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The NFL-ification of the CU Coaching Staff

Coach Prime recently added two new coaches to his staff, with their backgrounds as significant as their new titles.

George Hegamin is a former teammate of Deion Sanders, who was already a player with the Dallas Cowboys when Coach Prime arrived as a free agent in 1995.

“On the first day we met, we basically hit it off from then,” Hegamin said. “When Prime walks into a locker room, I know what you guys kind of see what he is now, but he’s always been that guy.”

That instant connection with Sanders nearly three decades ago and long-time friendship since then has led to Hegamin now joining Sanders in Boulder. Sanders has hired Hegamin as director of leadership and engagement.

The more controversial hire was graduate assistant Warren Sapp. The No. 12 overall pick in the 1995 NFL Draft, Sapp played nine seasons (1995-2003) with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He was the NFL’s defensive player of the year in 1999 and helped the Bucs to a victory in Super Bowl XXXVII on Jan. 26, 2003.

The scathing article posted by Pat Rooney condemning the hire of Sapp notwithstanding, bringing two more former NFL players into the Champions Center is merely a continuation of the NFL-ifcation of the Colorado coaching staff under Coach Prime.

Both of CU’s coordinators – Pat Shurmur (offense) and Robert Livingston (defense) – are veteran NFL coaches, with a combined one year of Power Five coaching in the 21st century before coming to Boulder.

Shurmur had stints on the staffs of nine NFL teams – including head coaching stops with the Cleveland Browns (2011-12) and the New York Giants (2018-19) – since he last was a coach in college (with Stanford a quarter century ago, in 1998).

Livingston spent most of the last decade as an assistant coach with the Cincinnati Bengals. Livingston is a graduate of William & Mary, where he played safety from 2007-09. Immediately after his playing career, Livingston got into coaching. He was assistant coach at Furman, working with the safeties, in 2010, and then worked as a defensive quality control coach at Vanderbilt in 2011 before moving on to the Bengals and NFL.

It’s more of the same up and down the Colorado coaching staff.

Offensive line coach Phil Loadholt, cornerbacks coach Kevin Mathis and receivers coach Jason Phillips are also former NFL players, and the Buffs have others on staff with NFL experience.

And it’s by design.

“How can you tell somebody where to go if you haven’t been there?” Sanders recently said when asked about the benefit of NFL experience on the staff. “These kids today, man, it’s now how we grew up. … Prove it to me, show me. It’s the show me type of young generation and prove it to me generation. Let me see your credentials type of generation. So when you compose a staff that pretty much embodies the NFL and where they’re directed to, that is phenomenal.”

But … is it … “phenomenal”?

Belief v. Reality … for players

According to the NCAA, only about 1.6% of college football players go on to play professionally in the NFL. This means that the vast majority of college football players will not have a career in the NFL.

But that doesn’t mean that the locker room in the Champions Center isn’t filled with players who believe that they can make it to The League.

Two springs ago, thanks to your generous donations to a Go Fund Me campaign, I was able to conduct a series of interviews with a number of CU student-athletes.

Below is the list of football players interviewed (with links to the interviews, if you are interested) …

These were some of the best players on the 2022 team … a Colorado Buffalo team which finished 1-11, easily the worst team in the Power Five conferences, and arguably the worst team in the country.

Not too many future NFL pros on the list, though some, like Montana Lemonious-Craig, still have a chance at being drafted.

Yet here’s the thing … Every single player I interviewed believed they were heading to the NFL. Every. Single. Player.

Some were not even starters – on the worst team in the country, mind you – yet they all believed they were heading to The League.

While I haven’t had private discussions with players on this year’s team, it’s not a stretch to say that all of the Buffs playing for Coach Prime in 2024 believe that they are capable of playing at the next level.

And the CU coaching staff under Coach Prime is leaning into those beliefs.

“I’ve made that transition from high school to college, college to the pros, won a Super Bowl, then transitioned out, I’m one of the better people to be able to do that,” newly minted director of leadership and engagement George Hegamin said of helping the young players look to the future. “Not just because of what I know, but because who I’ve been mentoring.”

So adding a behind-the-scenes NFL veteran who can help build upon those dreams makes sense.

But does having an NFL-centric staff make sense for prepping the team for battle on the field against Big 12 opponents?

Belief v. Reality … for the coaching staff

Not trying to bring back some bitter memories, but CU has gone down the path of having this type of coaching staff before.

There was a time, not so long ago, that CU hired a head coach who had no coaching experience at the Power Five level; together with coordinators with resumes filled with NFL stops … but light on recent collegiate coaching experience.

The coaches?

Head coach Jon Embree; coordinators Eric Bieniemy and Greg Brown.

Embree & Co. tried to bring an NFL mentality to Boulder, with complex game plans and strategies.

The result?

A disastrous two-year record of 4-21 in 2011-12.

Now, this is not a suggestion that the Buffs under Coach Prime are heading down the same path of the Embree experiment, but it’s not unfair to be concerned.

Pat Shurmur, who hasn’t worked with collegiate players since the Clinton administration, and Robert Livingston, who has one year teaching Power Five collegians (that coming over a decade ago) are accustomed to dealing with professionals. They are used to dealing with a smaller number of players (53 on an NFL roster; 85 on the roster of an FBS team); working with players who have no other job than to prepare their minds and bodies for battle.

Will Coach Prime’s coordinators, and other position coaches with more NFL than collegiate coaching experience, be able to successfully prepare their charges for the upcoming season?

Hopefully, the answer is “yes”.

On offense, Buff fans have to take it on faith that Coach Prime wouldn’t have entrusted the future of Shedeur  – and Shedeur’s chances at being a first round 2025 NFL Draft pick – to Pat Shurmur if he didn’t have confidence that Shurmur could put together an offense at which the players can understand and excel.

On defense, new coordinator Rob Livingston has been, reportedly, flexible in his spring preparations.

From Neill Woelk at CUBuffs.comInstead of implementing a rigid scheme and expecting players to adjust, his plan has been to find his players’ strengths, then fit the scheme to those strengths. That has meant an emphasis on versatility, some position switches — and perhaps most importantly, what CU coaches believe will be a much-improved back end of the defense.

“Rob is going to make the players make the plays, not just the system,” Buffs cornerbacks coach Kevin Mathis told the media this week. “When Rob got here, he wanted to evaluate the talent that we have in the room and then make that happen. He was able to make some calls and make some adjustments to the defense to fit what we have in the room and I think he’s done a good job of that.”

The Coach Prime experiment is well into Year Two.

Here’s hoping that the NFL-ification of the coaching staff will produce the desired results.


6 Replies to “The NFL-ification of the CU Coaching Staff”

  1. With the advent of the Portal and NIL, how you recruit and manage a team is changing college FB more toward the NFL scheme, so having coaches with NFL experience is a plus in my opinion.
    Go Buffs! ‘73

  2. I went to several of Embree practices and they were interesting. Half the time he would have the defense line up in a goal line stand formation. Shout to the defense now I told you what I’m gonna call and they would just pummel each other. Several times in a row he would do this. Wierd.

    Go Buffs.

  3. Only 1.6% make to the NFL, but what percentage of that are from the top 5, 10 or 25 teams? A championship team can have a half a dozen or so players drafted and a high percentage that get drafted are from the same top 25 teams year in and year out. How many Buffs were going into the NFL during their years with back to back seasons with 10 or more wins and finishing ranked?

    Point being that 98% of all college players won’t get a look at the NFL, but 20% of a top team’s graduating/declaring for the draft class, many get a look. And the Buffs want to be a top team again.

    Shedeur, Shilo, Hunter are playing for their team, but they are also playing for their spot in the NFL, along with a few others; as Stuart said, they all think they can go, so I expect a NFL candidate effort from those players and more. Can the coaches design the schemes and play design based on these players strengths and their surrounding cast?

    If both lines are up to the task, I think so.

    Can they turn those one score losses from last season into wins? The new talent added, on paper at least, looks to be an upgrade from last year’s team, with ALL of the biggest pieces of the puzzle coming back.

    The Buffs should have the 3 players mentioned above drafted next year, could they have a few more?

    We’ll see if Prime can bring the Buffs back to glory, but having done it at JSU, they had nothing when Prime got there, and having at least three NFL prospects on the team is a way different starting point than during Embree’s year. Sure it took an extra year to get the all of the players needed (lines) to compete at the P5/P4 compared to at JSU, but I think the Buffs can compete this season with the new coaches AND the new O & D line talent they have.


    Mein Gott it is a sight to behold.

    Go Buffs.

    Note: Rooney is a DH.

    1. Rooney comes from the Pissla school, if you can’t write something inflammatory don’t write anything at all. The new-ish columnist at The Post, Keeler, got infected by Pissla before Pissla moved on to ruin the Denver Gazette sports section.

      This is Prime’s fourth year as college head coach, so he isn’t a rookie in the business and he has stuck to his convictions all along. This year will be the proof of the pudding I think. What I hope for is that once the Sanders siblings move on, Prime sticks around and proves he can build a team for the long term.

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