Every other week in The Coach’s Box, Timothy Thomas explores the various lessons that can be learned from the world of sports.
What Colorado University head football coach Deion “Prime” Sanders has already accomplished in college football is remarkable. He highlighted the value of Historically Black Colleges and Universities in college football while coaching at Jackson State University. And now he’s showing that a coach with his style—culturally black, relatable, straightforward, and honest—can also bring similar success to a Division 1 football program. His most recent successes include leading his team to defeat the nationally-ranked TCU Horned Frogs on the road in the Buffaloes’ first game and a home win rout against the long-time Colorado rival Nebraska Cornhuskers.
Coach Prime, as most call him—a name bathed in his identity as a professional football and baseball athlete, Deion “Prime Time” Sanders—has not changed his identity much from athlete to analyst to coach over the years. He’s stayed true to himself, which makes many people critical and uncomfortable, especially in his approach as a coach.
Football coaches are perceptibly buttoned-up, other-than, high-energy, humble-appearing, God-fearing, accountable-holding, above-reproach leaders, especially in college football. On the outside, some may perceive Coach Prime as only embodying some of those attributes. For others, he resembles none of them. However, it’s evident that Coach Prime’s unorthodox approach to coaching enables him to get the most production out of his players and coaches.
Deion Sanders understands the language and culture of the players whom he recruits and coaches. He doesn’t try to make them become inherently different people on or off the field to be successful because he doesn’t practice that himself. His desire is to help them grow as young men, but they don’t have to be carbon copies of the status quo.
Sanders feels called to coach, so he is comfortable being himself. When you answer a calling, you don’t have to force anything. You only need to work hard while being faithful to it. So Sanders encourages his players to bring their whole selves to practices and games to create a harmony of talents and skills for the ultimate goal of winning each week.
But don’t confuse his desire for harmony with a passion for the clichéd “culture” jargon that’s often thrown around in sports today. Coach Prime doesn’t care about having the “right” type of personalities to fit seamlessly into his program. He’s only interested in the “right” kind of talent. Which is why he replaced so many players previously on scholarship for Colorado. The Buffaloes have 46 new transfers this season, the most transfers of any school in the country. Some may view Coach Prime’s approach as cruel, unorganized, and undisciplined, but you’ll find the opposite upon closer observation.
Because Coach Prime is relatable and honest, he commands respect and organization from his athletes and assistant coaches in a way few can. Yet he’s only able to accomplish this because he can see the world through the eyes of most of his athletes. According to Yahoo’s Ross Dellenger, “Sanders confesses his relatability is perhaps his best gift and advantage.” Sanders: “I come from where most of them come from. I’ve been where most of them are trying to go.” The result is an atmosphere of straightforward accountability and unrelenting discipline. And it starts with holding his assistant coaches accountable.
Coach Prime makes position coaches run with their position groups if they lose a drill. He instructed his assistant coaches not to befriend players so athletes won’t become confused in future games and practices when coaches hold them accountable for their mistakes. That accountability trickles down to Coach Prime’s players. For example, Coach Prime once kicked an athlete out of the weight room for wearing white socks during workouts, and nobody questioned why.
Yet Coach Prime is willing and able to do subtle things that resonate with his players. Most teams will sew a “C” patch on their captain’s jerseys. Colorado, however, has “L” and “D” sewn in those places. “L” is for leaders, and “D” is for dawgs—players who exhibit remarkable grit and determination when their backs are against the wall. This is the language of this generation. And mentioning language, Coach Prime gives pre- and post-game speeches that are inspiring enough to move congregations. Just check out this speech he gave before Colorado’s TCU game.
Inspiration, honesty, accountability, discipline, and relatability are all incredible traits for any leader to exhibit. The same can be true for Christians in leadership positions as well. Whether we’re leading a football team or leading businesses or neighborhoods, we’re best serving others when we can relate to them. This doesn’t mean relatability is everything, though. We will be set apart in some very fundamental ways. But suppose we’re so set apart that we fail to see or experience pain, issues, or the various complexities of life through the eyes of other humans made in God’s image. In that case, we may miss opportunities to serve the broken adequately.
God’s greatest gift is a Son who can relate to us. Jesus was fully human. Jesus shared the same culture, spoke the same language, ate the same foods, and observed many of the same customs as his people. He was tempted as we are (Luke 4:1-13). He was physically and emotionally hurt, as we sometimes are (Matthew 27:46; John 11:35). But despite being relatable, Jesus was still adamant that you had to be on his team to get to God; “I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” he told anyone interested in following him (John 14:6). Just because he can relate to us doesn’t mean everyone will relate to him.
So, the error some make in trying to be “relatable” in leadership positions is thinking they can accept everything and everyone. We can be understanding and relatable while remaining true to the goals set before us. For Jesus, the joy of being glorified set before him inspired his efforts to lead and relate with the world to join him. And for Deion Sanders, the winning set before him drives his desire to lead and relate.
Though it’s unlikely Coach Prime will win every game this season (don’t tell him that, though), he’s unlocked a blueprint for coaches across the football world to follow. Be honest. Be straightforward. Be you. Those who share your vision will follow.