Mike Gundy may not start the 2017 season as a traditional man. In fact, he may start it with an AARP card.
He is 50, or at least will be on Aug. 12. And if all of these references are forcing you to jog your memory to that fateful day nearly 10 years ago, well, consider all that has transpired since then for the Oklahoma State coach, who embarks on his 13th season as the Cowboys’ boss Sept. 2 against Tulsa.
Like Gundy becoming the winningest coach in program history. Or amassing five double-digit win seasons. Or coming this close to playing for a national title. Or spawning a coaching tree of his own, watching four former assistants take off and run their own programs. Or elevating Oklahoma State to the cusp of the national elite, with the program’s 68 wins since 2010 ranking 11th nationally.
Ask Gundy what he’s most proud of during a tenure that, including his assistant days, stretches all the way back to 2001, and you get a long-winded answer that speaks to the rise of a program that has not-so-quietly been knocking on the doors of bluebloods going on nearly a decade now.
“Just the ability to sustain, to play at a high level,” Gundy says. “When we took this thing over 13 years ago, we said we wanted to be a consistent winner, and at that time I wasn’t so unrealistic to project something different than saying we can be a top-25 team year-in and year-out, we (can be) a senior-dominated team that has some veteran players that have the potential to be in the NFL, we can make runs at the top-10 and win the conference and the whole thing maybe.
“And we’ve been consistent in doing that really for seven or eight years now, and I don’t think there’s anybody that would argue we’ve become a top-15 program now over the last seven years from coast to coast. And for Oklahoma State, that’s a great accomplishment, and now we’ve gotten to that point and we’re working to continue with it, and to grow the team and to grow the program where we can get to be a title contender each year.”
Gundy, too, has grown, and not just from 40 to 50 — from his forever infamous Sept. 22, 2007, postgame rant in which he vented for more than three minutes at a local columnist, punctuating his comments with the immortal line: “I’m a man! I’m 40!”
Just imagine if social media, or memes, were around back then.
They sure are now, though, and while on the surface there may seem few coaches who would be less likely to take advantage of those avenues than Gundy, the born-and-bred Oklahoman has dived in face-first, amassing a viral catalog in the past year alone that has made the Cowboys head man a must-follow on Twitter.
His mullet, over a year old now, has become more than just a legendary piece of college football fuzz; it’s proven to be disarming for a coach who, fairly or not, became nationally famous the moment he started speaking at the podium after beating Texas Tech a decade ago, his career 13–15 record at the time be damned.
He promoted the school’s top-ranked wrestling program’s showdown with No. 2 Penn State in a video this year donning an orange singlet, complete with an oversized “Big Daddy” coffee mug on his desk. (The video prompted the entire Nittany Lions football staff to dress in a similar fashion after their school won the highly anticipated match.)
Oh, and just before halftime of what proved to be the Cowboys men’s basketball team’s final game of 2017, Gundy tweeted a picture of himself rattlesnake hunting, because, well, why not?
“He’s a fun guy,” says Todd Monken, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive coordinator who worked with Gundy during two different stints at Oklahoma State. “You don’t get to have as much fun when you’re the head coach; we all know that. Whenever you get elevated in your profession, you can’t do some of the same things that you could when you were young because of the microscope. But Mike has fun. There are very few people willing to let their guard down like Mike. That’s what makes him who he is.”
Monken, whose family regularly vacations with the Gundys, points to how Gundy has achieved what he has with the Cowboys after others, such as predecessor Les Miles, parlayed their Stillwater success to greener pastures.
That, in turn, has enhanced the glimmer of the Oklahoma State post during Gundy’s reign.
“It shouldn’t be considered a stepping-stone job,” Monken says. “You can win your league, compete for national championships, get good players, get good coaches.”
Gundy played quarterback in Stillwater from 1986-89, and between his playing, assistant and head coaching days, he has spent more than half his life in the town, affording him the rare coaching luxury of getting to essentially raise his three kids in one place.
“Very rare,” Gundy says of the family roots. “One, it’s difficult unless you are fortunate enough to be a head coach at — the term I use — a top-10 tradition-rich school over a long history, the last 50 years in college football. To come to a place and be able to stay for a long time, have success — my oldest’s a 20-year-old now, and he started school in Stillwater. I came back here in 2000 with Les Miles and now have been here 17 years, so I’m extremely grateful, but it is very rare.
“And there are some coaches who can have success, and one of two things can happen: They leave for a job that would be much more advantageous financially and/or maybe an easier job from a traditional school to recruit to. And the second thing that can happen is if you stay in one place too long then people can just get tired of you. I don’t think there’s any question that there’s some truth to that.
“I’ve been told by coaches over the years [that] if you stay in one place more than about seven years then they’re going to start looking for things you’ve done wrong instead of what you’ve done to improve the program. Sadly enough I think there’s some truth to that, so that’s why you don’t see very many coaches stay in one place more than five or six years if they’ve been successful, unless they’re at a school that would be traditionally a top-10 school.”
Growing up on the job while raising his kids — who range in age from 12 to 20 — has allowed Gundy to, in some ways, reinvent himself, at least when it comes to social media and the like. Monken doesn’t see much change in Gundy the person from the first time they worked together in 2002 until now, aside from the natural maturation of a young coach to a guy who enters this season tied for the third-longest active tenure at one Power-5 school.
“He doesn’t overreact to every little thing like he probably first did when he started,” Monken says, unwittingly prompting a follow-up about Gundy’s 2007 rant.
“He’ll defend that again,” Monken says. “I don’t know if he’ll say: ‘I’m a man, I’m 50 …’ ”
Monken then catches himself, aware of the looming birthday.
“He turns 50,” Monken says. “It is the anniversary, so you never know.”
Written by Matt Fortuna (@Matt_Fortuna) for Athlon Sports. This article appeared in Athlon Sports' 2017 Big 12 Football Preview Editions. Visit our online store to order your copy to get more in-depth analysis on the 2017 season.