STILLWATER — Joe Wickline and Charlie Strong were once pups in the coaching ranks together, both working at Florida as graduate assistants in 1983.
Their paths crossed many more times throughout the ensuing years, including two more stints on the same staff at Mississippi (1990) and back at Florida (2003-04). Their families remained close, even in the years where Wickline’s and Strong’s respective squads competed against each other.
Now, Strong has lured Oklahoma State’s esteemed offensive line coach to Texas. Wickline confirmed to The Oklahoman Sunday night that he is leaving Stillwater after nine seasons to take the same position on the Longhorns’ staff, following multiple reports over the weekend that he was heading to Austin.
“I don’t want anybody to think that OSU is not a terrific place to live, to work,” Wickline said by phone. “ … It was a scenario that I felt it was a good situation for me at the time — for me, right now, because of the dynamics of the way it’s set up (at Texas).
“By no means … was it an easy decision, because of just the love for the (Stillwater) community and the love for the area and the respect for Oklahoma State, the Oklahoma people as a whole.”
The loss is a big one for the Cowboys, as Wickline was the last remaining member of coach Mike Gundy’s original staff and is widely considered to be one of the top offensive line coaches in college football.
Wickline was a key force behind OSU’s offensive success over the past several seasons, developing versatile linemen that he could shuffle around to find the best possible combination to protect the quarterback and open holes for running backs.
That ability to mix and match was perhaps most evident this season, when the Cowboys lost projected starting left tackle and top lineman Devin Davis to a season-ending knee injury during fall camp. Wickline discovered the best combo in mid-October, moving Parker Graham from left tackle to right guard, Daniel Koenig from right tackle to left tackle, rotating Brandon Garrett and Chris Grisbhy at right tackle and keeping Brandon Webb at left guard and Jake Jenkins at center.
“Just sitting there for 10 minutes with him, you know that he's a genius when it comes to offensive line,” Graham said earlier this year.
OSU tied for ninth in the nation in fewest sacks allowed (14) in 2013 and helped Desmond Roland, who became the starting running back in late October, finish the season with 811 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns.
During Wickline’s nine-year tenure, OSU ranked in the top 20 in the nation in total offense six times. The Cowboys also produced six consecutive first-team All-Big 12 running backs from 2007-12.
Some of Wickline’s prominent pupils include 2009 unanimous All-American and top-10 NFL Draft pick Russell Okung, 2011 Big 12 Offensive Lineman of the Year Grant Garner and 2011 consensus All-American Levy Adcock. Eight total offensive linemen have earned All-Big 12 honors since 2006, including Graham this past season.
Wickline is also known for his intense style — one that Graham said is beneficial on game day.
“He’s very hard on us,” he said. “He’s very loud and he's very in your face. Once you get accustomed to that, getting in the game’s not even a problem. The crowd’s not a factor. The other team’s not a factor.
“That’s just straight through how he coaches and how he approaches the game. He really gets you prepared.”
Wickline called Strong “brilliant,” a “perfectionist” and “an extremely hard worker”— qualities that were already evident during their long hours working as young coaches in Gainesville. He also compared Strong’s overall philosophy — one that relies on discipline — to the way Gundy runs his program.
“He demands accountability,” Wickline said of Strong. “The kids understand that. That’s why they’ll go to class, they’ll get their degree and they’ll be accountable. Very much like Coach Gundy.”
This wasn’t the first time Wickline drew interest from Texas. Mack Brown tried to hire Wickline after the 2010 season, but he opted to stay at OSU because of what the Cowboys were building on the field and his family’s comfort in Stillwater.
So he’s certainly thankful for where he’s spent the last nine years. He stressed that he wants the OSU faithful to know that.
But now he’s ready for a new opportunity he calls both “attractive” and “a challenge.”
Not to mention, working at Texas means reuniting with an old pal in Strong.
“It’s a place, from a professional standpoint, you want to be a part of if the opportunity is right,” Wickline said.