STILLWATER — There’s this dream that keeps Josh Holliday up at night.
It’s about what used to be.
It’s about what could be.
But it’s no nightmare. It’s a vision.
A self-created prophecy to bring Oklahoma State baseball back to the days of packed home games, conference championships, regionals and trips to Omaha.
In Holliday’s second year as coach at OSU, the nostalgia fuels him. The memories drive him. The ghosts keep him awake.
“I stayed up at night losing sleep the last two years,” Holliday said a week ago. “Just thinking about how to reestablish the culture of this being a big deal.”
Study the Cowboys’ rebirth under Holliday, and it’s safe to say he’s running down this dream.
And, quicker than he ever could have imagined, he’s almost caught it.
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Gary Ward coached at OSU from 1978-96. His teams won 17 conference titles and went to 10 College World Series. He never won it — only the 1959 team did that — but his Cowboys were always close.
Ward attended a banquet a few years ago when Holliday was an assistant at Vanderbilt, and Holliday introduced him to Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin.
Ward’s words proved visionary.
“I said, ‘You have a budding superstar in this coaching business,’” Ward told Corbin. “Josh has prepared for this all his life.”
Ward would know. Tom Holliday was his right-hand man for 19 years. After Ward retired, he became his successor. Tom was OSU’s skipper from 1997-2003.
Holliday and his brother, St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Matt, spent their entire childhood around the program.
Holliday would stand behind the outfield fence hoping to catch a Pete Incaviglia home run ball. He started hitting left-handed because that’s what Robin Ventura did. Ventura said a young Holliday took losses harder than players did.
He grew up in the culture, become a star athlete, was co-valedictorian of his high school class, went to OSU and led the Cowboys to a College World Series of his own in 1999 — the program’s last CWS.
Jon Adkins spent five years as a major league pitcher. Now he’s an MLB scout. He was also Holliday’s roommate at OSU.
“He just had so much passion and love for Oklahoma State, and that rubbed off on all of us,” Adkins said. “He was born for this. You knew he was headed for coaching.”
Holliday spent two years playing in the Toronto Blue Jays organization, then jumped into coaching. He worked for Tom for two years at OSU, then for a year at NC State after Tom was fired.
Eventually, Holliday left his father’s wing and made stops at Georgia Tech under Danny Hall, Arizona State under Pat Murphy and Vanderbilt under Corbin.
Ward said as much as his upbringing, those experiences make him the coach he is.
“He had the courage to go do those things to prepare him for this moment,” Ward said. “And at a very young age, he’s far more experienced than his years. By the very nature, Josh Holliday is a very special young man.”
For Holliday, it was all part of the plan. Part of the dream.
“It’s why I wanted to be a college baseball coach,” he said. “To raise my kids like my dad raised us.”
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On June 8, 2012, Josh Holliday became the baseball coach at his alma mater.
During Frank Anderson’s tenure, OSU faded from national prominence. The program’s alumni weren’t involved. Allie P. Reynolds Stadium became outdated. Its stands became empty.
The day Holliday took the job, all that started to change. Fans and former players alike didn’t just want a new coach, most wanted an alum. They wanted Josh Holliday.
Jim Traber, a former OSU and MLB player and local radio personality, isn’t shy about that.
“To be in Stillwater, you have to know what it’s all about,” Traber said. “It’s no coincidence almost all the best coaches in the history of the school either worked there or played there. Eddie Sutton, John Smith, Mike Holder, now Mike Gundy. I think they need to know what Stillwater is all about.”
One of Holliday’s first steps was reaching out to alumni. His efforts paid off when 125 former players attended OSU’s baseball banquet this year.
Mickey Tettleton was drafted out of OSU in 1981 and played 14 seasons in the big leagues. He said Holliday’s respect for the past was instrumental in his quick rebuilding job.
“He started getting people back in there that made it what it was and started trying to help make it what it should be,” Tettleton said. “After I texted him congratulations when he first got the job, we communicated a lot more than I ever did with Frank Anderson. I never talked to Frank Anderson.”
There’s also a kicker many overlook.
Rob Walton, former Oral Roberts coach and another OSU alum, agreed to be Holliday’s pitching coach. Hollday also hired Marty Lees, one of the top recruiters in the county, as an assistant.
Holliday constantly deflects credit for OSU’s success to his players. He says his biggest asset is being smart enough to work with others.
In the case of Walton, Lees and the rest of the OSU staff, that’s a valuable trait to have.
“There won’t be a better staff among the final 16 teams than those three men,” Ward said.
Holliday’s respect for history wasn’t just an internal idea. It’s the framework for his external philosophy.
From his introductory press conference, Holliday’s speeches are filled with anecdotes from the past. Last week, an emotional Holliday turned to cutouts of Incaviglia, the NCAA single-season home run record holder, and Ventura, who owns college baseball’s longest hit streak.
“That’s my Babe Ruth,” he said of Incaviglia.
“And that’s my Joe DiMaggio,” he said of Ventura.
“When that job came up, he was a natural choice for a lot of reasons,” said Ventura, now manager of the Chicago White Sox. “Just the passion he has, he’s not taking this job to springboard to another job. This has been his No. 1 his whole life.”
For Holliday, though, accepting the job wasn’t as easy as you might think.
“I probably could have been a better player if I had gone somewhere else because I cared so darn much about Oklahoma State that sometimes I tried too hard,” Holliday said. “That was my biggest fear about coming back, was that I’d try too hard.”
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Only two years in, trying too hard has worked.
With the help of players like Zach Fish, Donnie Walton, Tanner Krietemeier, Jon Perrin and Brendan McCurry, the Cowboys went 41-14 in the regular season and won the Big 12.
They hosted and won a regional in Stillwater, and moved on to play UC Irvine in the Super Regional. One step away from Omaha.
The stat that stands out? The Cowboys have come from behind to win 28 times.
Cal State Fullerton coach Rick Vanderhook said it best after OSU ousted his team in the Regional: “They have that Oklahoma State attitude back.”
Ward, Tettleton, Traber, Ventura and the rest all said that attitude is the same thing: It’s a confidence. Not cockiness, not arrogance, but a confidence that no matter what, OSU is in the game.
“It made me smile when I saw that quote from Coach Vanderhook,” Adkins said. “I watched the Big 12 Tournament and those guys battled. Every pitch, every inning, until the end. Reminiscent of the days when we were there with Coach Ward. They got that mentality back.”
Holliday knew that attitude, and he brought it back with a coaching philosophy centered on the idea of failure.
“There’s no better feeling than to get back up when you’ve fallen down,” Holliday said. “There’s no better feeling than to have a bad at-bat, and then three innings later turn the page and have a good at-bat. It’s not ‘if.’
“You are going to fail. It’s what you do after you fail that determines if you succeed.”
And that success hasn’t only brought back players.
Erik Fleak graduated from OSU in 1987, and frequently went to games as a student. Now he lives in Muskogee and rarely attended games.
This team is changing that. The past two weekends, crowds at Allie P. have neared the 4,000 mark. It might even jumpstart OSU’s plans to build a new stadium.
“I don’t know if it’s me tapping back into my college days, but I’m excited to see OSU as a team that matters nationally,” he said. “I’ve considered getting season tickets for next year even though I won’t be able to go to all of the games just because I want to support the program.”
The attitude is back, the alumni are back and the fans are back. That’s a winning formula.
“As a former player, it’s been a lot of fun to follow, a lot of fun to watch,” Tettleton said.
* * *
Ward had to do some convincing to install lights at Reynolds Stadium.
But he demanded it so his program could host regionals. That’s what gets teams in the national spotlight. The lifeblood of Ward’s program.
He called OSU hosting a regional this year a galvanizing moment.
For Holliday, hosting and winning in front of packed stands was not so much galvanizing as it was fulfilling.
“It kind of makes me feel whole in lot of ways,” he said.
The phantom sights, sounds, smells and feelings of yesterday are coming back, and anyone who knows will say it starts and ends with Holliday.
Still not sold?
“You can tell he means every word,” Ventura said. “You look anywhere else in the country, nobody else is going to have that kind of passion for where they’re at.”
It’s a long, treacherous road to Omaha, and Holliday won’t sleep until his Cowboys get there.
But he couldn’t ask for a sweeter dream.