Mark Maciejewski had a natural reaction when he heard his office received a call from Oklahoma State, asking for film of his Division II offense.
"What the hell did they want our film for?" he wondered.
He obliged, asking the Cowboys to provide some of their own. He wasn't sure what he was going to do with it beyond tuning in, but it only seemed right.
A few days later, a different caller left a message at the football offices, asking to speak with Maciejewski's offensive coordinator. He and Mike Yurcich were on the road together recruiting, and the mysterious caller didn't leave a name, only a number at which he could be found.
It was Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy.
"He wanted to run under the radar a little bit," Maciejewski told Sports on Earth this week.
Gundy initially found his target by searching for the top offenses on the NCAA's website and tabbing over to the "Division II" column. He analyzed Yurcich's prolific offense and conducted a few phone interviews before the two met in person in Maryland.
Gundy had his man. Four seasons later, Gundy's unorthodox approach looks prescient. He unearthed one of coaching's rising stars, and his team has benefited. Oklahoma State has the nation's best offense and a possible first-round pick running it in quarterback Mason Rudolph, who also happens to be throwing to the best group of receivers in the country, led by the best receiver in the country in James Washington.
The Cowboys' offense has averaged 8.55 yards per play through three games, good for third nationally. Last week, they ran up a 49-14 halftime lead at Pitt with touchdown drives of 75, 96, 80, 54, 65, 82 and 79 yards. The Cowboys already have 11 plays longer than 40 yards this season, two more than any other FBS team.
Oklahoma State hasn't been a serious factor in the national title hunt since 2011, but that could change this season, and the Gundy/Yurcich/Rudolph trio is the reason why. On Saturday, the No. 6 Cowboys host No. 16 TCU, which is also 3-0, in their toughest test yet.
Gundy joked that back in 2013 he wanted to "hide" his newest play-caller. So far, he's been successful, as the revolving door of successful play-callers in Stillwater found a more permanent tenant. Gundy handed play-calling duties to Dana Holgorsen before the 2010 season, but a year later, Holgorsen became the head coach at West Virginia. Gundy brought Todd Monken in but after two seasons, Monken became the head coach at Southern Miss.
Yurcich might earn a head coaching gig next, but Gundy successfully slowed the turnover at the position. For now, his latest play-caller has grown into a catalyst to a possible playoff run.
"Mike is as good as anyone I've ever had," Gundy told reporters after the Cowboys' dominant win at Pitt. "I can't say he's not a good candidate somewhere."
Before Yurcich was the architect of an offense that could carry Oklahoma State into the playoff, he was a pest in the Pennsylvania State Athletics Conference. He spent six seasons at Edinboro, a PSAC rival of Shippensburg. In 2010, Shippensburg turned to Maciejewski, an ex-player who was also a long-time staffer, to replace program legend Rocky Rees. He previously coordinated the defense but had since moved to assistant head coach and coached the secondary, where he became acquainted with Yurcich's coaching.
"I knew what his offenses were doing to us as a defense," Maciejewski said.
Shippensburg welcomed a departure from the Wing-T attack that had been successful in the past but stagnated late in Rees' run. So it was time for Yurcich and the spread, and he turned to a former high school spread QB named Zach Zulli to run it. When Zulli couldn't get on the field ahead of more experienced passers, he worked as a punt returner and backup running back and receiver. With the arrival of the spread, Zulli returned to quarterback.
It didn't take long for Zulli to develop a comfort with the new offense, and it eventually progressed to mastery. The playbook checked in at around 500 pages and 250 plays, but in action, it was simple to learn. Yurcich would teach by playing every position on the field, demonstrating to his players exactly what he wanted. Sometimes it was showing the quarterbacks the right footwork on a drop-back, teaching a running back how to make a jump cut more lethal, sharpening a receiver's dull route or even refining his offensive linemen's kick slides.
Yurcich had his eye on building the best offensive in Division II.
"It was so easy the way he explained it," Zulli said. "I didn't have to think on the field. If I knew one player was out of line or on the hash, I knew I was going to that side. I had to make one read. It was super easy."
Every week, Yurcich would draw up new plays or wrinkles for that specific opponent, growing his offense. Shippensburg started just 3-4 but closed the season with four consecutive wins. In 2012, it went 11-2 and Zulli won the Harlon Hill Trophy as the best player in Division II. Along the way, the team scored at least 49 points nine times.
"I had so much success because of everyone getting a chance," Zulli said. "Our entire offense was so good, everyone touched the ball, everyone had fun."
Sound familiar? Through three games this year, eight Oklahoma State players have at least three catches, three have at least three touchdown catches and nine players have scored.
"It's the exact same, I swear," Zulli said.
The lunchtime film sessions paid off. Yurcich and his quarterback would be together 6-8 hours a day, between practice, meetings and downtime.
"He'd cheer me up when I was having a bad day," Zulli said. "He was like my best friend."
When Zulli went to the weight room, Yurcich would be lifting alongside him. Yurcich was a former quarterback at California University of Pennsylvania, but he relished building Zulli into the kind of player he wasn't. He's doing the same with Rudolph at Oklahoma State.
When Yurcich took the only job offer he had in 2012, he called his quarterback into the office and broke the news. Zulli smiled, stood up and gave him "the biggest hug of my life." It was the kind of hug reserved for a friend signing up for a modest salary bump of 761 percent, from $52,500 to $400,000.
Yurcich weathered the early storms of 2014 when fans calling for his job became routine. Now, Yurcich's fifth season in Stillwater could be his finest.
"I brought him here to hide him for a few years and it ended up being a good decision," Gundy said. "I don't know that I'll be able to hide him much longer. He's pretty dang good at what he does."
Even from that first anonymous phone call, Gundy has been able to keep his play-caller on the down low. If the Cowboys reach the playoff this year, those days are almost assuredly over.