STILLWATER — In the words of one prominent Oklahoma State official: “Thank God, for Boone Pickens.”
With Texas A&M's breakaway plan now official and the future of the Big 12 Conference again in doubt, the nine remaining Big 12 schools must be privately considering contingency strategies, despite the league's unified front.
Should the Big 12 somehow pull itself together, the Cowboys are secure.
But if the league disintegrates, where does that leave the school in a search for a new conference home?
For OSU, the Pickens-made-possible ascension in football puts the Cowboys on the radar in terms of appeal and relevance — a status that didn't exist even five years ago, before the Stillwater version of the Pickens Plan was complete.
Ten years ago, before Pickens penned his first big check to OSU athletics, the Cowboys weren't much more thought of than Iowa State.
All that has changed.
“They've elevated themselves quite a bit,” said Pat Jones, the former Cowboys coach who is now a college football analyst at Fox Sports. “I think as far as the commitment to football, quite a bit. And that's all we're talking about, football. Anything else is a waste of oxygen. We found that out the last go-round with KU sitting up there about to be cut out.”
Todd Monken sees it clearly, having left OSU and returned, finding a renovated Boone Pickens Stadium and an improved football program from top to bottom.
“It was starting when I left. The home side (of the stadium) had been done,” said Monken, the Cowboys new offensive coordinator who left with Les Miles after the 2004 season, just months before Pickens pumped an additional $165 million into the coffers.
“But there's obviously a big difference now to then. It's amazing what money can do for you, the things that you can provide for your players that make it happen on the field.
“It all starts with facilities.”
The money from Pickens — and eventually others — was applied to coach Mike Gundy's plan to provide the best for OSU athletes. Initially, Cowboys coaches sold a concept, using drawings to portray the vision of what was to come.
Then came the finished product. And the wins — 29 over the past three seasons. And enhanced exposure, with 22 television appearances the past two years. And a top-10 ranking for this season, when the roster seems to feature a depth of talent missing rarely seen in Stillwater.
So if need be, OSU has something to sell to league leaders in any potential new landing spot.
Coaches and players were not available to discuss A&M's intended departure, or its impact on the future viability of the Big 12. OSU officials are maintaining the company line of leaguewide solidarity, leaving all comments to come from the conference office.
OSU students, however, offered their reactions Wednesday.
“It's probably not good for the Big 12, because the more teams that leave, the conference is probably going to fall apart,” said Aaron Krejci, a senior. “Other teams might be convinced to leave, and the big schools might want to go to bigger conferences to compete. This probably means the downfall of the Big 12.”
Said junior Cade Colburn: “In a perfect world, I'd like (the Big 12) to pick up more teams. But I don't want weak teams, so some people kind of lose respect for our conference. If we can pick up respectable teams, that's kind of ideal.”
And if the Big 12 perishes?
“I'd rather go East Coast than West Coast, but we'll see what happens,” said Matthew Roche, a senior. “But I think we'll definitely start looking for another conference.”
Which conferences might have interest in OSU?
That remains to be seen, although the Pac-12 was in play a year ago and is most often linked to Oklahoma and Oklahoma State when talk of realignment arises.
While football is the main draw, OSU does have more to offer than just their recent surge in the sport. The Cowboys have won more total national titles than any school in the Big 12. And in a conference like the Pac-12, which seems to take pride in its wide variety of sports, OSU's track record for all-around excellence can't hurt.
And then there's the presence of Pickens.
Wednesday, Pickens weighed in on the fallout of A&M's departure and how it affects his alma mater.
“In five years, it will be apparent that the Aggies made a bad call on this one,” Pickens said. “I think OSU, with our facilities, our stadium, our personnel, we're ready to compete.”
And it wouldn't be possible without Pickens.
“No way,” said Jones, who knows what it's like to coach with less at the school. “It's the only way they're here. I think it's solely that. The rest of them are all bit players at OSU, other than Pickens.”
Staff Writer Gina Mizell contributed to this story.