Mike Gundy still remembers his dizzy response to the news that T. Boone Pickens was presenting a record $165 million gift to Oklahoma State athletics in 2005.
But then, how could he forget, with Pickens’ mega-donation stamped so permanently on Gundy’s program?
“I didn’t actually fathom the numbers that were involved, and that somebody would actually give that kind of money,” Gundy says. “But I had been in on or around the discussions enough to know that our only chance was to be able to at least somewhat re-do the facilities here.
“Everybody knew that Boone had made tons of money. And that he had the money. Still, you don’t give away $165 million. So I was stunned.”
These days, it’s Gundy and the Cowboys who are doing the stunning.
While Pickens provided the leaping-off point for a Cowboys program that has moved into the neighborhood of college football’s elite — and with a chance to stay, not to rent — it was only Step 1 in OSU’s rise to national prominence.
Gundy had to have a multifaceted plan, and then he and his assistants and the players had to pull it off. In January 2012, the project was all but complete, when the Cowboys capped their first Big 12 championship with their first BCS bowl appearance, rallying past Stanford for a 41–38 overtime win in the Fiesta Bowl.
In a season of firsts, the Pokes posted the only 12-win season in program history, the final step in a stunning progression. Oklahoma State had incrementally built toward the 12-win mark, winning nine, nine and 11 games in the three seasons before 2011.
But it all started with the plan and Gundy’s stated No. 1 step: Be unique.
“We started with how to separate ourselves and how to make ourselves different than we had been the past 60 years here,” says Gundy, who, as a former player and assistant coach, was all too aware of the program’s lackluster history. “We knew if we just kept going forward with the same program, it wasn’t going to work.”
First, Gundy hired Larry Fedora to install an up-tempo spread offense in 2005, moving away from Les Miles’ power-oriented attack and shifting the recruiting emphasis away from elite offensive linemen to a more plentiful supply of difference-making wide receivers.
“I brought Fedora in here, wanting to be no-huddle and play fast,” Gundy says. “We were kind of the innovators of that in this league, other than Mike Leach (at Texas Tech).
“Then we said we had to be different in recruiting, in order to recruit equal to or better than Texas and Oklahoma.”
Again, Gundy’s plan was to be unique.
The Cowboys held satellite camps in Texas in an effort to enhance their visibility in a key target state and to make it easier for prospects to check out what they had to offer. They sold high-scoring offense. They sold the promise of playing in a football palace, the renovated Boone Pickens Stadium. And they sold comforts — everything from bigger, better beds to training table chefs willing to cook mom’s favorite recipes.
“We had to have our niche,” Gundy says. “What could we do to be different? We knew we had to have an everyday lifestyle for our players that was equal to or better than anybody we recruited against. And one that they were comfortable with, so that our players could recruit other players. Or we didn’t feel like we had any chance at all at Oklahoma State. We didn’t think we could have players on our team that were sour and still recruit against teams that were tradition-rich, who could recruit no matter what.
“We had a number of discussions as a staff on what’s really important. Ultimately players win games. You’ve got to get the best players here. And we’ve got to keep them happy so that they’ll want to perform.”
Step by step, the pieces of the plan came together. And as the Cowboys built their model, the players came. Gundy and his staff hit on premium players like Dez Bryant, Zac Robinson, Russell Okung, Kendall Hunter and Perrish Cox.
“From there, we got to seven and nine wins, we were playing head-to-head with Texas and Oklahoma when they were No. 1 in the country,” Gundy says. “So people began to believe in us. And we started to get a few more good players each year.”
Then came the next wave, featuring Justin Blackmon, Markelle Martin, Joseph Randle, Justin Gilbert and others. And the program’s enhanced status appealed to Brandon Weeden, a 2001 OSU baseball signee who finally made it to Stillwater once his try at a professional baseball career had fizzled.
Eventually, the roster revealed landmark depth, featuring arguably the strongest top-to-bottom talent base in school history.
Along the way, the Cowboys broke down barriers. They took down Texas A&M four straight times. They beat the Longhorns back-to-back — in Austin. And finally, they popped Oklahoma 44–10, giving Gundy his first head coaching win over the Sooners and completing the meteoric rise.
“A helluva lot more satisfying,” says Weeden, who returned to Oklahoma State for his senior season, putting the NFL Draft on hold for another year. “I came back to beat Oklahoma. I came to Oklahoma State to beat Oklahoma. To win 12 games, be able to go to a BCS game — all the things we accomplished — and to beat them like we did, that’s pretty special. You always want to win the big ones.”
OSU’s task now: to keep on winning, especially the big ones.
Weeden and Blackmon are gone, along with several other key members of a senior class that will go down as the most successful group in school history.
“Preseason magazines aren’t going to be that fired up about us,” Gundy says about predictions for 2012. “We’re not going to be ranked very high. But I expect our players to play very well…
“I expect to win a lot of football games.”
OSU’s profile has never been brighter. Along with the wins and the recent championships, Gundy carted off two national Coach of the Year awards and was rewarded with an eight-year, $30.3 million contract extension. The Cowboys play fast, score a lot and in 2011 became a Nike preferred team, further enhancing their image with recruits who admit to digging the creative uniform combinations.
“Now, we’re in a position where people do know who we are,” Gundy says. “And people do believe in us. Our recruiting is different. Players believe and they’re different. We don’t have a player on our team who hasn’t won a minimum of nine games a year.
“Winning’s become a habit here. And people expect it.”
And the Cowboys expect it, too, no matter the outside perception.
Two years ago, OSU was in a similar spot. A successful group that included Robinson, Okung, Bryant and Cox departed. But rather than fall back, as many predicted, the Cowboys made a statement about the strength of the program, surging to 11 wins and setting up their sensational 2012.
Offensive coordinator Todd Monken, who left with Miles for LSU because he didn’t think the Cowboys had “as many bullets as the top programs,” returned last year to join Gundy and the new landscape in Stillwater.
“When I left, I didn’t think we had a chance to win every game,” Monken says. “From a coaching perspective, I’ve said this a number of times, I want to be somewhere where you have a chance to win every game. And when that isn’t reality, then I don’t want to be a part of it.
“I really feel with the facilities and with Mike and the other coaches, I think we have a chance to win every game.”
Monken had left just as Pickens was just opening his wallet. Eventually, Pickens’ gift opened doors to a positive future that once seemed off limits for OSU.
“Boone is so big in the big picture,” Gundy says. “We couldn’t have gotten started without him. He’s like the money guy you get to invest in a company. He invested in the company, got the company started. Then the company hired people, had workers, the coaches and players, who made the company run.
“And the company now could pay the investor back.”
— by John Helsley
This article appeared in Athlon's 2012 Big 12 Preview Annual.
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