STILLWATER — Joe Wickline stood outdoors in a frigid Champaign, Ill., able to see his breath as he talked on the phone.
He had just arrived in town on that winter day in early 2005 and estimates the temperature was about 3-below zero. But that's a sacrifice this Florida native was willing to make to stay employed. Wickline had followed Ron Zook and Larry Fedora, his head coach and offensive coordinator who were part of the staff that had just been let go at Florida but were heading to Illinois.
But now Wickline was chatting with Fedora, who was going to Oklahoma State to serve as the offensive coordinator for newly promoted head coach Mike Gundy. Fedora asked Wickline if he'd be interested in joining as the offensive line coach.
“How cold is it there?” Wickline asked Fedora.
“I don't know, 49 (degrees)?” Fedora answered.
“I'll take it,” Wickline said.
Of course, it wasn't exactly that simple. But Wickline eventually got the gig. And now in entering his ninth season at OSU, Wickline is the last remaining member of Gundy's original staff.
He's watched OSU evolve into an offensive juggernaut and a staple in the national polls. He's seen former coordinators like Fedora, Dana Holgorsen and Todd Monken move on to head coaching positions and multiple other co-workers take other jobs. In the process, he's earned a reputation as one of the top offensive line coaches in college football.
Staying on one staff for nearly a decade is rare in such a nomadic profession. And it's not like Wickline hasn't had opportunities. Texas wanted to hire him. So have NFL franchises.
So, what makes Wickline one of the best in the business? And why has one of the best in the business stayed in Stillwater when other programs and organizations with more prestige — at least in name — have offered gobs of money?
To answer the first question, Wickline deflects to the people surrounding him at a program he's helped build.
The answer to the second question is simple.
“It's not always greener,” Wickine said. “You stay with what you've got and you keep getting better and you believe in the kids, you believe in the people and just keep moving forward.”
* * *
Wickline calls his father, Dan, his hero. He was a Marine during World War II. He was also a high school football coach for more than 20 years.
But Joe actually wasn't set on following in his father's footsteps after his playing career at Florida.
“I'm not going to sit here and tell the story like he was a coach and I wanted to be a coach,” Joe said. “No, no, no. I really didn't know what I wanted to do, so I went back to school.”
Florida's then-coach Charley Pell, then-offensive coordinator Mike Shanahan and then-academic advisor Terry Don Phillips had an offer. Wickline could get some financial aid to finish his degree if he joined the staff to help coach the junior varsity team as a graduate assistant.
“I don't really want to coach. My dad coached,” Wickline told Pell.
“Well then you'll pay your own way,” Pell countered.
Wickline's response to that?
“Where's the whistle?”
And thus, Wickline was a coach. He soon moved up to working with Florida's varsity tackles, then got a graduate assistant job at Tennessee. Then it was on to Delta State. And Mississippi. And Pearl River Community College. And Southwest Mississippi Community College. And Baylor. And Middle Tennessee State. And then finally back to his alma mater on Zook's staff.
When Zook was fired by Florida after the 2004 season and subsequently hired by Illinois, Wickline took the opportunity to keep working under him and Fedora. But he admits now that it wasn't exactly a great fit.
He was not very familiar with the Big Ten schools or culture. He considered himself a southern guy. Then there was that whole being-able-to-see-your-breath thing.
“But there I was, because it's nomadic,” Wickline said. “And when we heard about the opportunity (at OSU), I obviously spoke to Coach Gundy and was fired up about the things he said and the ideas he had for the program and the people that were putting things into the program, the direction it was going.
“It was a fairly easy decision.”
Zook, understandably, wasn't thrilled about the quick exit. But Wickline made the leap.
As of now, it's been his last.
“Who'd have thought it?” said Wickline's wife, Nicki. “We've never been anywhere this long. We could not have predicted this, it's just kind of happened this way.”
* * *
Wickline knows a lot of people think his coaching philosophy is wrong.
It seems simple enough — he wants to get the best five offensive linemen on the field together. But that can lead to a lot mixing and matching at positions — often during a game — to find the right combo at any moment.
Wickline realizes he's consciously giving up continuity and chemistry for a unit that often thrives on those intangibles in favor of playing the top 5.
But that develops a guy like Parker Graham, who can play tackle and guard on either side. Or a guard who can also play center like Andrew Lewis. And it creates competition amongst the entire group.
“That way every day we go in there, everybody has a chance,” Wickline said. “If you know you never have a chance, because the guy in front of you has got two more years … or you know you're a first-team guy and you know you're never going to get moved, then you're not going to be at your best.
“It really gets down to you better stay on your toes day-to-day, and if you do that, you'll play. And if you don't, until you're ready, you'll move someone else.”
Why does the constant game of musical chairs work? Gundy half-jokes that he doesn't have a clue. But the results are wildly positive, as OSU has produced two Big 12 Offensive Linemen of the Year under Wickline in Russell Okung and Grant Garner. His schemes and techniques have helped protect the quarterback and spring running backs for a program that has ranked in the top 10 in the nation in total offense five of the last six seasons.
And the players have embraced the strategy.
“Just sitting there for 10 minutes with him, you know that he's genius when it comes to offensive line,” Graham said.
So Wickline's pieces are always shifting, but his role on the Cowboy staff has been a rare constant for a group that has seen plenty of change during the past nine years.
Wickline has closely collaborated with Fedora, Gundy, Holgorsen, Monken and now first-year coordinator Mike Yurcich. And he's assisted as the Cowboys' offense has transformed from one that utilized a mobile quarterback to an Air Raid attack.
During the week, Wickline plays a big role in overseeing the running game with running backs coach Jemal Singleton. Pass protections are, of course, also Wickline's responsibility. And his overall wealth of knowledge has become valuable to a guy like Yurcich.
“When Coach Wick has something to say, it's going to be a useful piece of information,” Yurcich said. “You're all ears when he has something to say.”
What else makes Wickline so effective? His intense, old-school personality, which sophomore Devin Davis said cannot be appropriately described.
The coach has been known to dash through the meeting room to demonstrate proper technique or sprint from one area of the practice fields to another. And he's not afraid to be hands-on — or vocal — with his players.
That gruff style, though, helps come Saturday, Graham said.
“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.”
All those qualities have naturally made Wickline an attractive candidate for other job opportunities that have popped up throughout the years.
But he's always considered the comfort Nicki and their two youngest children, Kelby, now 18, and Lauren, now 12, have in Stillwater. Not to mention, what's continued to develop at OSU.
“As time went on,” Wickline said, “and the system and the program and the school and what we stood for kept taking steps forward, it was just very gratifying and we felt very blessed to not have to go places.”
* * *
Wickline and his family currently make their home on 20 acres of property in the Stillwater country.
They've got horses and a batting cage and plenty of open space to ride four-wheelers. It's become a gathering spot for the offensive linemen for barbeques after the conclusion of spring practice and a “revolving door” for neighbors and friends during the summer. Stillwater is the only town Lauren has ever truly known, and a place where Nicki and the kids can get involved with church and other groups in the community.
So it's clear Wickline is pretty entrenched, both personally and professionally. He recently deconstructed his starting five — Davis at left tackle, Graham at left guard, Jake Jenkins at center, Daniel Koenig at right tackle and Brandon Webb at right guard — but then winked when noting that's just how the lineup will look on the first day of fall camp.
Gundy jokes that Wickline has gone from a guy the head coach didn't recognize when he first walked down the hall in 2005 to one now so familiar with OSU that he wouldn't even really need to attend meetings anymore.
Who knows what the future will ultimately hold for Wickline. He took a chance in the freezing Champaign weather when he jumped on Gundy's first staff and has since been a critical part of the best stretch in school history.
Right now? He's happy to continue his journey in Stillwater.
“Some guys jump at things and they do things because maybe it's another dollar or two or it's a bigger stadium,” Wickline said. “I don't know. I just kind of look at it as, ‘You know what? We have a good thing here.' We have good people here and we all stand for the right thing.
“I think that OSU people — Oklahoma people altogether — are salt-of-the-Earth people. I like the way things are done around here. Obviously, I'm fortunate to (have) Coach Gundy and the people who afforded us the opportunity to stay here and I'm very humbled.”