For all practical purposes, T. Boone Pickens is the face of Oklahoma State football. He does not call plays or play quarterback, does not make recruiting visits or rush the passer, but Oklahoma State's rise from Big 12 also-ran -- and one of the most obvious in-state "little brothers" -- to major bowl contender has coincided directly with the billionaire Pickens' increased financial contributions to Cowboys football over the last decade-plus. There's an entry fee for sustained success in major college football, and Pickens was more equipped to foot the bill quickly than just about anyone in America. That commitment has, in turn, opened the door for Oklahoma State's rise to respectability.
So, where does Mike Gundy fit in?
Whereas coaches like Steve Spurrier (both Florida and South Carolina), Mike Leach (Texas Tech), Chris Petersen (Boise State), Greg Schiano (Rutgers) and others typically get the credit for the rise of college football teams from obscurity, at best Gundy has had to share that spotlight. As long as Gundy has been head coach in Stillwater, Pickens' open wallet has been there too. And it's just one reason that Gundy has never truly broken through to be perceived as a top-tier coach.
Of course, for a while, Gundy was perceived as almost a cartoon character. That's what happens when a coach has a Howard Dean moment. Dennis Green will always be "THEY ARE WHO WE THOUGHT THEY WERE." Jim Mora will always be "PLAYOFFS?!?" At first, it seemed possible that Gundy would always be "I'M A MAN! I'M 40!"
At the time, in 2007, Gundy was in only his third season as head coach -- 11-13 overall in his first two years and headed for a second-straight 7-6 finish. Nobody really knew if he was the right man to take advantage of the influx of Pickens' money (which paid for what is now Boone Pickens Stadium) and achieve the on-field results needed to back up the heavy investments in football and make Oklahoma State a player in a conference dominated by Oklahoma and Texas. Over time, Gundy has risen above those sorts of reservations. He is now 77-38 in nine seasons, taking Oklahoma State to eight straight bowl games, winning the 2011 Big 12 championship, winning a Fiesta Bowl and currently holding the highest winning percentage (.663) by an Oklahoma State coach since Pappy Waldorf from 1929-33, when the university was still known as Oklahoma A&M. There is no denying his success and his credentials as a strong college coach.
Still, there have always been things that have worked against his reputation and prevented him from jumping from, say, top-25 coach range to the sport's elite tier. There was the press conference rant that defined the first half of his tenure. There was the high-profile, nationally-televised road loss to Iowa State in 2011, when Oklahoma State could have played for the national championship but instead was relegated to the Fiesta Bowl -- a near-unprecedented destination for Oklahoma State but a consolation prize in the context of the 2011 season. There was last year, of course, when a multi-part Sports Illustrated report accused the program of all sorts of impropriety -- accusations that may have been considered damning only a few years ago, but now were mostly dismissed by a public that has increasingly turned against the NCAA and its rulebook -- which the NCAA is now investigating.
Around the same time that Gundy's program came under attack from Sports Illustrated, a new book, The System, by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian, was published with a series of stories detailing how college football works behind the scenes. One chapter is devoted to detailing a football weekend in the life of Pickens, with the inside story of how he came to be one of the biggest boosters in college football (highlighted by a $165 million gift in 2006) to spur Oklahoma State's ascent. It speaks of the increased profile of both the football team and the university, and the excitement that has been built around the program as a result of Pickens' contributions. Gundy is not mentioned in the chapter.
There's another reason he doesn't get as much credit as someone in his position usually would: assistant coaches. While Gundy is a respected offensive mind, prolific Oklahoma State offenses under him have been led by a rotation of future head coaches, from Larry Fedora (Southern Miss, North Carolina) to Dana Holgorsen (West Virginia) to Todd Monken (Southern Miss). Former defensive coordinator Tim Beckman has also gone on to head coaching jobs at Toledo and Illinois. Even acclaimed former offensive line coach Joe Wickline was lured by Charlie Strong to Texas with a coordinator title. Now, Gundy is mostly surrounded by unknowns, including second-year offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich, who he surprisingly plucked from Division II obscurity. Good assistants can be a product of the culture built by a head coach, and any successful head coach is going to develop a coaching tree -- yet it still seems like Gundy has faced an uphill battle for universal respect. It's been easy to assign credit elsewhere.
There is only one situation in college football comparable: Nike's Phil Knight at Oregon. Knight, obviously, played a big role in shaping Oregon's football identity in its rise over the last couple decades through his open wallet and branding of Oregon as Team Nike. However, after coach Mike Bellotti got the Ducks on solid ground, Chip Kelly broke through as a coaching superstar as Bellotti's replacement. Kelly, as a coordinator and head coach, had a very specific identity -- the face of the tempo movement that made Oregon football revolutionary and complemented the futuristic aesthetic of the program so well. He became the face of Oregon football before leaving for the NFL.
Gundy has been more Bellotti than Kelly. That's not a bad thing: Bellotti won a Pac-12 title and a Fiesta Bowl, shared another title and took the Ducks to bowls in 12 of 14 seasons. He was the best coach in Oregon history until he retired and Kelly took his place. But it's also a position that makes it hard to transcend the high profile of the billionaire booster. He hasn't become a dominant coach yet, and the offense has been more associated with the assistants who moved on, like Holgorsen.
In some ways, it seems unlikely that Gundy would voluntarily leave Oklahoma State. It's his alma mater, it's a Big 12 school that now contends for conference championships and he's the most successful coach the program has ever had. Still, the rumor mill has been active, most notably with reported talks with Tennessee and Arkansas in 2012. At some point, his best opportunity to build his reputation may be elsewhere, where he can be the face of a program -- the CEO, free from the public oversight of the most important fan in sports.
For now, though, Gundy -- a relatively-young 46 -- enters his 10th year in Stillwater. He loses an All-Big 12 quarterback and eight of his nine leading tacklers, as well as three offensive line starters and their position coach. The team opens with defending national champion Florida State and plays five Big 12 road games, including Oklahoma and Baylor. In the past, this would be a recipe for total failure at Oklahoma State, just as the rival Sooners make a run at the playoff. But a fancy renovated stadium and modern facilities don't tell the whole story. Gundy is the one who's overseen the development of top-30 or top-40 recruiting classes into four top-20 finishes in the last six seasons. He's the one who has established a viable on-field product to build off the unprecedented financial support. Old stars are gone, but new ones -- look for receiver Tyreek Hill, for one -- are much more likely to emerge than in the past. Oklahoma State is now never a pushover, even in expected down seasons.
In-state rival Bob Stoops has an opportunity in 2014 to live up to high expectations to further cement his legacy at Oklahoma. Gundy faces a different paradigm: Expectations are relatively low for the Cowboys, by recent standards, with Big 12 media voting them fifth in the league's preseason poll. Based on Gundy's track record so far, though, it's not unreasonable to believe that Oklahoma State can quickly rebuild and surprise some people. In that sense, it's perhaps his best opportunity to brush through the distractions, surpass expectations again and bolster his Stillwater legacy, on his own.