What Deion Sanders means to Colorado fans. ‘At least we have something to believe’

What Deion Sanders means to Colorado fans. ‘At least we have something to believe’

Jenni Carlson: He’s watched his favorite team become the biggest story in sports. Meet Stuart Whitehair, the fan behind CUatTheGame.com.

Jenni Carlson

By Jenni Carlson

| Sep 29, 2023, 9:57am CDT

Jenni Carlson

By Jenni Carlson

Sep 29, 2023, 9:57am CDT

Editor’s Note: Sellout Goes Mile-High is our special coverage of the Colorado vs. USC game on Sept. 28. Sellout is sending columnist Jenni Carlson to Boulder to experience the most buzzed-about story in college football and also see what’s new with former OU coach-turned-USC villain Lincoln Riley. Coverage is sponsored by: 988, Oklahoma’s Mental Health Lifeline (https://988oklahoma.com/) Rose Hill Builders (https://www.rosehill.builders/) and the Oklahoma State Department of Health’s Take Time initiative (https://taketimeok.com/)

Surveying a nearly empty stadium during Colorado’s season finale last November, Stuart Whitehair had a sudden thought.

He turned to another longtime season-ticket holder sitting near him.

“Next time we’re here together,” he said, “it will be sold out.”

Whitehair knew who Colorado was playing in the 2023 home opener: Nebraska.

“We thought that half the stadium would be filled with Nebraska fans,” he said.

Turns out, he was right about Folsom Field being sold out for Colorado’s Sept. 9 opener. The place was packed. But it wasn’t because of the Cornhusker crazies.

It was because of Coach Prime.

Deion Sanders and Colorado football have become the biggest story not just in college football but in all of sports. (Oh, maybe the Taylor Swift-Travis Kelce thing makes it a tie.) Even after Colorado suffered its first loss a week ago, a beatdown at Oregon, the Buffs are still at the epicenter of the sports world. Fox’s Big Noon Kickoff will be in Boulder this Saturday for the third consecutive home game, and no less than LeBron, Jay-Z and Lil Wayne are expected to attend Colorado-Southern Cal.

Array

Everyone is watching what’s happening with Deion and the Buffs with great fascination, remembering for the first time in a long time that Colorado actually has a football program.

The whole thing has been crazy to witness.

But what has it been like for those who’ve backed the Buffs even when few others were? What do they think about going from obscurity to phenomenon, from the worst Power Five team in the country and one of the worst programs in all of college football to a weekly spectacle? 

There’s no better narrator for that experience than Whitehair.

He’s been a Colorado football fan since 1980 and a season-ticket holder for almost that long. He took to the Buffs as a student at Colorado, first as an undergrad, then going to law school, despite the team being woeful.

He spent seven years at CU, and during that time, the Buffs had only one winning season.

“I didn’t know any better,” he said.

But even after Whitehair left school, moved back to Bozeman, Montana, and began practicing law, he kept going to games. He made the 700-mile drive to Boulder for at least four home games every season.

He was eventually rewarded. Starting in the late 1980s under Bill McCartney, then transitioning to Rick Neuheisel, the Buffs had an eight-year run in which they went 78-15-4 and claimed three Big Eight titles. The 1990 Buffs won the national championship.

Those teams featured some great players. Eric Bieniemy. Darian Hagan. Deon Figures. Rashaan Salaam won the 1994 Heisman Trophy.

But after Colorado left the Big 12 for the Pac-12, a downturn that started under Dan Hawkins became a free fall. The program had a revolving door of head coaches and floundered to establish a recruiting foothold out West. 

Since joining the Pac-12, Colorado has won 27 conference games in 13 seasons. Take out the resurgent 2016 season and the total drops to 19.

What were the lowest moments in the valley?

“How much time do you have?” Whitehair said.

In 2009, Whitehair decided to make a road trip to Ohio. He had family there, and with Colorado playing at Toledo on a Friday night and Ohio State hosting USC the next day, he thought it would be a fun excursion.

Then Toledo waxed Colorado, 54-38.

“To lose and lose badly,” Whitehair said, “it was not even a competitive game against Toledo.

“And just to see the indifference on the field and on the sidelines, it just was very sad to see.”

Around that same time, Whitehair started a website devoted to Colorado football, CUatTheGame.com. At first, it was an outlet for his memories of Buffs games during his time as a fan. But as the years went by and the losses piled up, it became a gathering spot for weary fans.

Whitehair tried to be thoughtful, not reactionary in what he wrote, but at times, his emotions were raw.

“There have been some very bleak moments in the last 15 years that really hurt,” he said.

“But the thing about plenty of lows is that it makes the highs that much sweeter, that much more to savor.”

And Whitehair has been devouring this season.

Colorado head coach Deion Sanders walks the field during warm ups as the Oregon Ducks host Colorado in the Pac-12 opener Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023, at Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Ore.

Colorado head coach Deion Sanders took over a program that averaged about two conference wins for the previous 13 seasons. (Ben Lonergan/The Register-Guard/USA TODAY Network)

He had high hopes when Sanders was hired — “We didn’t believe it was gonna happen,” he admitted. “It’s like the CU-isn’t-entitled-to-have-nice-things type of bunker mentality that you develop over the years” — but he wasn’t sure how much improvement the Buffs could make. Yes, the fan interest was high, including the spring game being sold out after having been free and drawing flies for years. Sure, the national spotlight was shining; didn’t everyone see that animation of Deion riding a buffalo about a million times?

Still, Whitehair knew Sanders faced a colossal challenge to overhaul the roster and resurrect the program.

“A month ago, nobody knew what was going to come once they took the field,” Whitehair said.

Then the Buffs not only went toe-to-toe with TCU in the season opener but also found a way to go on the road and beat the Horned Frogs, who a season ago played for the national title.

Whitehair was ecstatic. With the win, yes. But with the way Colorado played, too.

“It was a disciplined team,” he said. “That’s what really stood out to me.”

There’s been more fun since. A home-opening win against Nebraska. A double-overtime victory against in-state rival Colorado State that ended after 2 a.m. on the East Coast but was still one of the most-watched college football games of all time on ESPN.

There has been disappointment, too. That trouncing at Oregon was ugly.

Whitehair tries to keep all of it in perspective.

“Proof of concept … ” he wrote on his website after the Duck demolition, “is defined as: evidence, typically derived from an experiment or pilot project, which demonstrates that a design concept, business proposal, etc., is feasible.

“Welcome to Colorado football, 2023.

“Yes, even after the beatdown the Buffs took against Oregon, there is proof of concept that the Coach Prime experiment is going to work.”

Even as the college football world goes ga-ga for Deion and the Buffs, one of their biggest fans does what he can to avoid extremes. Whitehair is enjoying the success and is thrilled Colorado has already won three games — “I think most Buff fans would’ve thought four or five wins would have been a great step forward for year one,” he said — but he understands how deep a valley the Buffs have to crawl out of.

He was in the depths with them, after all.

“CU’s still got five ranked teams on the schedule,” Whitehair said. “It’s not going to be easy. It’s not going to be always pretty.

“But at least we have something to believe.”

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Jenni Carlson is a columnist with the Sellout Crowd network. Follow her on Twitter at @JenniCarlson_OK. Email [email protected].

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