When the Sports Illustrated series last September put Oklahoma State football under siege, the Cowboys’ response was effective. A professional public relations campaign. Ample media help. Strong leadership from OSU personnel. By the end of the week, SI was under as much scrutiny as was Mike Gundy’s program.
But Cowboy football this offseason has given back some of those PR gains. Its academic progress rate was sub-standard enough that OSU has been docked a day’s practice per week in the 2014 season, and freshman tailback Devon Thomas is charged with a variety of felonies in Tulsa, including shooting with intent to kill. Two big black eyes on a program that had risen to great heights in recent years.
And those black eyes are linked. Gundy and staff have not been careful enough on whom they recruit.
OSU football is not the renegade program that Sports Illustrated tried to portray. But these offseason scandals are a sign that the Cowboys could get to such status quickly if coaches are not more careful on who they bring in.
And strange as it sounds, the academic shortcomings are the biggest alarm.
Coaches can miss on the character of any individual recruit. There’s a little Father Flanagan in every football coach. Certainly OSU knew or should have known that Thomas was troubled. All kinds of stories floated around Tulsa and Broken Arrow. Since Thomas’ arrest a few weeks ago, juvenile records have been released showing Thomas was suspended four games in his junior year at Broken Arrow High School and accused of distribution of child pornography. Thomas videotaped himself having sex with a girl under the age of 18, then showed his friends.
That makes Thomas anything from a knucklehead to a degenerate. Football scholarships by the score have been given to risks like that. This time it bit the Cowboys, made more embarrassing by the fact that Thomas was committed to OU before the Sooners apparently backed off because of his behavior.
But again, coaches not only want to win, they believe in that mentorship concept. They believe they can impact the lives of wayward young men, and often they do. But sometimes they don’t. Fail often enough on the same campus, and someone else will be in Father Flanagan’s office.
Thomas was an early enrollee. The alleged crime occurred May 27. If Thomas had not come to Stillwater in January, he would be labeled an OSU recruit, not an OSU tailback. That’s part of the PR game.
OSU has not removed Thomas from the squad, at least not publicly, but I assume that’s a formality. The Cowboy brass is lying low on Thomas — both Gundy and OSU President Burns Hargis declined to comment on the offseason problems — but I know what they were thinking on Thomas.
I don’t know what the explanation is on the academic progress rating. The Cowboys blamed part of it on players who remained on scholarship but prepared for the NFL Draft instead of going to class in spring semesters. But that’s a problem that afflicts every program with talent.
OSU has taken too many risks. Academic risks. Behavior risks. Attitude risks. Lack of retention is about the only way a football program can fall below the NCAA’s APR standards. With virtually mandatory summer workouts, summer school is a staple for almost every player. Impressive academic support programs exist at most programs on the Big 12 level and certainly that includes OSU. Players have to work hard not to be in good academic standing.
The NCAA’s entrance requirements are so low, almost every prospect can get into school. But that doesn’t mean schools should take all qualifiers. Take too many risks, and you pay for it.
That’s what OSU did. While recruiting better and better talent, the Cowboys were not so focused on prospects’ other characteristics. And now State football is giving back some of the hard-earned PR points from last September.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.