STILLWATER — Jason Ray remembers the 2002 contest between Oklahoma State and UCLA he attended because of the matchup between Rashaun Woods and Ricky Manning Jr. As a receiver at Broken Arrow High School, Ray was naturally intrigued by that individual battle.
That game was also the first time Ray met Mike Gundy.
“He asked me to send him some recruiting tape and that whole deal,” Ray recalled. “It was a very subtle, small moment between he and I, but I did shake his hand.”
In the years that followed, Ray's only interaction with the Cowboy coach was the occasional quick hello at conventions.
Until this past offseason, when Gundy expressed interest in — and ultimately hired — Ray as the Cowboys' new inside receivers coach.
“Knowing what has already been established here and getting an opportunity to work in a great program such as this, it was a no-brainer,” Ray said.
On an OSU staff that underwent a bit of a youth movement this offseason — new assistants Mike Yurcich, Joe Bob Clements, Tim Duffie and Ray are all under the age of 40 — Ray is the youngest of the bunch. Young enough to have a recruiting profile on Rivals, which still features interviews from 2002 and 2003 and details offers from schools like Missouri, Nebraska, West Virginia and Tulsa (but not OSU or Oklahoma).
Ray wound up at Missouri, where he caught balls from Heisman finalist Chase Daniel in a spread offense similar to OSU's and was a captain of the Tigers' 12-2 team in 2007.
Coaching wasn't an immediate option after Ray's playing career ended. Instead, he got a job with Missouri's Tiger Scholarship Fund, which gave him a glimpse of the administrative side of a college football program.
But he still had that itch to get back on the sideline. And Dave Christensen, then Missouri's offensive coordinator, promised to give his former player that chance whenever he got an opportunity to become a head coach.
“(Christensen) called me into his office and told me he wanted me to go with him,” Ray said. “I shook his hand. I didn't know at the time where it would have been.”
It turned out to be Wyoming, where Ray worked under Christensen for four seasons as the running backs and wide receivers coach and became the school's primary recruiter in Oklahoma.
“I saw why we had to do certain things and why the system was how it was,” Ray said. “Then applying what I knew as a player into being a coach, I think I learned how to really relate to my players.”
Former longtime OSU assistant Doug Meacham leaving Stillwater to become the offensive coordinator at Houston gave Ray a chance to come back to his home state. This spring, he's beginning to work with inside targets such as Josh Stewart, the Big 12's top returning receiver, along with Blake Jackson, Blake Webb, David Glidden and Torrance Carr.
“Missouri's philosophy is similar to what ours is here,” Gundy said. “They don't run the ball much, or didn't at that time. Our thought process at the wide receiver position is very similar. That was one of the areas that intrigued us with his background.”
Ray doesn't really think about that first meeting with Gundy at Lewis Field as a high schooler more than a decade ago, or the way life has brought him back to Stillwater in a different capacity.
But he's thankful for the opportunity to coach at OSU.
“Any time you come into a situation where you work for somebody that understands the game, understands how to talk to players,” Ray said, “you're going to be in a good place as far as your career and as far as coaching and getting things going.
“I'm more than fortunate to be able to be on the staff and be working here. I couldn't ask for a better situation at this time in my life.”