STILLWATER — Failure is a word that immediately brings negative thoughts into the mind. Yet, failure has played a critical role in Oklahoma State's rise on the college football landscape.
Overcoming failures in golf helped to shape the fundraising approach of OSU athletic director Mike Holder, whose fundraising success has resulted in the Cowboy football program boasting facilities that rank among the nation's best.
Learning to deal with — and overcome — failure has been a staple of Holder's life since he was a standout golfer at OSU, earning Big Eight medalist honors in 1970.
“Even the greatest golfer in the game loses more than he wins,” Holder said. “The nature of golf is you hit a lot more bad shots than good shots. Failure is part of the game.”
And a part of fundraising.
Upon being named athletic director at OSU in 2005, Holder's first goal was to remove the obstacles that were keeping the Pokes' football program from consistently competing for championships, namely the lack of state-of-the-art facilities.
Money — and a lot of it — was needed.
Fortunately for OSU, Holder had the assets needed to make an immediate difference.
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During his 32-year run as OSU's head golf coach, Mike Holder learned anything was possible. He took Cowboy golf from an athletic program with very limited assets to one of college golf's healthiest programs featuring Karsten Creek Golf Course, arguably the best collegiate golf course and facility in the nation.
Cowboy golf went from a budget of $27,000 in 1973 to a program with a $31 million surplus in 2005.
In the fall of 1973, Holder started the Cowboy Pro-Am in an effort to raise funds.
“That really fueled the rise of the golf program,” he said. “From where we had been, a good program, to trying to stand toe-to-toe with the nation's best on a yearly basis.”
During that time, the foundation of Holder's future fundraising efforts were laid.
“I learned organizing the program, meeting people, raising money, starting in small amounts then growing to larger amounts and networking,” Holder said.
Good friends Jerry Walsh, Boone Pickens and Sherman Smith attended that initial Cowboy Pro-Am in 1973. It was a day that changed the future of OSU athletics. Said Holder:
“That day in 1973, it didn't seem like it was a special day at all... but it was. A lot of big things happened after that day.”
Holder had made the decision to build Karsten Creek around that time, but there were several times his dreams of building the highly regarded golf course appeared to be in jeopardy.
As he worked to make his dreams come true, Holder got used to hearing the word “No.”
“I'd go to people multiple times and get the same answer,” Holder said.
Sherman Smith's eventual donation to build a hole on the course is the perfect example of Holder's persistence. The Cowboy AD was turned down at least 20 times by Smith but never stopped asking.
“I just would periodically go back in and ask the same question,” Holder said. “It was, ‘No you don't need the golf course, no I'm not going to give you the money, no it's not possible to do what you're talking about.' Or just no.”
That's where Holder's background as a golfer comes in.
“Maybe my background as a golfer helped me deal with the disappointment that goes along with raising money,” Holder said.
But Smith eventually agreed to the donation of roughly $150,000 to build a golf hole at Karsten Creek.
It was a sign of Holder's ability to build relationships and trust. And his persistent drive to accomplish his dreams for his alma mater.
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In addition to his proven experience in building a top-notch facility through fundraising efforts, Holder already had the contacts needed to ask for immediate donations to make a change in the football program in 2005.
“I knew most of the people who had money and had ties to OSU with an interest in athletics,” Holder said. “And primarily among those is Boone Pickens.”
Knowing how difficult it would be make a real difference in the football program, Holder initially asked Pickens for $300 million. He heard “No” again, several times, but eventually convinced Pickens to donate $165 million in late December 2005 (see sidebar).
The seeds of Pickens' record-setting $165 million donation were planted on the golf course and during quail hunts with the billionaire geologist over a ten-year period from 1995 to 2005. After Walsh, one of Pickens' closest friends, was tragically killed in a car crash in 1995, Holder was there to help fill the void.
“(That) was when we became really good friends and committed to each other,” Holder said. “And committed to making a difference at OSU.”
Having a proven background in taking a gift and turning it into something special made it a lot easier for Holder to ask for Pickens' $165 million gift or Smith's $20 million gift.
Said Holder: “The thing that worked for me: Every time someone gave money to the golf program, it made a difference.
“The difference was more significant than they anticipated, the next time you asked for money they were happy to give what you asked for and usually were willing to give more if you could build a case for why that would make more of a difference.”
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Six years after Pickens' initial gift of $165 million, the Cowboy football program has been transformed.
With Tuesday's announcement that the Sherman Smith Center — OSU's indoor practice facility — is on the way, Holder feels like he's removed all the obstacles to competing for championships in Stillwater.
“You don't raise the amount of money it's taken to transform these athletic facilities,” Holder said. “You don't do that overnight or over a five-year period and raise that kind of money.
“It takes time to build relationships and gain peoples trust. And to show your dream is not a pipe dream, that it actually has a chance of coming through and the benefits will be huge for everyone.”
The benefits have been huge, and they are tangible.
The Cowboys have recorded three-straight nine-win seasons, including their first 11-win season in school history in 2010. OSU enters the 2011 campaign with the expectations that the Pokes will be able to compete with college football's elite, in the midst of the battle for a Big 12 championship.
And it would not have been possible without Mike Holder's fundraising efforts.
“Now as a football coach here you have a realistic chance to be successful,” Holder said. “Does that mean it's going to happen tomorrow? No. I can't tell you when it will happen.
“But I can say, without question, we will win championships here at Oklahoma State University in football.”
Editor's Note: Our look at Mike Holder's impact on Oklahoma State football is the second in a four-part series on the four key men behind OSU's football program renaissance. Coming up the next two Sundays: alum and booster Boone Pickens; and former player and current head coach Mike Gundy. If you missed the first part, which focuses on former coach Les Miles, visit OSU football program's rise started with Les Miles