By Doug Ottewill and Dan Mohrmann

The following feature appears in the December issue of Mile High Sports Magazine.

According to the internet, a generally reliable source, there are 19.14 driving miles between the Altitude Sports Radio studios on South Colorado Boulevard in Denver and Vic Lombardi’s home in Golden. As the crow flies, that distance measures 12.18 miles.

Problem: Lombardi isn’t a bird, nor was he allowed to drive. He had to walk.

When it was all said and done, his smart watch told him he’d hoofed it 16 miles. What began as a jog meandered through parks and back alleys all the way to his mom’s house in North Denver, where he stopped for a late lunch. Then he took a nap. Then he walked the rest of the way west to Golden, arriving home not long before dark. On air, Lombardi had made what he considered to be an idle threat at best – a “bet” as it were – and everyone who follows the Colorado Buffaloes was thrilled he was having to pay up.

Sportstalk radio hosts popping off in the spirit of emphasizing a point isn’t necessarily a new schtick. Some get ridiculous tattoos. Some do worse. Some wind up living on a Denver billboard for more than a month.

In 1990, 103.5 The Fox’s Rich Goins made a wager on the Broncos-Chargers game with a radio host in San Diego. The bet? If the Broncos lost, Goins vowed to camp atop his station’s billboard until the team won again. Five losses and 33 days later, a chilly stretch from Nov. 11 to Dec. 16, Goins finally came down.

The notion that the 1990 Broncos, who had just been to the Super Bowl the previous year, couldn’t win a game with the Lions or Chargers (both finished 6-10 that season) on the upcoming schedule, wasn’t nearly as ridiculous as the bizarre 2022 rumor that “Neon” Deion – Prime Time – Sanders could be heading to Boulder to coach the hapless, 1 -11 Colorado Buffaloes football team. That was just pure silliness. An outlandish idea that prompted Lombardi to famously say he’d gladly “walk home from work” if it happened.

“I thought there was one-one-hundredth of a chance that it would ever happen,” Lombardi said. “Deion Sanders coming out west to Boulder, Colo. to take this job? When he likely had so many other options? Why would he do that? No way. Not happening.”

Over the course of the 2022 season, the Buffs had morphed from being a bad football team into one that was an embarrassment – potentially one of the worst programs in the country. A once proud program – a national champion in 1990 – had become virtually irrelevant. The last “good” coach they’d hired split for Michigan State following an encouraging 2019 campaign, and the program’s most recent hire, Karl Dorrell, turned out to be an utter disaster who was shown the door after going 4-8 in 2021 and starting the ’22 season 0-5.

Making matters worse, it seemed as if the perceived divide between academics and athletics at CU could be widening; murmurs of “Why bother?” oozed out of Boulder.

“You have to understand, two years ago we had one of the regents from CU on our radio show and the topic of banning football was actually discussed,” Lombardi added. “I didn’t think a school like CU could do what it takes to attract a guy like Deion Sanders.”

Why would a guy named “Prime Time” want any part of that?

Better yet, why would Colorado athletic director Rick George even dare to dream that Sanders was an option? Asking Coach Prime to leave highly successful Jackson State in favor of coaching his downtrodden Buffs felt as if the frog was thinking of asking the princess to prom.

Lombardi having to walk 16 miles home from work?

No way. No how. No chance.

It was as unlikely as any sports rumor he’d ever heard.


As they tend to do these days, those rumors spread like wildfire on the night of Dec. 3, 2022. Confined in the press box at Empower Field at Mile High that night were Boulder Daily Camera CU football beat writer Brian Howell and Denver Post columnist Sean Keeler.

Their assignment that particular day had nothing to do with the Buffs, but with the high school football state championship games. But Twitter (as it was known then) held both of them captive. Jackson State was playing in a football game that very day but reports of activity afterward sent everyone into a frenzy.

Prime had scheduled a meeting with his team. Media availability had been cancelled. Between the time it took for someone to write about Cherry Creek’s fourth straight title and make a 60-minute drive to Colorado Springs, it was all but official.

He’s coming.

That’s what he told a room full of CU football players less than 24 hours later.

“I’m bringing my luggage with me,” he said in a now-famous speech. “And it’s Louis [Vuitton].”

Sitting a few rows behind the current roster was a piece of carry-on luggage in the form of Deion’s son, Shedeur. He was all but anointed QB1 that very night.

Little by little, others started following.

Travis Hunter was rated the No. 1 player prospect in all of football for the 2022 class by 24/7 Sports. He picked Jackson State because of Deion Sanders. And when Deion left, Hunter was always going to follow.

(Dan Mohrmann/Mile High Sports)

In all, 10 players transferred from Jackson State to play for Sanders in Boulder. The floodgates were opened just as the widening gap between athletics and academics was suddenly shrinking. What George called a pilot program to make athletic transfers more feasible had been launched.

A new day had arrived at Folsom and the effects were felt immediately.

On top of the transfers, he had brought in some big-time high school talent. Dylan Edwards had been committed to Notre Dame, but he decided to switch to the Buffs.

Cormani McClain, a standout cornerback committed to the University of Miami made his declaration that the was trading the sunny days on South Beach for the majesty of the Flatirons. His change in commitment prompted a Sanders Instagram. post where he once again made a declaration that would become his recruiting battle cry:

“Today… is a good day, baby! I ain’t hard to find.”

By the time the spring game rolled around, the nation was catching Buffs Fever. The only spring game that ESPN put on TV was CU’s. A typical snowstorm altered the format, but it couldn’t dampen spirits. Folsom Field was sold out and Boulder was in the early stages of becoming the epicenter of college football for the 2023 season.

When looking at where the Buffs had been even six months earlier, unlikely isn’t the word to use to describe the newfound culture. Fantastical might be more appropriate.

But the unlikely chain of events continued into the season. Following the Buffs 45-42 win over TCU, the team that fell one win short of a national title in 2022, attention was shifting to Colorado. Shedeur Sanders threw for 510 yards and four touchdowns garnering high praise from national analysts. He was sacked four times in that game, however, a trend that would come into play later.

FOX brought the “Big Noon” kickoff show to Boulder the next week for the home opener against Nebraska. That was the first sign of the chip on the shoulder of the collective team. A walk to midfield for the Cornhuskers outraged Shedeur and for the first time all season, he flashed his watch at his adversaries.

Again, the Buffs claimed victory, doubling their 2022 win total in their first two games of the year – an unlikely pace when checking in with the sportsbooks.

The first sense of adversity came the very next week. ESPN’s College Game Day rolled into town and with it came a red-carpet lineup that was more fitting for the ESPY’s rather than CU football. Perhaps there was no better image than Dwayne Johnson peeling off his coat, revealing a Shedeur Sanders jersey.

The Rock says CU football is a big freaking deal.

Prime later said that of everything that had happened for his team to that point, The Rock showing up was the most impactful.

“That man could be President,” Prime reminded everyone.

The Rock, Terrell Owens, Lil Wayne, CC Sabathia, Michael Irvin, Offset. These are just a few of the celebrities that made their way to Folsom Field to hang with Coach Prime and the CU Buffs.

(Dan Mohrmann/Mile High Sports)

In the midst of all the hype around Game Day, CSU coach Jay Norvell had accidently sparked a wildfire with an off-handed comment about Sanders.

“When I talk to grownups, I take my hat and my glasses off,” Norvell said. “That’s what my mother taught me.”

That comment triggered a chain reaction that resulted in Prime-branded Blenders shades becoming the hottest ticket in town. CU students rolled into Folsom that night (for an 8 p.m. kick) decked out in shades. Blenders may have been the real winner as the company sold $1.2 million in its Prime shades in just a single day.

Prime used the dig as motivation for his team. They may have gotten a little too worked up, however, as the Buffs fell behind to the Rams early. Perhaps more unlikely than CU’s 2-0 start was the chance to move to 3-0 when the Buffs were down eight points with about two minutes left on the clock.

Oh, and they had the ball on their own 2-yard line. A quick and tidy 98-yard drive tied the game and the Buffs needed a pair of overtime sessions to come away with the win.

“At one point in the game, I said we can’t let this dude win,” Sanders said of Norvell afterward. “There is no way we let this dude win.”

Had the Buffs let CSU win, it would have been a disastrous ending to a turnaround that many saw as unlikely when the season started.

The Buffs had become the talk of college football and everyone in Boulder was eating it up. But beneath the shine of a 3-0 start, there were red flags when looking at the product on the field. And the party was about to come to a crashing halt.

(Dan Mohrmann/Mile High Sports)

Still the national story, Colorado headed to Oregon for what most believed would be their first “real” test. TCU, as it looked in retrospect, was overrated. Nebraska was bad. CSU was worse. No. 10 Oregon, however, was the real deal.

But there was more to it than just a matchup with a top-10 team, a school with bona fide speed and talent, a Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback and dripping with more Nike money than Boulder. There were also the comments of Oregon head coach Dan Lanning when it was announced that Colorado would be rejoining the Big 12 Conference.

“I’m trying to remember what (CU) won to affect this conference and I don’t remember,” he posed to reporters. “Do you remember them winning anything? I don’t remember them winning anything.”

Unlike Norvell’s comments ahead of the in-state matchup with CSU, Sanders opted to take Lanning’s remarks in stride. After all, there wasn’t anything untrue about what the coach was suggesting.

But those words were just the beginning.

The manner in which Sanders and his Buffs had won was impressive. But there was always a contingency that felt Sanders’ brash ways and postgame commentary – “I keep receipts…” – were eventually due for some comeuppance. Lanning’s pregame speech to the Ducks might have accurately reflected the sentiments of those not so enthralled with the circus that surrounded CU Football.

“Rooted in substance, not flash!” Lanning thundered to his team in the locker room before kickoff. “The Cinderella Story is over, men. They’re fighting for clicks; we’re fighting for wins. There’s a difference.”

Though Sanders had no way of hearing Lanning’s unmistakable shot across the bow before his team took the field, the speech caught fire during the broadcast and continued to light up the internet long after the Buffs were trounced 42-6. There was suddenly a harsh reality that chilled the red-hot Buffs and their hopeful fans. This was not a national title contender. There was still a gap between the country’s upper echelon teams and the out-of nowhere program that had caught the attention of an entire nation. Even Sanders’ response was subdued: “You better get me right now. This is the worst we’re gonna be. You better get me right now.”

Still, the Buffs were 3-1 with an immediate chance at redemption against then-No. 8 USC and 2022 Heisman winner Caleb Williams. Despite the “good old-fashioned butt kicking” (as Sanders called it) in Oregon, the hype around CU might have slowed, but not by much. Word of the guest list in Boulder for the Trojans game began to surface on social media. LeBron James, Jay Z, Snoop Dogg, Will Ferrell, Matthew McConaughey, DJ Khaled, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Michael Irvin, Terrell Owens, the defending NBA champion Denver Nuggets, DaBaby and Lil Wayne were all slated to be in Boulder. Prime joked with reporters that “half of the NBA will be here” and he wasn’t far from wrong.

A sluggish start seemed to endorse Lanning’s pregame jabs from the previous week, but CU’s furious comeback suggested that the Buffs weren’t dead yet. Though they ultimately came up short, the USC game ended on a high note that left the Buffs faithful encouraged.

At 3-2, a road game against Arizona State oddly felt like a must-win. The Buffs came through, beating the Sun Devils 27-24 and moving to 4-2 on the season, but the game became a bigger story for two reasons.

First, Shedeur Sanders, who engineered the game winning drive, again flashed his (reportedly) $70,000 Rolex, this time in a post-game celebration in front of the Arizona State student section. The move again went viral, sparking controversy around the country.

A USA Today headline read: “Shedeur Sanders’ watch flex: Classless, cool or a genius marketing move?”

Rapper Rick Ross said, “That’s the new move.” D.J. Khaled said, “I call this the Shedeur,” as he flashed his own watch.

Former NFL quarterback Danny Kanell had a different take. “If there was a Heisman for beating 1-5 teams, this guy would win it,” he wrote.

Platforms like Twitter reflected both sides of the controversy for days, keeping CU in the spotlight for reasons beyond their unlikely but otherwise pedestrian 4-2 record.

But the other reason the game received added attention was the postgame comments of Coach Prime himself. Despite the much-needed win, he called his team’s performance “hot garbage.”

While he wasn’t wrong – it was undeniably an ugly win – his harsh criticism following a win seemed to offer a new and refreshing vantage point. Perhaps Prime wasn’t all flash. Perhaps he had a little “ol’ ball coach” in him, just enough to pacify those who had grown tired of the glitz and glam that had become part of the program.

The roller coaster was not about to stop, however. In fact, it came crashing down to earth a week later in Boulder.

Following the sloppy win against ASU, the Buffs returned home to face a Stanford team that many believed to be the worst in the Pac-12. As if his team had taken his words to heart, Sanders headed into the locker room at halftime with 29-0 lead. The Buffs, it appeared, were back on track.

Or, maybe not.

When it was all said and done, Stanford scored 36 points in the second half, tying the game and forcing overtime. In the second overtime, Shedeur Sanders threw an interception leading to a Stanford field goal, resulting in one of the most improbable losses in school history.

Likely the lowest point of the season, the Stanford loss wasn’t the last low. Back-to-back losses to UCLA and Oregon State followed.

Though the Buffs nearly pulled off an upset over No. 16 Arizona, it wasn’t meant to be as the Wildcats game-winning field goal sailed through the uprights as time expired in Boulder. Washington State put a 56-14 thumping on Prime’s squad and things ended mercifully with a loss to Utah in the finale.

There was no denying the impact that Deion Sanders had made in Boulder. The program had received unprecedented national attention. The university had filled its coffers, a financial windfall fueled by what felt like a 12-month marketing campaign that even money couldn’t buy.

And though the improvements from one season to the next were impressive, there was still plenty of work to do on the football field. What happens between now and next fall will eventually paint a more accurate picture of just how big Prime’s first year in Boulder truly was.

All of it was unlikely. But how likely is it that the climb continues? How likely is it that the locomotive that barreled through Boulder stays on the tracks?

Nov 11, 2023; Boulder, Colorado, USA; Colorado Buffaloes head coach Deion Sanders during the first half against the Arizona Wildcats at Folsom Field. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Throughout the 12 months that Prime has officially been tied to Boulder, there is one absolute truth: People are paying attention to the University of Colorado’s football program.

Whether it’s those who are excited about what they’re seeing – the Joel Klatts and Vic Lombardis of the world – or those who aren’t as enthralled with the flashiness of the Buffs – like Kanell or Mile High Sports columnist Mark Knudson – there are a lot of eyes on Boulder.

As with anything of the college sports nature, it’s tough not to wonder if the well is going to dry up at some point.

While Prime has been largely accepted by CU football fans, the swagger and confidence that he has certainly been polarizing.

One longtime fan couldn’t hide his frustration after watching the Buffs offense stall against Oregon State on Nov. 4.

“The dog and pony show is over!”

Prime was brought in to win. He came to Boulder to win. It’s easy to point to four wins as an improvement over the one win in 2022, but Prime would be the first to say that a four-win bar is set far too low.

“I don’t accept mediocrity,” he said after the Arizona State game. “Maybe you do and maybe you can live with it. Maybe you’re comfortable with it. But I’m not.”

As the Buffs struggles continued into November, the full weight of the program’s fall started to get to him.

“This is hard,” he said after the Oregon State loss. “The reason this is so hard is because we know we’re capable of doing better, of playing better, of performing better, of calling a better game, coaching better on my behalf and we keep coming up short.”

When he came into the program, he made it known that he wanted to win a national title and that he wanted to win games right away. He said it with such passion and such confidence that the social media world that exists today believed it would just happen.

But here’s the thing: That’s not how college football has ever worked.

In Nick Saban’s first year at Alabama, he went 6-6 ahead of beating CU in the Independence Bowl. Kirby Smart went 7-5 at Georgia in his first season ahead of winning the Liberty Bowl. In Dabo Swinney’s first season at Clemson, he went 9-5 and then took a step back and went 6-7 in Year 2.

Turning programs around takes more than one hire, a handful of transfer portal players and a flashy atmosphere.

Perhaps the biggest concern that CU fans saw was the Oregon State loss when Sanders handed offensive play calling duties over to former Broncos offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur.

Shurmer’s stint with the Broncos was nothing short of disastrous, leaving locals with a bad taste in their mouth. They were understandably impatient when the Buffs failed to move the ball until the fourth quarter of that game, one they lost by just seven points. And for the first time all season, Prime showed frustration toward the media members he had eating out of his hand for much of the year.

When asked about Shurmur calling plays over Sean Lewis, Sanders shut down Keeler, the writer who asked the question.

“We’re not going to demean Sean Lewis, sir,” Prime said. “We’re not going to take that tone. I think Sean is a good man and a good play-caller. We just needed something different.”

The tiff continued into Prime’s general media availability the next week. Keeler again asked if Shurmur would be moving ahead with play-calling duties and again Sanders shot him down.

“I’m past that, man. Let that go,” Sanders said. “You’re barking up a tree that you’re not getting up.”

It creates an interesting dynamic with Prime moving forward. One scroll through social media and it’s clear that there are many who are getting tired of his style. Being dismissive of a polarizing issue for football fans in this state does not help that.

But it’s also clear that Prime is comfortable with who he is, and that he has no desire of changing his beliefs, coaching style or level of confidence.

How that affects the program moving forward will be the thing to watch. As of press time of this issue, the Buffs have 10 high school commits for the 2024 class, including a pair of fourstar players. Aaron Butler, the top-rated commit for the Buffs so far, has also been offered by Georgia, Alabama, USC, Auburn, Miami, Michigan, Notre Dame and Oklahoma. But he says he’s coming to Boulder.

Sustainability in every college football coach is always a question. Prime’s swagger could certainly be a deterrent for some fans and media, but it has yet to be an issue for incoming recruits.

On multiple occasions, Prime has been asked about coaching in the NFL or being a target for other college teams but he has maintained a stance that he loves Boulder. He might be flashy, but he has also been the most honest and direct coach in the game today.

So, when he says he’s staying, he should be taken at his word. And no one knows for sure what the future of CU football holds with him at the helm.

But everyone should strap in. This roller coaster ride, the unlikeliest of roller coaster rides in college football, is just getting started.