STILLWATER, Okla. — “Sorry I’m late. We’re trying to figure out why we got our asses kicked on Saturday.”
Mike Gundy is only 10 minutes late for our scheduled chat, but considering this is game week, anything short of cancellation feels early.
Gundy’s Oklahoma State Cowboys just lost their first game of the year, a glitchy, unlucky 44-31 defeat to TCU. But there’s no time for wallowing: they have to get ready for a Saturday night track meet in Lubbock.
It wasn’t that long ago that a 13-point home loss to a top-15 team would be considered a sign of progress for an aggressively directionless Oklahoma State program. From the time the Cowboys joined the Big 8 in 1960 to when Gundy was hired as head coach in 2005, OSU finished the season ranked in the AP poll just five times.
Two of those finishes came with Gundy behind center.
Since Gundy’s hire, the Cowboys have risen to an entirely different level of sustainable success. They won their first Big 12 title in 2011, destroying OU and coming within an eyelash of the BCS Championship game. They have won at least nine games in seven of their last nine seasons and will probably do so again this fall.
They have found this level of success under an unrepentant Okie. And the sneaky brilliance of Gundy the Okie, along with Oklahoma State’s cultivation of another famous alum — the billionaire T. Boone Pickens — is at the heart of how the coach has led the program to new heights.
Yes, you know about the hair. You know about “I’m a man.” But focusing on one story and a hairstyle obscures the essence; Gundy is Okie to the core. That means wood grain in his office. It means hunting on the weekends. And it might mean coyote traps, too.
“He had this coyote trap,” Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich says of his boss. “It was a thing that had like a squirrel’s tail on it, and it would whip around like this [makes fast, circling motion] and made this crazy noise. It made the sound of a bunny dying. It’s the worst sound you could ever hear. And he turned it on, and this thing would go crazy. He’d get a kick out of that.”
Or there was the stray dog Gundy once found. “He had him trained in a day, I think,” Yurcich says. “The dog did everything he told him to do — I’m like, ‘This guy is the head coach ... he’s a dog whisperer...’”
Gundy’s success is undeniable. So is the fact that he is always 100 percent himself.
“We have created a monster that now you have to feed.”
This is a new OSU. I grew up in Oklahoma (my parents graduated from Midwest City High School 15 years before Gundy), and I attended high school and college games at what was then Lewis Field from 1993 through the mid-2000s. I visited again recently, and it took a long time to get my bearings. This place has changed.
Granted, the small-town vibe has not. Stillwater is still a town of under 50,000 people. It’s still structured so that virtually everything OSU-related that you need is within about two minutes of two streets — the east-west Hall of Fame Ave. and the north-south Main St. The athletic facilities are still but a short walk from the vaunted Eskimo Joe’s and the downtown area.
It’s also still a chore to get to town, about an hour’s drive north and east of Oklahoma City. The harder it is to get somewhere, the harder it is to work up the motivation to leave.
The small city means the new facilities carry even more gravitas. What is now Boone Pickens Stadium now holds close to 60,000. The football offices, housed on the west side of the stadium where only bleachers used to stand, are immense.
“It’s an unbelievable transformation,” says Dave Hunziker, the voice of Oklahoma State football and basketball. “Back when I arrived here [in 2001], a crowd of 36,000 or 37,000 was considered a nice crowd. Now it’s 56, 57,000 on a weekly basis.”
“For a long time here, we would have 32,000 faithful that would come to the games,” Gundy says. “Well, now we have 35,000 people that tailgate. This place is full. The RV lot is full. The RV parking lot used to be a gravel parking lot. There was two people in there.”
These fans certainly don’t expect to lose to TCU at home anymore.
“We have essentially created a monster that now you have to feed,” Gundy says.
“You can go just about anywhere, and it's going to be about the same.”
Gundy could have easily ended up about an hour and a half south in Norman. That was the original idea as he was wrapping up his senior year at Midwest City High in 1985.
“I eventually committed to OU,” he says, “but Jamelle Holieway was starting there and won the  national championship. He had three years left, so I was smart enough to say, look, their defense is always gonna be awesome, and he just won a national championship. They only play Texas and Nebraska every year, that have the same level of talent as them. How am I ever going to break in and be the starter?
“Because of my ties to my family and not wanting to be too far away, I started looking real seriously at Oklahoma State.” It worked out pretty well for everyone involved.
Despite head coach Pat Jones’ run-heavy tendencies, and despite the presence of incredible backs like Barry Sanders and Thurman Thomas, Gundy still finished his career as the conference’s all-time leading passer. But OSU’s star power inadvertently revealed its limitations.
In the 1980s, the school employed Jimmy Johnson (who left in 1984 to take over at Miami) and Jones, fielded offenses with Gundy, Thomas, Sanders, and Hart Lee Dykes, and fielded defenses with Leslie O’Neal and Dexter Manley. Stars, all of them. But between 1977 and 1994, the Cowboys went 0-17-1 against Oklahoma, and between 1962 and 2002, they went 0-35-1 against Nebraska. Those brilliant teams of ‘87 and ‘88 went 0-4 against the Sooners and Huskers and 20-0 against everybody else. And after flying close to the sun in the late-1980s, they ended up getting burned by the NCAA and dealing with years of sanctions.
Things change. OSU won three of its last five against Nebraska before the Huskers left for the Big Ten. And while the Cowboys still lose more than they win against OU, they’ve beaten the Sooners four times since 2001.
Gundy’s return has a lot to do with it. And it was a winding road for him to come back home. He joined Jones’ staff directly out of college and was named offensive coordinator before he turned 27. But thanks in part to NCAA sanctions, Jones’ tenure ended poorly in the mid-1990s. Gundy set off on his own.
He spent one year as Baylor’s receivers coach under Chuck Reedy before a 4-7 season left everybody unemployed; he then spent four years under Ron Vanderlinden at Maryland before suffering the same fate.
“Being fired twice taught me a lot. It made me realize that having a job in coaching, it's not greener everywhere else. All the issues I thought Oklahoma State had, well, Baylor's got problems and Maryland's got problems. I realized that you can go just about anywhere, and it's going to be about the same.”
In 2001, Miles brought him back to Stillwater as offensive coordinator. And when Miles took the LSU job after four seasons, Gundy replaced him as head coach.
“Slow blinkers, hard to play the game.”
To John Smith, maybe the greatest amateur wrestler of all time, there is value in playing other sports and failing at them. “It’s humbling. You can be great at wrestling, but you can’t hit a baseball. That’s how it was for me.” He thinks it can lead to you appreciating your own gifts, and your best sport, a bit more.
That’s not necessarily something Mike Gundy would know about. “You know, Mike was good at everything,” Smith says. “I think he went with the sport he was best in, but Mike was a good basketball player, good baseball player, he won junior high state [in wrestling] when he was in junior high. Just an all-around good athlete.”
Smith is a former national champion and Olympic gold medalist. Just two years after his second Olympic gold in 1992, he was leading the OSU wrestling program to a national title as head coach. His Cowboys won four in a row from 2003 to 2006. He is the most accomplished Oklahoma State athlete of all time.
Smith was two grades ahead of Gundy and ended up attending Del City High, Midwest City’s chief rival. But the Gundy and Smith kids grew up around each other and birthed one hell of a Mid-Del dynasty.
Two of John’s brothers (Leroy and Pat) and two of his nephews (Mark and Chris Perry) all won national titles on the mat. Meanwhile, Cale Gundy succeeded Mike as quarterback at Midwest City, attended Oklahoma, and now serves as OU’s offensive co-coordinator. Every coach says he builds a family environment. Thanks to two coaches in particular, “family environment” is almost literal in Stillwater.
“The best thing my dad ever did was force me into wrestling,” Gundy says. “I’m not a very big person, but it changed my strength, changed my balance, changed my work ethic. And I was good at it. John and I grew up together and traveled around the country wrestling in difference places. That did a lot for me.”
Depending on who you ask, though, Gundy ended up sticking with either his best sport ... or his second-best sport. His first love was baseball, and he played for Gary Ward’s Cowboys as a freshman, but this was a tricky time to distinguish yourself in Stillwater on the diamond. Ward’s team was in the middle of an astounding 16-year Big 8 title run, and his primary positions, shortstop and third base, were filled by studs: Robin Ventura and Monty Fariss. “So when they started, I came back to spring [football] and never went back.”
He wishes he hadn’t. “Biggest mistake I have ever made. I finished at 6'0, 190, and I was probably big enough to play and get drafted and go take a chance if that was what I wanted to do. I wasn't big enough for football.”
And yet, football has paid off pretty well. Gundy believes, like many other coaches, that experience in many sports, instead of single-sport specialization, is a good indicator of future football success. Versatility in athleticism can be important, but versatility of the mind matters, too. “The guys who play multiple sports are almost always your best athletes,” he says.
“Besides, the game's changed so much that you're gonna need guys that are cerebral players. You've gotta think so much now, and you've gotta think fast. Slow blinkers, hard to play the game.”
“He wants you to think he’s just some country hick.”
Playing multiple sports certainly helped, but Gundy’s athletic success also came between the ears. Don’t let the hair fool you. Even if you’re smaller than everybody else on the field, you can make a lot of ground by out-thinking everybody.
“He’s unbelievably smart,” Hunziker says, “and one of the ways he’s smart is, he’s got a lot of people fooled. They just think he’s this Okie — and I say ‘Okie’ in a stereotypical way. He’s one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met. Every decision he makes, every day, is calculated.
“He thinks through everything he does, and he’s so innovative here. Offensively, the things they did back in 2010-11, the start of the diamond formation, that spread like wildfire. What he decided to do in terms of conditioning and deciding that hitting during the season, having full-bore scrimmages and tackling a lot, was counter-productive. People thought that was nuts! Now everybody does it.”
The list of innovative ideas is long, and Hunziker knows them all. “But again, people think, ‘Oh, it’s all about the mullet. It’s all about rattlesnake hunting.’ In the meantime, he’s figured out four new ways to do things a lot of people haven’t even thought about yet.”
Every Okie man and woman thinks they have wit and common sense just because Will Rogers lived there. Most of them are painfully incorrect. Most think only others need to heed “If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging,” or “Never let yesterday use up too much of today,” or “I never met a man I didn't like.”
That said, the OSU program was built by not one or two, but three straight-forward, common-sense Okies. And Gundy might have actually been the least important of the three.
“Man, I'm glad I wasn't very smart.”
Before this run could begin, the school first needed to make the perfect athletic director hire. It didn’t have to look very far. Mike Holder was hired to replace Harry Birdwell in September 2005, just two games into the Gundy era. Holder led the OSU men’s golf team to eight national titles in over three decades as head coach, and he showed similar prowess in a much larger role.
“I think Coach Holder’s done a great job of hiring coaches,” Smith says. “There’s been some of these sports that historically we’ve never been competitive in” — cross country, tennis — “all of a sudden, we’re competitive. I think that’s a big difference in the overall performance of our athletic program.”
Indeed, OSU has finished in the top 30 of the Learfield Cup standings for five straight years, peaking at 13th in 2016. “Those things don’t happen with 17 programs,” Smith says. “It’s gonna be hard to fall in there unless you’re running 20 or 30 programs. It’s effort on his part to ensure to some of our coaches, ‘We’re behind you, and we care as much about your sport as any sport.’
“A lot of things seemed to come together [on his watch], and that wasn’t an accident.”
Holder, a native of Ardmore, Okla., has been around Stillwater even longer than either Smith or Gundy. Nobody could have known what the OSU program needs better than him.
“When I took this thing over,” Gundy says, “I was 37, and I was just so stubborn and had so much energy and was so confident that I wasn't smart enough to know this was a damn hard job. I loved OSU, I believed in myself, and I said we could do this.
“Now, once we kind of accomplished it and I got my second contract, I started to look back and think, ‘Man, I'm glad I wasn't very smart.’ This is really hard. What I had the first three years here was, our athletic director, Mike Holder, he never wavered for one second. Any time something got brought up, he said ‘He's the right guy, he's our coach, end of story.’”
Holder is what you might call a coach’s AD. That makes sense considering he was a coach to begin with. Giving his charges room to breathe and running cover for them has paid off more often than not.
Long-term comfort allowed Gundy to avoid short-term patches. “That propelled me into not trying to cut corners and bring a bunch of JUCO kids in and get the quick fix,” he says. “There are no quick fixes at Oklahoma State. Everything that we do has to be well-thought through, the planning has to take place. We can't burn a couple of years — we'll struggle for five more. He allowed me to do that. And then we started winning, and after that there weren't any issues.”
Holder’s biggest accomplishment, however, didn’t have anything to do with his coaches. It was in turning a certain mega-booster into a master-booster.
In December 2005, he convinced alum T. Boone Pickens, who had already earned naming rights to the stadium for previous contributions — among other things, he had donated $70 million in 2003 — to drop an extra $165 million on athletic upgrades. The next year, Pickens contributed another $100 million the academic arm of the school. At this point, he’s contributed over $500 million to his alma mater.
And to think, Pickens would have been a Texas A&M alum if he hadn’t lost his basketball scholarship.
“You're not gonna get results if you don't shoot the gun.”
In the personality department, it takes quite a bit to outshine Gundy. Pickens might the only guy who can do it. A native of Holdenville, Okla., Pickens conquered the corporate world in the 1980s, perfecting the art of the hostile takeover while wearing plaid shirts on book covers and sporting a thick accent.
Pickens holed up in his Texas offices, combined the wisdom gleaned from analytics, research, patience — “Don’t rush the monkey, and you’ll see a better show,” he says in The First Billion Is the Hardest, a book in which he also says “The higher a monkey climbs a tree, the more people can see his ass.” — and decades of experience to pick his targets, then showed up on Wall Street to buy all the shares of your company. He combined an even temperament with common sense and made a metric ton of money, for both himself and shareholders, in the process.
In a way, Pickens and Gundy have gone about their business in similar ways. Neither has worried himself with conventional wisdom, and both have tried to stay a step ahead. As Pickens says in The First Billion, “My strategy [in the 1970s] was the same as today: staying current on every possible source of information, investing on the fundamentals of supply and demand, and sticking with my conviction over the long haul.” Thanks in part to Pickens’ investment and Holder’s resolve, Gundy had the time and space to do the same.
“Mike Holder essentially got me this job,” Gundy says. “Boone essentially financed the product. And then I ran the organization. Boone is the main force — if he wouldn't have said, ‘I'm gonna build 'em a new stadium, build 'em a new facility,’ I don't think we could have attracted enough kids here to have the success that we've had.
“Holder was essentially like water dripping on a rock, year after year after year, he finally got him to say okay, here's your $300 million. That's what Holder does. He wore the guy out.”
Gundy’s favorite Booneism has quite the Will Rogers vibe: “A fool with a plan can outsmart a genius with no plan any day.”
“I use that all the time with our team, with my kids at home — and it is true,” says Gundy. “When you're in charge, when you're parenting or coaching or running an organization, if you don't have direction, nobody has direction.
“...He'll also say this: You have to aim and fire. You can just aim and aim and aim and never pull the trigger. He said you're not gonna get results if you don't shoot the gun. There's too many leaders, people in charge, that cannot make a decision based on what will happen from that decision. He said, if it's wrong, just fix it.”
Just fix it. From Pickens’ first autobiography, Boone: “There’s usually more than one way to solve a problem. When you’re in trouble, you look at your pluses, stay cool, and ask yourself how you can get your cart out of the ditch.”
Gundy might have become known for a 2007 outburst and a magical 2011 run, but his greatest ability is getting his cart out of the proverbial ditch.
In 2009, when his Cowboys finished a disappointing 9-4 after reaching as high as fifth in the country, he hired offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen and revamped his offense. Two years later, they nearly won the national title.
In 2014, in the middle of a treacherous five-game losing streak, he went with a youth movement, basically handing the offense over to two freshmen, quarterback Mason Rudolph and receiver James Washington.
And in a Saturday night track meet in Lubbock late this September, following a disappointing loss, Washington, now the second-leading receiver in school history. caught nine passes for 127 yards. Rudolph, the all-time leading passer, scored the game-winning touchdown with a minute left. Getting the cart out of a ditch in 2014 helped the Pokes to avoid one in 2017.