Former Redbird voice Mark Johnson in college football’s 'Prime' location
A cowboy at heart, Mark Johnson’s love of horses leads him to saddle up and ride every chance he gets. He also enjoys watching them gallop in the morning sun at his mountain home.
There is a calm and serenity to it all.
That peacefulness belies what is happening in Johnson’s work life, where the noise is nonstop surrounding the University of Colorado football team and its first-year head coach, Deion Sanders.
“Prime Time” as a Hall of Fame player, Sanders is “Coach Prime” now. And Johnson, former play-by-play man for Illinois State football and basketball at WJBC Radio, is front and center for Colorado’s gridiron revival as the “Voice of the Buffaloes.”
A year after going 1-11, Colorado is 3-0 and ranked 19th nationally.
“It has been like a tsunami has hit Boulder, Colorado,” Johnson said. “It really is amazing, the transformation. I said this at the end of last season: we were the most irrelevant team in college football and probably the worst power-5 team.
“In just a few short months … we’re the most interesting team in college football. We’re the number one story not just in college football, but sports overall. I mean, it’s startling.”
Sanders was hired in December after three highly successful years at Jackson State. He assembled a top-notch coaching staff and overhauled the roster through what has become the free-agent pool of college athletics … the transfer portal.
Wins over TCU, Nebraska and in-state rival Colorado State, fueled by Sanders’ son and star quarterback, Shedeur Sanders, have made the Buffaloes the talk of the country.
“It has affected every aspect of the program,” Johnson said. “Not only on the field and obviously the roster, but the donations and sponsorships and endorsements and season ticket sales and apparel sales. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen.”
The journey to Colorado
Johnson has seen a lot in his broadcast career. His first year after leaving WJBC, he was the radio voice for Syracuse University’s 2003 national championship run in basketball.
Following another year in Syracuse, he moved to KOA Radio in Denver and became the voice of Colorado football and basketball. His previous 19 years of Buffaloes’ football produced just three winning seasons (2004, 2005 and 2016).
“It is a treat and I’m enjoying every minute,” Johnson said.
That includes his time with “Coach Prime.” There isn’t a lot because of Sanders’ high profile and busy schedule, but it has been quality time.
Johnson calls working with Sanders “unique” in regard to arranging interviews, etc. For much of his career, Johnson has been able to walk down a hall, poke his head in the coaches office and say, “Hey coach, we need to do A, B and C.”
The process is different with a man Johnson accurately calls “one of the greatest athletes of all time.” Sanders is a Pro Football Hall of Famer and also played 10 years of Major League Baseball. Beyond that, he has been a successful broadcaster and is a cultural icon, business mogul and a brand unto himself.
“And oh by the way, he coaches football and does it at a very high level,” Johnson said. “I’ve said, ‘He’s not a celebrity coach. He’s a celebrity who coaches.
“He has people around him all the time. He has agents, handlers, assistants, social media people, brand marketing people. It’s not as simple as walking up and saying, ‘Hey, we need to do this.’ It’s making sure you get on the calendar through all of his assistants. Now, when we’re together, he’s been fantastic.”
Johnson has attended speaking engagements with Sanders and they do a weekly coach’s show in front of a studio audience. When Sanders walks in, the place goes crazy.
Johnson joked with him it is like Elvis entering the building.
“Once you get him on stage, that Deion smile shows up and Prime Time is there. He turns it on and is phenomenal,” Johnson said. “He’s been a joy to work with. It’s just there are a thousand things that happen a day and I might be 799. So when he walks in the room, you better be on point and ready to go.”
Johnson has experience on his side. He was sports director at KOA for 13 years before being hired as the University of Colorado’s first Director of Broadcasting in 2017.
After years of also working some Major League Baseball and college/NFL games for various networks, his focus is solely on “the Buffs” as he calls them.
That has simplified things for Johnson, whose family includes his wife, Susan, three grown children and two granddaughters.
On the job, the attention generated by Sanders and the program has magnified everything Johnson and his broadcast partner, former Northwestern and Colorado head coach Gary Barnett, say and do.
It also has made Johnson a go-to for media types wanting to chat about the phenomenon he’s witnessing.
“It seems like I’m the easy guy to get to within the program, so everyone wants to talk to the guy who broadcasts the games,” Johnson said. “That’s made that part of my job a little busier.”
What's next for Colorado
How good is Colorado? The Buffaloes survived a scare Saturday night, edging Colorado State 43-35 in double overtime. A large home crowd celebrated by spilling onto the field.
“CU fans right now are convinced the Buffs are going to be in the College Football Playoffs at the end of the year,” Johnson said. “As a broadcaster, I look at them and say we could be really, really good.
“We have some big-time games coming up (next) … at Oregon, USC coming to town. I don’t know how many wins it’s going to add up to, but Colorado is going to be in the middle of the Pac-12 (title) picture when it’s all said and done.”
The first step was hiring Sanders. It was a bold move by Rick George, a former University of Illinois defensive back in his 10th year as Colorado’s athletic director.
George was on Bill McCartney’s staff when Colorado won the national championship in 1990. His goal is to return the Buffaloes to national prominence.
“He did swing for the fences and he did make an enormous financial commitment to put this thing back on the map,” Johnson said. “The early returns are what the early returns are.”
That is, magnificent.
Three games in, the fan base is saddled up and enjoying the ride.
So is its voice.