Despite finishing his first season in Boulder with six consecutive losses, Deion “Coach Prime” Sanders was the unquestioned center of the University of Colorado football team’s unprecedented return to the national discussion by revitalizing the program – and in many ways, college football itself – and for that, Sports Illustrated has named him their Sportsperson of the Year.

The Buffaloes’ football team finished 4-8 under Sanders – quadruple the victories of the previous, disastrous one – and while that constituted a failure for some, Colorado became the center of the American sports world ever since Sanders’ hiring. From a wintry spring game that ESPN chose to feature over back-to-back champion Georgia, to a six-game run to start the campaign that saw both ESPN and Fox center their daily broadcasts from the campus in Boulder, to the celebrities that dotted the scene all season long, “Coach Prime’s” star power made sure that all eyes were on the Buffs.

Veteran sportswriter Pat Forde explained Sanders’ stunning impact in his feature: “First-year applications are up 26.4% year over year; Black or African American applications are up 80.6%; nonresident applications are up 29.8%; and international applications are up 38.4% from 97 countries, including 16 that didn’t have any applications last year. While those numbers cannot be definitively linked to Sanders, others can be: September sales at the school’s online team store were up 2,544% over the same month in 2022. Every home game in 50,183-seat Folsom Field was sold out for the first time in school history… Visit Boulder, the convention and visitors bureau, calculates that the total economic impact of the first four home games—where attendance was up by nearly a third over last year—was an estimated $77.8 million, a massive jump from 2022.”

For a program that had been all but left for dead for the better part of two decades, Sanders’ debut season breathed new life into not only the program, but into a moribund fanbase and collection of long-suffering alumni who had experienced the apex of Colorado football under head coach Bill McCartney, culminating in the program’s national championship in 1990.

The Buffaloes, who will join the revamped Big 12 conference next fall, need another infux of talent in order to make the next step, and Sanders’ traditional recruiting acumen will be tested. It’s still possible for this experiment to fail… on the football field, at least.

For the University of Colorado itself, however? Success is already assured; Sanders has brought attention back to the university – not just the football program – that’s been worth millions more than their head coach will earn from his contract. Even in a NIL-driven world… isn’t that still what collegiate programs are supposed to do?