Don't move on. Move forward.
That's what Mack Brown learned on the worst day of his coaching career. Moving on? You don't move on from death.
“Sometimes they don't ever move on,” Mike Gundy said of his players, about OSU football's darkest day in memory.
On Feb. 26, 2001, Longhorn defensive end Cole Pittman died when his truck crashed on U.S. 79 in east Texas.
On May 23, 2005, Oklahoma State defensive back Vernon Grant died in a car crash just off Interstate 45 in Dallas.
And now Bob Stoops joins the fraternity of coaches who must guide a football team in the wake of something much more tragic than the loss of a big game. On May 19, OU linebacker Austin Box died of a possible prescription drug overdose in an El Reno house.
“Losing a player is like losing a child,” Brown said a few days ago, in the wake of Box's death. “We've moved forward, but we've never moved on” from Pittman's death. “It was devastating.
“It makes you realize the responsibility you have for the well-being of every player. Since we lost Cole, we ask every player, if they leave town, to tell us when they're leaving, let us know when they get there and then when they're leaving to return and when they get back. We want to be aware of where they are at all times.”
Brown decided that Pittman would remain a part of the team.
UT kept Pittman's locker in place. No one else wore No. 44 the remainder of Pittman's eligibility. His parents were given bowl rings for the two trips Pittman would have made had he lived.
When Grant died, Gundy had been OSU's head coach less than five months. He dealt with a player's death before he coached his first game.
“It happened so fast, I hadn't been on the job long enough, I didn't understand all the ramifications,” Gundy said.
“Vernon Grant was a team leader. He was kind of what you look for in a football player. I didn't understand how important that was.”
Gundy wishes he had done some things differently for his Cowboys. More team meetings to talk about the tragedy. More chances for players to share their grief.
“A chance to get things off their chest,” Gundy said. “A chance to say, ‘Hey, how's everybody?' A lot of these players don't have somebody of strength to discuss things with.”
The tough-guy culture of football sometimes pressures players to keep things internal. Which is the last thing they need.
“All people accept death differently, in all walks of life,” Gundy said. “Players called me crying.”
Defensive end Victor DeGrate was a good player and a tough guy. But he struggled with Grant's death. “He didn't want to hide it,” Gundy said. “He would talk about it. But to this day, it bothers him. He was an emotional person.”
Down in Texas, Brown is an emotional person, too.
“We try to reinforce to our players and staff that life isn't forever,” Brown said. “It can be taken away quickly and without warning, so try to make something of every day. Enjoy every minute because you don't know how long it's going to last and there are no guarantees. That's a message we share a lot because of Cole.”
Brown says he tells each freshman class the story of Cole Pittman. The UT football building contains photos and recognition of Pittman. The video and program of Pittman's funeral are in Brown's office.
“I think about him every day,” Brown said.
Cole's father, Marc, recently spent an hour visiting Brown in his office. Cole's mother, Judy, attended UT's academic awards banquet this spring. The Pittman family has a foundation that raises money for scholarships; Pittman's teammates return every summer for a fundraising event.
Said Brown, “The Pittmans and Texas football will be linked forever.”
So, too, will Oklahoma football and Austin Box.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at email@example.com. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including AM-640 and FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.