Back when the Big 12 was closer to its beginning than its end, Boone Pickens and Mike Holder had a heart-to-heart about Oklahoma State's place in the college athletics world.
The energy tycoon had yet to give his millions, and the golf coach had yet to move into the athletic director's office, but the two men were still passionate about their alma mater. Worried about it, too. "Let me tell you,” Pickens told Holder, "the Big 12 may not be the Big 12 some day. If there's going to be somebody left out, I think we could very well be on that list. "We've got to step up the program and get competitive.” He was talking about football. He was spot on, too. If not for the upgrades that Pickens has funded and the improvement that OSU has made on the field, the Cowboys would be outsiders in this conference realignment talk. They would be waiting for a handout. They would be hoping for a miracle. They would be Kansas. Look no further than Lawrence for evidence of just how important football viability is in college athletics. The Jayhawks have one of the most storied basketball programs in the country, but no top-tier conference is calling with an invite. Not the Big Ten. Not the Pac-10. Not anyone. That's because the football program is mediocre. The team is average. The facilities are improving but slowly. Kansas is what OSU was six or eight years ago. The truth is, OSU would be what Kansas is now had Pickens not funded a football overhaul. His millions changed not only the facilities but also the landscape. Everything went up — exposure, talent, wins, donations, expectations. Most importantly, OSU's place in the college athletics world went up. "I thought we could lose out,” Pickens said via telephone Thursday from his Texas ranch. Not anymore.