If not for a fifth year of high school and a rescinded basketball scholarship, Boone Pickens might have his name on a different college football stadium.
As it is, his millions went to Oklahoma State, his name is on the Cowboys' stadium and his orange-tinted fingerprints can be seen all over Stillwater. The billionaire's investment in his alma mater not only transformed OSU athletics but also altered the state's sports landscape.
Because of that, Pickens is going into the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame. He will formally take his spot among our state's greatest athletes and coaches during next week's induction ceremony.
“It's a big deal,” Pickens said of his induction. “Sure it is.”
He smiled a bit.
“Not being an athlete.”
While Pickens isn't a Hall of Famer because of his athletic career, it is what ultimately led him to OSU.
It was also what nearly took him to Texas Tech, a little-known story that could've caused big-time ramifications.
Born in Holdenville, Pickens spent his childhood in the southeastern Oklahoma town. After his sophomore year of high school, though, his family moved to Amarillo. The oil boom had ended in Oklahoma, and his father, a landman, could get work in Texas.
Pickens had played basketball all his life and had even been on the varsity as a sophomore in Holdenville, but under Texas high school transfer rules, he had to sit out a year. When he finally became eligible, he became a starter.
He was then offered a scholarship to play basketball at Texas Tech.
Going to college just down the road in Lubbock? Staying near Amarillo to play ball? It seemed perfect.
But because of his age — Pickens was young for his class — he was able to get an extra year of high school under Texas rules. He decided to turn down Texas Tech's offer and return to Amarillo High for a fifth year.
“I had two senior years,” he said, a little smile playing on his face.
That second senior year, Pickens and his Amarillo High teammates were stout. They made it all the way to the state semifinals in 1947, where they met up with San Antonio Jefferson. That was a squad led by Kyle Rote, who would become an All-American for the SMU football team, then play 11 years in the NFL.
Rote and Jefferson got the better of Pickens and Amarillo.
But Pickens had a chance to keep playing basketball; Texas A&M had offered a scholarship.
Red Raider coach Polk Robison didn't extend the same scholarship offer that he had the year before.
“Coach, you offered me a scholarship the first year I was a senior but you didn't the second,” Pickens remembers saying to Robison one day. “And I was better the second than I was the first.”
Robison agreed with that.
“But,” he told Pickens, “I had got better players the second year you were a senior than the first.”
Pickens went off to Texas A&M, but his stay in College Station lasted only a year. He was cut from a $25-a-month basketball scholarship.
He decided to transfer to Oklahoma A&M and play for the legendary Henry Iba. Even though his Cowboy basketball career lasted less than a season — Pickens remembers being “a meatball” on the practice squad — his affinity for OSU has lasted a lifetime.
It's a love of alma mater that could've been directed elsewhere. Just imagine the juggernaut that Pickens' generosity and Mike Leach's offense might've created at Texas Tech.
Instead, millions of dollars in upgrades and renovations at the stadium have helped change OSU's fortunes. The Cowboys are coming off a school-record, 11-win season and are ranked eighth in the preseason, their highest starting position ever.
They'll kick off their most anticipated season in recent memory in less than a month in the stadium that now bears Pickens' name.
“I got tired of getting beat all the time,” he said of OSU's football fortunes a decade or so ago. “Oklahoma State is ... committed, we're competitive. All that's good.”
If not for his $176 million donation in 2006, none of the changes might've happened. The first of his major gifts to the OSU athletic department greased the wheels for more high-dollar donations by mega-booster alums.
“I'm glad I was there to do it,” Pickens said.
Considering where a slightly different set of circumstances could've taken Pickens, Cowboy fans should feel exactly the same way.