to ask you. They’re going to ask you about the great things or the horrible things.
What I would do is always go and talk to my teammates, the guy that may have fumbled, or the guy that had three touchdowns in the game and talk to them. When they asked me the question on radio, what do you think about Donovan McNabb, he threw an interception. Well, I talked to Donovan after the game and Donovan said this. I was able to use their words without giving my opinions of it. I told them my opinions, but you have to be careful when you’re on radio. Somebody may make you say something against your own teammate.
BN: How about the non-athletes that are a part of the media. As you being a former player, what tends to get under your skin about that dynamic?
BM: Well, the thing that gets under my skin is that a lot of people in that position, they’re trying to get the favoritism of the team, the coach, the GM, the president, the owner, things like that. Everything that they’re told, they take it as fact.
My whole thing is, I’ve always told my guys this, and I try to educate them as well, if they’re telling you the same thing they’re telling everybody else, why are you running around believing everything that they say, or trying to go above and beyond to try to keep them happy?
Now, if they give you something that nobody else has, I can understand. But if they’re giving you the same stuff, then what the hell difference does it make? Because I’m gonna be who I am. And I am willing to have a face-to-face conversation with anybody. I’m not a clicks person. When I say something it’s what I believe. I don’t care if people click on it or not. But even behind closed doors, I will tell you the same stuff.
BN: Now that you’re retired from football, what do you miss most from your playing days?
BM: The checks. [Laughs]
BM: Nah, actually the team camaraderie. Getting ready for the year. I’m weird, I guess, because I enjoyed the preparation, the torture to get yourself into tip-top shape to be able to go through a football season. I enjoy finding out which players I know I could depend on. I can depend on this guy because I watch him put himself through the rigors of this sport. I miss that.
A lot of the friendships still go on today. A lot of guys I played with I’m still good friends with. I have them come on the show sometimes because people look at athletes as if you’re just an athlete. We cry, we laugh, we have friends, we have all kinds of failures in life, we have tragedies in our lives. When you go through all of this stuff that we go through to get prepared for a season, you form special bonds with those guys.
Duce Staley who’s still coaching, good friend. Leslie Shepherd, Earnest Byner, Terry Allen. All these guys, Darrell Green, who taught me a lot about this game. Art Monk, Charles Mann, guys who taught me how to become a man, not just a football player. Tim Johnson, who got me more into my spiritual self.
I respect all of those things. It wasn’t just me playing football. I grew from being a little wet behind the ear kid from Plaquemine, Louisiana, to a full-grown man at 54 years old now. I try my best to give as much as I can like those guys gave to me.
BN: It makes me think of Matthew Slater with the Patriots. He’s a guy who enjoys the process just like you did.
BM: I enjoyed it. I tell people, in the offseason, I tortured myself. Because the game of football is fun. Running around, you’re on TV, we dream about this job. You’re getting paid to play a game. Why wouldn’t you have fun? I remember Corey Simon, a guy who played with me in Philadelphia. He asked me the question, ‘Man, why you always laughing and joking on a football field?’
I said because I put all the work in in the offseason, so right now I’m supposed to have fun. I said one day you’re going to realize as much as a profession this is, it’s still a game. If you don’t prepare properly, you won’t ever have fun.
I was in my 11th year and Corey was in his first year. I said if you keep being that serious, I’m gonna play longer than you play from this point on. I think I did another four years, he might have done five or six. But I got close because I enjoyed it.
I absolutely love the game. I love trying to come up with a strategy that may be better than theirs. And the fact that on a football field, I don’t care how big you are, the mindset of football makes everybody come to be the same size.
BN: What’s something that you miss the least about not playing anymore?
BM: The least about playing, the travel. I could care less about the travel because I always tell people, I like to travel to have fun, not to work. We were traveling to work, but you had to do it. I don’t like the travel. A lot of the politics. It’s been many times where we know a guy should make the team but he didn’t for whatever reason.
Then the guy that makes the team in his spot is a guy that really doesn’t help us, but he’s just around and we’re like, why the hell is he on the team? He’s not doing anything to help us when that guy we know could help us. They’ll use the story that well, this guy is dependable, that guy isn’t. I don’t know how dependable this guy is, but I’m sure if he’s on the field he’ll help us more than the other guy. The politics was something I totally despise.
BN: How would you describe what it’s like to do sports radio in D.C., especially if you’re explaining that to someone who hasn’t done radio in that market?
BM: It’s fun like any other city, but we know the mindset of people that live in this town. I don’t care where you live, you could be in the ritziest neighborhood, or you can be in one of the baddest neighborhoods, you have some perspective or idea of politics. And it comes to play in the sports world as well. I know when the coaches come here, like Ron Rivera, he’s finding out right now.
He was in Charlotte, and he was able to dictate and manipulate certain things. In this town, we deal with presidents. We deal with politicians. We deal with senators. We have federal judges and the Supreme Court. We could care less what you say, because we know right. And we’re going to challenge you because when you say something, we’ve being told stuff by politicians all the time. We naturally don’t believe what you’re saying. We dig into it. And if we find out you’re lying to us, you got problems.
BN: D.C. is a very political town. With your sports show, do you separate the two, or do you dive into sports subjects that are connected to politics?
BM: If it’s politics that affect sports. If it’s like the committee that was investigating Dan Snyder, we discuss those things. But actually the Republican/Democrat debate, no, we don’t get into that. We don’t voice our opinions about who we we’re voting for and things of that nature. I think it’s best not to.
Everybody has that right to whatever they truly believe in. But not whenever it’s something that’s political like the January 6 insurrection. I feel when it’s something that affects your rights, and something that affects you as a citizen, you have to be able to discuss it. I don’t have a problem doing it. My co-host, JP, doesn’t have a problem doing it. But for the most part, we talk about sports. If we have to, we will, but we rather not talk about politics.
BN: What’s your view on the diversity or the lack thereof in sports radio, especially when there are topics that might be tied to politics that have an impact on sports?
BM: I remember working at the TV station, and we had this thing one time. Remember when Serena Williams told the line judge if you make that mistake, and I’ll shove this ball somewhere? [Laughs] I was supposed to be on the set. For some reason, the producer felt he should tell me I’m not on the set at that time. As I’m listening to the discussion, I’m seeing that there’s no representation for Serena. I was told I was on the set by one of the top guys; the producer at the last second decided he didn’t want me on it.
They all are totally against Serena. It annoys me when I hear people whether a man or a woman talking about how menacing she is. She’s an athlete, she’s a bigger person than most people, but she’s not menacing. We move to the next thing, so I’m back on and we’re going to talk about football. I say before we go on, I’m going to voice my opinion about the last segment. I remember what they said and I addressed every one of them. I say producer, I’ll see you when we’re done. He wasn’t there when we were done.
I think they understand now that I played football, but football doesn’t describe who I am. I watch all sports. I try to be a well-rounded person so I have an opinion on it. I especially have an opinion when a guy is an African American or a minority in a sport, where a lot of us aren’t, to where we don’t get a fair shake.
I felt that when someone is costing you a possibility of $1.4 million, it pisses you off. I know a lot of people say, well, she shouldn’t have said that and she shouldn’t have — you don’t know what somebody should do in a split-second decision. We do it all the time in our personal life, but we judge everybody so harshly.
BN: I saw that your co-host, JP, once said, ‘Brian and I usually are talking sports over a few drinks and that’s exactly the vibe that we will bring to the show. Without the drinks mostly.’ Is that a good description of what your show is like?
BM: It is because the thing of it, he and I are real friends. The thing that people don’t get, when I’ll say stuff about the Commanders in this town, people are like well you played for them. What the hell does that mean? If I get mad at my brothers and sisters, I get mad at my mom and dad, get mad at my kids sometimes, why can’t I get mad at the football team?
So JP and I are friends, and both of us are loud and we talk a lot and we’re opinionated. Sometimes we do get into disagreements and things like that. We speak on it, and then guess what, we go right and have a beer together. That’s how life is. We don’t agree all the time, but we still understand that we’re friends.
BN: Let’s say over the next five years, what do you think would make you happiest as far as your job and where you’re at?
BM: I love the things that I do. I could see myself beginning to do a podcast. My show, we kind of focus on football a lot more. I’ve always fought, when I first started doing media, to talk about every sport. I told them I didn’t want to be typecast. Then it evolved into this because I know some of the shows on my station, they talk about different things.
The show after me, they have a lot of baseball focus, but they talk about other stuff. We mention things in a segment, maybe two at the most, but we’re normally on the football team. I would love to be talking about a lot of different things and just, I guess, expanding the amount of people that can hear what you say.
I watch a lot of media and I believe that a lot of people don’t speak the truth. A lot of media to me is about bits and trying to get people to click. The things that my friends and I discuss is when we know the person is truthful, and it’s also impactful and has given us stuff that helps us, we’ll listen to that before we listen to the person that gives you these outlandish statements and they can’t have anything to back it up. I would try to do something like that.
BN: It sounds like you’re pretty well set in D.C. What if there was a fancy offer from somewhere else, would you consider it?
BM: You know what, I would consider it now. Early on, I never considered it because I am truly a family guy. My son is older, he’s 33 now. My daughters are 28, 22 and 20. Now that my baby is at the point where she can basically go and fend for herself, I don’t have to be there all the time. I don’t have a problem traveling.
Because I played football and I found out that I missed a lot of my son and my oldest daughter’s lives. I was like, make sure I’m around the other ones as they grew up. If something comes now I don’t have an issue doing it because if I have to go somewhere and do something, they could come see me.
They travel all the time anyway, so it would probably work at that point. I’ve always loved being able to go home, and they can see me daily or nightly or whatever. I got three out of college. They all three have jobs. And I got one that’s a junior, so I think I’m doing a good job with that.
Marty Smith Loves The ‘Pinch Me’ Moments
“I don’t look at it as a talent-based platform. I don’t look at it as a results-based platform. I look at it as a platform that was built and sustained through the way I treat other people, through the work ethic that I believe that I have and through the passion that I know I have.”
I tell this story all the time. It is told for laughs, but it is absolutely true. Marty Smith once gave me a giant box of beef jerky.
I was in Charlotte visiting him and Ryan McGee on the set of Marty & McGee as part of a larger feature I was doing on the SEC Network. We spent probably 3 hours together that day. It was a lot of fun. The last thing I watched the duo shoot was a promo for Old Trapper Beef Jerky, the presenting sponsor of their show.
As they finished, I shook their hands and told them I had to get on the road. That is when Smith presented me with a box of twelve bags of Old Trapper and told me, in as sincere a voice as you can imagine, that he wanted me to have it.
“I mean, listen, if you give a man beef jerky, by God, you like him,” Smith said to me when I reminded him of that story earlier this week. “That’s redneck currency right there, bud.”
There just aren’t a lot of people in this business like Marty Smith. ESPN definitely knows it too. That is why the network finds every opportunity it can to use him to tell the stories of the events and people it covers.
Last week, he spent Monday and Tuesday with the Georgia Bulldogs in Athens. He got a day back home in Charlotte before he headed to Atlanta for the SEC Network’s coverage of the SEC Championship Game on Thursday. Saturday, after his duties for SEC Nation and College GameDay were done, he hit the road for Tuscaloosa to interview Nick Saban and be ready for ESPN’s coverage of the reveal of the final College Football Playoff rankings.
As if that isn’t enough, this week he heads to New York. It will be the second time ESPN will use him to conduct interviews and tell stories during the telecast of the Heisman Trophy presentation. It’s an assignment that Marty Smith still cannot believe is his.
“I’ve had a ton of pinch-me moments, but in the last five, six years, seven years, there are two that kind of stand out above the rest. One was when Mike McQuaid asked me to be part of his team to cover The Masters. The other was last year when my dear longtime friend Kate Jackson, who is the coordinating producer over the Heisman broadcast, asked me to be a part of her Heisman broadcast team and interview the coaches, players and families of the finalists,” Smith says. “You know, brother, I’ve been watching the Heisman Trophy my whole life.”
We talk about what the broadcast around the Heisman Trophy presentation is and how it differs from being on the sideline for a game. He is quick to point out that on a game day, the old adage “brevity is king” is a reality. In New York though, he will have more time to work with. He plans not to just fill it, but to use it.
Marty’s interest in his subjects’ backgrounds and their emotions is sincere. It is part of a larger philosophy. He respects that everyone has a story to tell and appreciates the opportunity to be the one that gets to tell it, so he is going to do all he can to make sure the people he is talking to know it and know that they matter to him. That means putting in the time to be respectful of his subject’s time.
“When I’m interviewing these players or coaches before a game, I want to interview them, and I’m saying not on camera, but when I’m doing the record. I want to get as thorough as I can get. Then you take all of that and you try to pare it down into a very small window. It’s not easy. I mean, look, most of the time you come home with reams of notes that never even sniff air.”
Marty Smith has always been a unique presence. As his profile has grown and he shows up on TV more often and in more places, more people question who this guy really is.
That is par for the course though, right? Someone with a unique presence sees their star rise and out come the naysayers ready to question how authentic the new object of our affections really is.
For me, there is a moment that defines Marty Smith, at least in this aspect. I cannot remember the year or the situation, but he was on The Dan Le Batard Show, back when it was on ESPN Radio. Smith was telling Dan about friends of his that are stars in the country music world and Dan asked what it is like when they are hanging out backstage before one of these guys goes out to perform.
I cannot remember Smith’s exact answer, but a word he used stood out to me. He said it was just buddies having a cold beer and “fellowshippin'”.
I told Marty about this memory of him and said that I am not accusing him of being inauthentic or his persona on television being an act, but I was curious if he was concious of the words he chooses. Even if the version we get of Marty Smith on TV is the same one we would get if we were part of the fellowshippin’, does he think about how he wants people to think about him?
He is quick to note that is isn’t an act at all. What you see when you see Marty Smith isn’t a persona he cooked up when he decided he was going into television. That is just his personality.
“It is a lifelong field from where I’m from to where I am,” he says of what we see on TV. “It is relationships made that pinched my clay and remolded who I was to who I am and reshaped me as a person.”
Anyone from The South can tell you that there is no one monolithic “South”. The gregarious, larger-than-life personalities in Louisiana may not always feel real to people from the more reserved and anglo-influenced South Carolina. The Southern accent I got from growing up in Alabama sounds nothing like the Southern accents I live near now in North Carolina.
If Marty Smith doesn’t seem authentic to you, maybe it is because his version of “Southern” isn’t one you’re familiar with. Maybe it is a version of “Southern” that only exists in one dude on the entire planet.
Smith is from Pearisburg, Virginia just outside of Blacksburg. Surely that informs who he is, but he is also shaped by the wealth of conversations he has had and the characters he has met from his professional life.
“At our company, you have to work really hard to not only make it, but to sustain it. I try hard to do that every day,” he says. “I’m sure I’ve said it before, man. I don’t look at it as a talent-based platform. I don’t look at it as a results-based platform. I look at it as a platform that was built and sustained through the way I treat other people, through the work ethic that I believe that I have and through the passion that I know I have. You piece all of those different things together, and along with opportunity you can do something special, and I’m trying to do that every day.”
The Marty Smith you see on TV is the guy that will hand you a box of beef jerky just because you had a great conversation. He is the guy you see in that viral video from a few years back giving a young reporter advice and encouragement.
You can be confused by Marty Smith. You can have your questions about him and his motivations. They aren’t going to change him though. It took too long for him to become who he is to start second-guessing it now.
Demetri Ravanos is the Assistant Content Director for Barrett Sports Media. He hosts the Chewing Clock and Media Noise podcasts. He occasionally fills in on stations across the Carolinas. Previous stops include WAVH and WZEW in Mobile, AL, WBPT in Birmingham, AL and WBBB, WPTK and WDNC in Raleigh, NC. You can find him on Twitter @DemetriRavanos and reach him by email at DemetriTheGreek@gmail.com.
Another World Cup Run Ends And There’s Still No Soccer Fever In The USA
“We get fired up once every four years, sing the anthem, wear American flag t-shirts, then go back to our daily lives, forgetting about the sport that was attached to the patriotism.”
Soccer fever? Hardly. Not in the United States at least. The US Men’s National Team lost in the round of 16 against the Netherlands 3-1 last Saturday. The ratings are in. And the ratings are revealing.
An average of 12.97 million viewers tuned in to see the Netherlands-United States World Cup match on FOX. Before you say, “Hey, not bad,” consider the fact that the ratings are down from eight years ago when 13.44 million viewers watched the USMNT lose to Belgium in the knockout stage on ESPN.
Even more damning are the ratings of the USMNT’s initial match in the 2022 World Cup against Wales, an unhealthy 8.31 million viewers.
Let me get this straight; fans waited, waited, and waited some more to finally see the USMNT in World Cup action, and the first game in eight years drew 8.31 million viewers? Really?
There were 5.5 million viewers across TV and digital that watched the NFL Network’s telecast of the New York Giants-Green Bay Packers game in London. That was a Week 5 game in the NFL compared to the World freaking Cup. Network television (FOX) compared to cable TV (NFL Network). And the ratings are comparable? Come on, US Soccer. Y’all gotta do better than this.
*Mini rant alert — it drives me crazy when soccer in this country is consistently compared to soccer in this country. The promoters of the sport paint an obnoxiously rosy picture of the growing popularity by comparing US soccer now to US soccer then. It’s a joke.
It would be like comparing Nebraska’s 4-8 record in college football this year, to Nebraska’s 3-9 record last year. “Hey, things are looking up!” Never mind the fact that the Cornhuskers are significantly trailing several teams in its conference and many other teams across the country. That’s US soccer in a nutshell. Don’t compare it to other leagues and sports that are crushing it, just say we’re up 10% from last year. Ridiculous.
*Mini rant continuing alert — the Michigan-Ohio State game drew 17 million viewers last month. The New York Giants-Dallas Cowboys game on Thanksgiving drew 42 million viewers. Those are regular-season matchups compared to the biggest stage soccer has to offer. But go ahead and just compare US soccer to itself.
And no, the edge you might feel in my words isn’t born out of fear that soccer will somehow surpass the popularity of football. That would be like Mike Tyson being scared that the Stanford Tree mascot could beat him up. US soccer isn’t a threat, it’s a light breeze. I just hate a bad argument. And many soccer apologists have been making bad arguments on the behalf of US soccer for years. *Mini rant over
The World Cup didn’t prove that American fans are invested in soccer. It proved that we love a big event. It’s the same recipe every four years with the Olympics.
During the 2016 summer games in Rio, when swimmer Michael Phelps was in the pool for what turned out to be his final outing in an Olympic competition, the ratings peaked at 32.7 million viewers. Phelps helped Team USA win gold in the men’s 100-meter relay and then rode off into the sunset.
We don’t really care about swimming. When’s the last time you asked a friend, “You heading out tonight?” and the response was, “Are you crazy? The Pan Pacific Championships are on.”
Whether it’s the Olympics or World Cup, Americans care about the overall event much more than the individual sport. We get fired up once every four years, sing the anthem, wear American flag t-shirts, then go back to our daily lives, forgetting about the sport that was attached to the patriotism.
Ask yourself this, at the height of US swimming’s popularity, would you have paid $14.99 per month to watch non-Olympic events? Me either. US soccer isn’t exactly on fire following its showing in the 2022 World Cup, so the timing isn’t awesome to introduce a paywall for the sport’s top league in this country.
Apple and Major League Soccer have announced that MLS Season Pass will launch soon. I know you’re excited, but try to stay composed. Yes, MLS Season Pass will launch on February 1, 2023. It’s a 10-year partnership between MLS and Apple that features every live MLS regular-season match, the playoffs, and the League’s Cup.
Have I died and gone to heaven?
It’ll run you $14.99 per month or $99 per season on the Apple TV app. For Apple TV+ subscribers — make sure you’re sitting down for this, you lucky people — it’s $12.99 per month or $79 per season. If you don’t have US soccer fever right now, I doubt you’re running out to throw down cash on a product you aren’t passionate about.
Now if the USMNT won the 2022 World Cup, cha-ching. The popularity of US soccer would definitely grow in a major way. Even if they had a strong showing while reaching the quarterfinals, the momentum would be much greater. But a 3-1 loss to the Netherlands in the group of 16? Nope. This isn’t it. I don’t expect much more than some tumbleweed rolling by instead of cash registers heating up for MLS Season Pass.
Colorado Hiring Deion Sanders Will Be Constant Gift for College Football Media
“If Coach Prime achieves the same sort of success that he did with the Tigers, he will be far more than a curiosity. Sanders will be a disruptor.”
Deion Sanders quickly made it clear why the University of Colorado chose him to be its next head football coach.
Coming off a weekend in which the four College Football Playoff teams were announced and all of the other bowl-eligible teams accepted their invitations, Colorado — which went 1-11 this past season — made news for hiring Sanders, the former NFL star who was phenomenally successful at Jackson State.
The media that covers college football and sports as a whole should be thrilled that the Buffaloes program decided to take a big leap for attention and notoriety. Sanders is a bold, risky hire. But he’s also been successful in virtually every venture he’s taken. “Primetime” had a Hall of Fame NFL career and also played Major League Baseball. And he’s a master at drawing attention to himself.
During his first meeting with his new team, Sanders made sure to mention that he has Louis Vuitton luggage to make the point that some of his Jackson State players are coming with him to Boulder — including his son, quarterback Shadeur Sanders. Nick Saban and Kirby Smart probably don’t cite luxury fashion when explaining to their players that they’ll have to compete for starting positions.
Coach Prime will not be boring to cover. (That self-appointed “Coach Prime” title, which was on his name plate at his introductory press conference, is a big clue there.) He never has been. This is a man who said during the 1989 NFL Draft, after being selected No. 5 overall by the Atlanta Falcons, that if the Detroit Lions had selected him at No. 3, he “would’ve asked for so much money, they’d have had to put me on layaway.”
Even if he doesn’t win as much as Colorado hopes, Sanders will pursue top talent — players who want to perform on a larger stage than the FCS-level Jackson State allows — and impact athletes will be attracted to him. He got the No. 1 recruit in the nation, cornerback and wide receiver Travis Hunter, to play for him. (Hunter is following his coach to Boulder.) Now that Sanders is at an FBS school in a Power 5 conference, more stars will surely come.
But if Coach Prime achieves the same sort of success that he did with the Tigers — going 27-5 in three seasons, including a 12-0 campaign in 2022 — he will be far more than a curiosity. Sanders will be a disruptor. And he’ll get the attention that such figures typically draw from media and fans. According to the Denver Post‘s Sean Keeler, at least 400 people attended what felt more like a celebration than a press conference.
Coach Prime wasn’t going to just win the press conference, which is what any school and fanbase want when a new coach is introduced.
If Colorado wanted someone to sit at a podium, and give platitudes like “We want to win the Pac-12 and get to the College Football Playoff,” “We’re going to build a program with young men you’ll be proud of,” or “It’s time to restore Colorado to the football glory we remember,” Sanders isn’t the guy for that.
“Do I look like a man that worries about anything? Did you see the way I walked in here? Did you see the swagger that was with me?” Sanders said during his introductory presser. “Worry? Baby, I am too blessed to be stressed. I have never been one for peer pressure. I put pressure on peers. I never wanted to worry, I make people worry. I don’t get down like that. I am too darn confident. That is my natural odor.”
To no surprise, Sanders announced his presence in Boulder with authority. He had cameras following him as he met with Colorado players for the first time. How many other coaches would have recorded what many would see as a private moment for posterity and post it online?
Sanders caused a stir by putting his players on notice. He warned them he was coming, telling them they’ll be pushed so hard they might quit. He told them to enter the transfer portal and go someplace else if they don’t like what he and his staff are going to do.
That candor, that brutal honesty surprised many fans and media when they saw it Monday morning. For some, that message might have felt too familiar. How many in media — or many other industries — have worried about their job status when a new boss takes over? What may have seemed secure days earlier is now uncertain.
But how do we know other coaches haven’t said something similar when taking over at a new job and addressing their team? We just hadn’t seen it before. But Sanders has been in the media. He knows social media. He understands controlling his own message and telling his story.
Sanders also knows what kind of value he brings to any venture he takes on. How many people would have left an NFL Network gig for Barstool Sports? But Sanders went to where his star would shine, where he was the main show, where he could be Deion Sanders. Maybe he’ll have to turn that down just a bit at Colorado. But athletic director Rick George knows who he hired.
Colorado could have made a safer choice, including previous head coaches Tom Herman, Bronco Mendenhall, or Gary Patterson. A top assistant from one of this year’s Playoff contenders — such as Georgia’s Todd Monken, USC’s Alex Grinch, Alabama’s Bill O’Brien, or Michigan’s Sherrone Moore — could also have been an option.
But what fun would that have been? What kind of tremor would Colorado have created in the college football news cycle? How much attention would a more conventional hire have received? Yes, Sanders has to recruit and win. However, if the objective was to make Colorado football a talking point again, that’s been accomplished.
There could be some friction too. Sanders has already been criticized for being a champion of HBCUs, only to bolt for a mainstream Power 5 program when the opportunity opened. (To be fair, other columnists have defended the move.)
At Jackson State, Sanders tried to control local media when he didn’t like how reporters were addressing him or covering a story. Last year during Southwestern Athletic Conference Media Day, he balked at a Clarion-Ledger reporter addressing him as “Deion,” not “Coach,” insisting that Nick Saban would’ve been shown that respect. Earlier this season, Sanders admonished a school broadcaster (and assistant athletic director) for speaking to him more formally on camera than he did off-camera.
Will that fly among Boulder and Denver media, or the national college football press? It’s difficult to imagine. Maybe Sanders will ease back on his efforts to control reporters within a larger university environment, metropolitan area, and media market. But we’re also talking about Deion Sanders here. He doesn’t bend to outside forces. He makes them bend to him.
Sanders’ stint in Boulder — whether it lasts the five years of his contract and beyond, or less than that — will not be dull. There could be no better gift for the media covering Colorado football. Or college football, a sport already full of bold personalities, eccentric to unhinged fanbases, and outsized expectations. Coach Prime will fit right in.
Ian Casselberry is a sports media columnist for BSM. He has previously written and edited for Awful Announcing, The Comeback, Sports Illustrated, Yahoo Sports, MLive, Bleacher Report, and SB Nation. You can find him on Twitter @iancass or reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.