STILLWATER —When Joe DeForest learned of Boone Pickens' $165 million gift to Oklahoma State in 2005, one thought immediately came into the mind of the Cowboys' assistant coach.
“Now we have a chance,” he figured.
A member of the Cowboy coaching staff since 2001, DeForest knew the lack of state-of-the-art facilities made his job significantly harder during the early 2000s.
With Pickens' donation, DeForest knew the Pokes' program was about to change. And change quickly.
Six years after Pickens' initial gift, OSU features state-of-the-art facilities that are second to none. It's rare to see a recruit visit Stillwater and leave unimpressed with the football facilities.
“Now when kids come on campus, they look at it as a ‘wow', instead of a ‘You've got to be kidding me,'” said offensive coordinator Todd Monken.
Cowboy coaches now show potential recruits around with pride, considering their facilities a potential game-changing asset instead of an obstacle to overcome. OSU's unique locker room, spacious meeting rooms, a first-class weight room and top-notch training table are an unquestioned symbol of the commitment to compete for championships in Stillwater.
“It's exciting because you can bring a kid in, bring a parent in and say, ‘Look at these facilities,'” said DeForest, OSU's special teams coordinator and safeties coach.
A huge portion of the credit for the recent rise of OSU football goes to Pickens.
“The bottom line is the Pickens money,” said former OSU coach Pat Jones. “Anything other than that is window dressing. Nothing would have changed if not for the Pickens money.”
That transformation has resulted in a football program that has gone to five straight bowl games and won nine or more games for three straight seasons, including an 11-2 record in 2010.
“There's no way our program would be where it is today without Boone Pickens,” DeForest said.
But money can only do so much; vision and execution were key.
And Boone Pickens was confident Mike Holder could make their vision a reality.
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Athletic director Mike Holder earned Pickens' trust through his success with OSU golf, showing the Cowboy alum he would get a bang for his buck if committed millions to Cowboy athletics.
“He knew based on what I did with golf, that I'd be a good steward with the money,” Holder said. “I wouldn't spend it frivolously.”
Said Pickens: “I told Holder, ‘I trust you to take the money and make sure it's properly spent.'”
Through the desire for first-class facilities for all sports, the plan for OSU's athletic village was born.
“We had to have some structure to be sure it will be wisely spent,” Pickens said. “We can't just throw it out there, we have to have an overall plan.”
That vision is alive today and took another step forward with last week's announcement that construction on the Sherman Smith Center, OSU's indoor facility, would begin on August 1.
“Holder keeps delivering,” Pickens said. “We get more for our money than anybody else does.”
While Pickens' trust in Holder gave him confidence his $165 million gift would be well spent, victories weren't the only goal — or even the No. 1 goal — in Pickens' mind when he made his record-setting gift in 2005.
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When the Big 12 Conference was in its infant stages, Boone Pickens looked at the layout of the conference and wondered how long it would last.
The energy billionaire and OSU alum would join Holder on the golf course and on quail hunts, then they would spend several evening hours discussing life. The discussion often turned to OSU and the need to make Cowboy football a legitimate contender on a yearly basis, in part because Pickens was concerned OSU would be left behind if the Big 12 ever broke up.
“We have to figure out how to make ourselves competitive to the point we won't be the ones that are dropped out,” Pickens told Holder.
Already a school with winning traditions in several sports, Pickens and Holder were perplexed about the Pokes' struggles in football.
The duo understood football success — or lack thereof — can have a huge impact on the general perception of a school and its athletic programs. In order to increase OSU's national appeal, the football program would have to become a driving force.
“Rightly or wrongly, a lot of graduates' pride is associated with the success of our football team,” Holder said.
Pickens' initial gift of $165 million sparked the OSU alumni base, spurred other donations and ignited general excitement around the football program.
“A big concern for me was I wouldn't have the support of the alums,” Pickens said. “That they would say, ‘Well, Boone's got all this money, let him do it.' I am overwhelmed with the support we have gotten from the alums. That's one thing that is greater than I thought. I thought it would take longer to build the support.”
The boost in the overall support of the program, sparked by Pickens' gift, has helped OSU football become highly regarded on the national and regional level — evidenced by the Pokes' 22 television appearances in the past two seasons.
Pickens wanted to transform the football program into a valuable entity.
And he's achieved that goal.
“He changed the whole culture and mindset around here,” Holder said. “What's happened is inspirational. People believe just about anything is possible now.”
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With Holder rewarding his trust and the Pokes becoming a valuable asset on the college football landscape, Pickens remains committed to making Cowboy football an national championship contender every year.
“I tell people at Oklahoma State University, as long as Boone Pickens is drawing a breath, good things are going to happen for us,” Holder said of Pickens, who has given over $500 million to the university. “Because he's 100 percent committed to making a difference... and not just in athletics, throughout the whole university.”
OSU will enter the 2011 season with the talent to compete for a Big 12 Championship and the national prestige to rank among the nation's top teams.
While he never had a year-by-year goal as a blueprint to track OSU's success, Pickens is happy with the results.
“I think I've gotten my money's worth,” he said. “And there's a lot more to come. OSU is growing and getting stronger. We have made the commitment.”