STILLWATER — Nobody deserves more credit for Oklahoma State's rise on the college football landscape than Mike Gundy.
The Cowboys' first-class facilities are an asset, but they mean nothing without success on the field.
“That facility doesn't win any games,” athletic director Mike Holder said. “The weight room can't beat anyone, the locker room can't win any games.”
Said offensive coordinator Todd Monken: “A lot of people have nice facilities. Facilities alone are not a reason for a kid to go there. It's a start, but if you don't do the right things in recruiting, if you don't discipline the team, if you don't play tough, it won't matter.”
The Cowboys back-to-back, nine-win seasons in 2008 and 2009 were a sign Gundy had OSU moving in the right direction but that success could have just been a group of talented upperclassmen, including NFL players Russell Okung, Dez Bryant, Perrish Cox and Zac Robinson, imposing their will to lead OSU to victories.
The 2010 season is an undeniable sign Gundy and his coaching staff is building a quality program, not just one quality team. The Cowboys' 11-2 record was proof OSU has the ability to reload after losing NFL-level talent.
“I can't explain to you how amazing it is to see coach Gundy be the guy to get them in this situation,” former Cowboy offensive lineman Sam Mayes said. “I'm actually shocked they've gotten as far as they have so soon.
“I know what it was like, that first season when Les (Miles) left, you wanted to hang yourself. He took a power offense and turned it into a flag football team. I thought, ‘He's crazy! How's this going to work?'”
Yet it has worked.
And it's happened thanks to Gundy's confidence in his plan and vision of the future for the Cowboy football program.
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When Mike Gundy took over at Oklahoma State in 2005, he had a clear-cut plan for how to build a championship contender.
“There's no question in my mind I know how to win a championship at this school,” Gundy said. “I may not know how to do it at Arizona State but I know how to do it here.”
His top priority was change the atmosphere around the program and begin laying a foundation which could withstand the inherent ups-and-downs of college football.
“We had some internal issues that needed to be cleaned up,” Gundy said. ”I don't know that it was anybody's fault in particular but just the way we approached things every day.”
OSU had plenty of success under Les Miles — going 24-14 in his final three seasons including three-straight bowl appearances — yet Gundy didn't hesitate to make changes. He wanted his players to see his commitment to success in Stillwater.
“I didn't know that we had enough morale as a team to keep it going over a period of time,” Gundy said. “I wanted the players to know our coaching staff was fully committed here.”
The former Cowboy quarterback had a vision for his program and was unyielding in his commitment to that vision. Gundy wanted to build a program based on several core principles including structure, discipline, honesty and expectations of maximum effort on the field and in the classroom.
“I wanted to establish and do things the way I was comfortable with, then I wasn't going to worry about it after that,” Gundy said. “There's a particular way I'm comfortable doing things. If it works — which I think it will and it has to this point — good. If it doesn't, I wasn't going to go out doing it somebody else's way.”
With those core principles implemented, the focus turned to securing playmakers that could be the difference between an exciting victory or heart-wrenching loss.
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After taking over in Stillwater, Gundy immediately took steps to improving OSU's recruiting and the overall talent level on the roster.
“I felt we had to start recruiting at a high level,” he said. “We had to recruit guys who wanted to be committed to our program at Oklahoma State University. I knew we had to step out of the box and toe the line, I knew we had to do something different here.”
How did the Cowboys step out of the box?
“We started traveling and running camps in Texas,” Gundy said. “We recruit Oklahoma as hard as anybody. But any given year, the numbers are considerably less than in Texas. In order for this program to run, we have to get players from Texas.”
The Pokes signed nineteen recruits from Texas in 2006, Gundy's first full recruiting cycle, including future NFL players in Cox, Okung and Keith Toston. From 2007 through 2011, OSU signed 78 recruits from Texas including standouts Dez Bryant, Kendall Hunter, Markelle Martin and Shaun Lewis.
“We started exploiting every opportunity in recruiting,” Gundy said. “We are there all the time, try to get in the schools and make our presence known. We tried to make people feel like the Dallas metroplex and East Texas area is like in-state for us.”
Recruiting is only part of the game however. Evaluation has been key and Gundy's policy to be as honest as possible with his players cannot be overlooked (see sidebars).
“Recruiting is only part of it, the other part is when you get them here you have to take care of them,” Gundy said. “Or after couple or three years you aren't going to be able to go down there (to their school to recruit) again.”
Success on the recruiting trail — especially in the Lone Star State — has sparked success on the field with OSU entering the season with the potential to crack the Top 10 for the third-straight season after making its fifth-straight bowl appearance in 2010.
“That was the biggest change for us,” Gundy said. “To really exploit our opportunities to recruit the state of Texas.”
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A solid foundation has been built and bringing quality talent to Stillwater has become a staple under Gundy.
Yet, that's not the best news for Cowboy fans.
The head coach who has played a critical role in making it happen doesn't not have one foot out the door or one eye on another job.
Mike Gundy is secure and confident in his “New York Yankees” job i.e. dream job entering his seventh season.
“The right guy is here with Mike,” Monken said. “Because when you won in the past, guys left. When Jimmie (Johnson) won three bowl games in a row, he went to Miami. When Les won, he left.
“Mike sees this as a destination job. The only way you gain credibility for a program is when your coach sees it as a destination job. When guys leave, it tells people this job's not good enough.”
Gundy is believes being the head coach at OSU is good enough.
Which means there's no reason to count the days until OSU stumbles, no matter what has happened in the past.
“You need a guy who's in charge, in his destination job, to maintain that (type of success),” Monken said.
Said special teams coordinator Joe DeForest: “There's a comfort in knowing that whatever we're doing, we're making a blueprint not only for today but for tomorrow and the future, because he's going to be here the whole way.”
Gundy's vision for Cowboy football is in its infant stages with his program taking steps toward his long-term goals but he understands it will take time.
“A consistent tradition is just getting started,” he said. “Hopefully you get 10 or 12 years of this and people will start seeing us a little differently as a football school, it's starting now and it's the first time it's really happened.”
Staff Writer John Helsley contributed to this report.