The college football world viewed Colorado’s decision to hire Deion Sanders as a major risk. Athletic director Rick George was smart enough to see through the reasons for hesitation. There was an element of blind faith that had to exist, sure, but George knew Sanders was the lightning rod necessary to revive a program on life support. Guess what? It worked. And in a matter of months.
Sanders has so many qualities that cannot be matched. His star power cannot be duplicated. His vision to promote his program on YouTube is something that would make other coaches cringe. And he speaks with conviction about everything. The best part? Sanders follows through on what he says. He’s a doer. He said he was bringing his Louis Vuitton luggage to Boulder, then proceeded to engineer the biggest roster flip the sport has ever seen. Colorado progressed from a one-win team in 2022 to a four-win team (and counting?) that is battling for bowl eligibility.
There’s one quality Sanders lacks, though.
That has to be the reason Colorado’s head coach made the knee-jerk decision last week to take primary play-calling duties away from offensive coordinator Sean Lewis and hand them to former NFL coach Pat Shurmur. Lewis was perhaps Sanders’ most important coaching addition during the offseason, and he was largely credited for being the reason the Buffaloes put up so many points early in the season despite having an obvious deficiency on the offensive line. Lewis left a head coaching job at Kent State to call plays at Colorado and seemed destined to be an attractive candidate for a Power 5 job in the offseason.
Then Sanders took the play sheet out of Lewis’ hand and replaced him with a coach who hadn’t been an assistant at the college level for 25 years. Shurmur, who was on Sanders’ staff as an analyst, isn’t some genius play caller who could solve all of Colorado’s problems in a week. Let’s be honest: Fans of the Cleveland Browns and New York Giants could give a detailed PowerPoint presentation of all the things that went wrong when he was the head coach of those franchises.
The results of this change were exactly what you’d expect. Colorado lost to Oregon State on Saturday night 26-19. The offense managed only 238 total yards, a chunk of which occurred late in the game when the Buffaloes were trying to erase a two-score deficit and were facing a soft Beavers defense.
Quarterback Shedeur Sanders still got beaten up. And Colorado’s offense rushed for minus-7 yards.
How did we get here? How did Sanders feel strongly enough to fix the one thing that, frankly, wasn’t broken?
“We’re not going to demean Sean Lewis, we’re not going to take that tone,” Sanders said. “Sean is a good man. I think he’s a good play caller. We just needed change at the time, we just needed to try something else at the time and that’s what we did. I don’t look back on it, I don’t second-guess myself whatsoever. Because there’s more to it than what you may know, so let’s just trust the process. Let’s just trust the process.”
Did more happen behind the scenes? Lewis and Sanders must have had a fundamental disagreement about how much Colorado was attempting to run the football. Maybe it was something to do with how well the quarterback — Sanders’ son — was being protected.
Sanders didn’t offer much insight as to how he arrived at the decision, but he did acknowledge that we might not understand it.
“I’m not going to disclose all my thoughts,” Sanders said. “My thoughts are my thoughts. I’m not going to disclose when I make a decision. Just know when I make a decision to do something, I don’t stumble or stutter and I don’t look back. It is what it is, and that’s what it’s going to be. … I made a decision to help this team win. You guys don’t know all the intangibles just from the outside of the crib looking in. I got tinted windows and you can’t even see in the house, but you’re making conclusions on what I should and should not do.”
Maybe Sanders’ house has tinted windows, but there has been no other football program more exposed to public viewing than Colorado. A large chunk of the day-to-day of Colorado’s football is posted on YouTube. That’s part of Sanders’ genius of promoting the brand and the players who wear Colorado’s uniform.
But this is problematic.
From the outside looking in, it seems as though Sanders made a rash decision. That decision didn’t lead to some offensive renaissance, and it most assuredly feels like Lewis will be one-and-done in Boulder.
This is the type of move a desperate coach would make. But what was the reason for Colorado’s desperation? There are still three games remaining in the regular season and Colorado has already (easily) surpassed last year’s win total. By all accounts, Colorado has been a resounding success this year, in large part because it has been so entertaining to watch Shedeur Sanders, Travis Hunter, Jimmy Horn and Dylan Edwards cook … on offense.
Sanders seems to be concerned about how people view his decision to “demote” Lewis. He doesn’t want anyone to look down on Lewis’ ability or to “demean” anything Lewis has accomplished.
“You’ve got to understand, you only get so many coaches in college football, so when you make a move like we made, that means someone has to … I don’t call it demotion, I say move,” Sanders said. “I think everybody’s making the same amount of money. When you get demoted, that’s a hit on your check. It’s a movement that we had to make.”
Had to? Maybe we’ll have to blindly trust Sanders on this one. He’ll tell you repeatedly to trust the process. And to his credit, the process has resulted in more improvement in a short amount of time than most people expected.
But the move is concerning. Sanders, more than anyone, had to understand that Colorado is dealing with personnel issues on the offensive line that coaching can’t fix. He literally spoke about it last week and indicated that improving the talent level up front is the chief offseason task. Heck, Colorado even hosted five-star offensive lineman Jordan Seaton for an official visit for the Oregon State game.
Sanders has given us very little reason to doubt him and his build during his first year as Colorado’s coach. Even losses were expected. But for a first-time Power 5 head coach, this move makes you scratch your head.
It makes you wonder if these are the types of decisions that could derail such a promising start to a program build that may have been hopeless for any other coach.
(Top photo: Sean M. Haffey / Getty Images)