By Dan Bauer


What coaches can learn from Deion Sanders

Repetition, repetition, repetition.  Same message, new dynamic messenger.

“Ninety-five percent of you are not going pro, whether you believe it or not,” from the mouth of Colorado head football coach Deion Sanders. “So, I got to prepare you for life. I got to spend more time on the life part than the pro part.”

Better known as NFL legend “Prime Time”, coach Deion Sanders has turned the college football scene sideways with his team’s early success. On the exterior, ball cap, sunglasses and prominent gold cross around his neck, he is not your typical college coach. On the interior he is a man driven by old school character and a deep religious faith.  His fire burns hot and while the expectations for his players are extremely high, he also knows the reality that very few will make a living in the NFL.

Sanders drew major criticism when he burst on the Colorado campus and verbally challenged the players in the program. His honest assessment of the program was a message many couldn’t handle. He advised most of them to quit or transfer, and over fifty players did exactly that.

“If you went for that, you were able to let words run you off, you ain’t for us,” said Sanders defending his actions.  “Because we are an old school staff, we coach hard, we coach tough, we are disciplinarians.”

One of the most celebrated athletes of all-time, Sanders knows coaches get fired for losing, but understands the players also need to shoulder the blame.   

Colorado won one game the previous season and has had only one winning season in the last seventeen years.   The Buffalos won a National Championship in 1990.

While players and parents ran from Sanders blunt assessment, he believes he was just telling them the truth. You remember the truth, something we once believed in as a society, but today can be as scarce as a phone booth. Sanders believes players don’t hear the truth often enough.  

“I think truth is good for kids,” says the nine-time All Pro cornerback, who was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2011. “We are so busy lying that we don’t recognize the truth any more in this society. We want everyone to feel good, that‘s not the way life is.”  

Believe is the buzz word Ted Lasso has recycled to the top of the current coaching vernacular. His paper sign is the battle cry for teams everywhere.  The confidence to believe in yourself and your team’s goals is a necessity to any team’s success. Gary Barnett, who transformed the Northwestern football program from kittens to Wildcats, used the motto, “Belief without evidence”, in taking them to the Rose Bowl. We implore our players to believe in the face of impossible odds and unbeatable opponents yet want them to understand making a living as an athlete is a failed lottery ticket. 

The odds and the road are long and when you coach for a long time you can easily ascertain those players that have the right stuff. While we want to see all our athletes achieve their dreams, the reality is the majority will fall short. The wonderful news is that the consolation prize is you will be prepared for life’s challenges.  

That preparation is the result of coaches who set the bar high like Sanders has done. Sit in the front of your classroom, don’t be late, get an education and understand there will be sacrifice. His players are required to follow an aggressive dress code. 

Sanders tells them, “Let your game separate you not your dress code”.  

When pushed about his ridged standards, Sanders replies, “structure and discipline”. That is what will be required when you move into the real world.  

The charismatic Sanders presents a non-traditional coaching exterior, but his old school beliefs are as true as Tom Landry’s trademarked fedora.

“Success, passion, purpose, dominance, knowledge, commitment, excellence. There’re so many attributes that I could continuously name,” says Sanders. 

He accepts no excuses, not for race or environment and there is only one way to approach a situation, and that is with maximum effort. These are values that we should be ingraining in every kid in America. It is the greatest benefit that the well-coached athletic experience delivers to 100% of the players.  

Sanders’s methods are both tough and compassionate. It isn’t a new idea because great coaches across the country are all doing the same thing. It is encouraging, in this peculiar time of softening our kids, that this tough love approach is getting so much attention.  The intensity of this strategy may not be appropriate for young kids, but should be a requirement for teenage athletes.  Too many children today are sheltered from feeling the least bit of discomfort.  

Good coaching is like adding a great parent to your family. In my early days in Spooner I was accused of “trying to be my players parent.” Honestly, I had enough kids at home to keep me busy, but as my athletic director told them, “You have a coach who cares too much about your kid, and why is this a bad thing?”  Parenting is exhausting and if there is someone willing to reinforce my values and teach my kids some life lessons, come on board. Coach Sanders has put his arm around these players and at the same time pushed them to be their best.

“And we make no excuses,” says Sanders.  

The Buffaloes impressive 3-0 start hit a detour when they were drubbed by the 10th ranked Oregon Ducks, 42-6.  After praising and congratulating his opponent, Sanders honestly admitted, “No excuses, we got our butt kicked.” 

Donning his trademark sunglasses, Prime Time predicted a bright future, “You better get me right now, this is the worst were gonna be!” 

Where Colorado goes from here is uncertain, but you can count on Deion Sanders, win, lose or draw, to continue to prepare these young men for the game of life.

“We teach so much more than just football here, it’s unbelievable.”

And that, above all else, is what great coaching is all about.  

Dan Bauer is a free-lance writer, retired teacher and hockey coach in Wausau, Wis.  You can contact him at