STILLWATER — When Gary Ward arrived at Oklahoma State in the late 1970s, a year into the job he realized he needed to dust off a game plan he used to build Yavapai into a junior college baseball power. He hired Tom Holliday to be his pitching coach and top recruiter.
OSU's facilities were outdated. The recruiting budget was almost nonexistent. Nearby Oklahoma, Oral Roberts and Arkansas were established programs. OU had advanced to the College World Series three times in the 1970s.
The strategy was to use pro baseball scouting connections to sign players such as John Farrell, one of many of East Coast players who traveled halfway across the country to help turn the Cowboys into a baseball superpower.
“Most kids in Oklahoma wanted to go to OU, so we were forced to recruit the entire country, but it's something Coach Ward had done before,” Holliday said. “When I played for him at Yavapai, we had only one kid from Arizona.
“Settled in a small town in the middle of the United States, those guys from Pittsburgh, Boston and New Jersey were the result of a lot of searching, telephone calls to people we trusted.”
Ward relied on his West Coast connections to land players such as Pete Incaviglia. Holliday developed sources in the east. Most scholarships were offered to prospects from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, California, Ohio and Puerto Rico without seeing players actually perform.
All-American catcher Robbie Wine was from Norristown, Pa., a borough near Philadelphia. Farrell, now the Boston Red Sox manager, grew up in Monmouth Beach, N.J. Benji De la Rosa was from Puerto Rico; Incaviglia from Monterey, Calif.; and Mike Henneman from Festus, Mo.
Seven out-of-state players ended up being first- or second-round picks. They helped OSU finish as national runner-up in 1981, fifth in 1982, third in 1983 and fifth in 1984.
“Once we started getting on a roll, kids liked getting away, growing up away from home and three years later they'd go into professional baseball,” Holliday said. “People realized we were starting to build something.”
The four seasons when Farrell was on campus, the Cowboys averaged 551/2 wins per season.
Scouts, providing kids national exposure to improve their draft stock, created a East pipeline for OSU.
“When I visited, they had a model of Allie P. Reynolds Stadium. They promised to build something great,” said former first baseman Jim Traber, a Maryland native who played football and baseball at Oklahoma State. “Coach Ward and Tom Holliday were so driven. All those players back East bought in.”
Wine, who played in the Houston Astros organization, said so much talent was on campus that fall baseball was intense competition.
“My freshmen year, I remember thinking, ‘I have this scholarship, I'm on the team,'” Wine said. “When I get there, 70 people are in camp. You better perform in the fall. It was survival of the fittest or go to a junior college.”
OSU did gain traction with in-state kids, thriving on players from rural Oklahoma towns. But in the early years, Mickey Tettleton, from Southeast High School in Oklahoma City, was the only major impact player from the state. Tettleton went on to play 14 years in the majors.
“This area was so over-recruited, we had to look elsewhere,” Ward said. “The Pennsylvania kids are a good example. We knew some scouts who wanted to help those kids. We targeted players taken in the draft rounds five through 15.
“All that work the previous 15 years with scouts paid off. After that first year, we made it to Omaha in '81. I told Tom we're going back every year. Players like John Farrell and Gary Kanwisher were the first wave. Once we got that tradition built, it just took off.”
East Coast kids embraced Ward's proud personality. The Cowboys were accused of being arrogant. They were a team that didn't shake hands after games.
“We expected to win every game,” Henneman said. “As players, we just went about our business. People perceived that as cocky, but we backed it up.”
It started in 1981 with Farrell's recruiting class.
“When we played a regional at Oral Roberts, no one really knew who we were,” Traber said. “Oral Roberts under Larry Cochell was loaded. San Diego State had Tony Gwynn. Southern Illinois had a really good team. We pummeled teams. Gary Ward let us know we were going to the World Series.”
When Henneman arrived in 1983, he sensed a confidence throughout the program.
“It got to a point nobody wanted to play us,” Henneman said. “We went on the field knowing we would win, expecting to win. That's why everybody hated us because we had this aura about us. People said, ‘Look at these cocky sons of a B's. We looked that way, acted that way, but we won games.”
The Cowboys had take-no-prisoners approach.
“When we walked onto that field, we had some (bravado),” Wine said. “We knew we could play the game. Gary and his staff kept us on our heels, but he allowed us to do our thing.”
The Cowboys' most remarkable accomplishment was winning 16 consecutive Big Eight tournament championships.
“We didn't believe we'd ever lose,” sad Traber, who has been a sports radio personality since retiring from pro ball. “No matter what the score was we felt we'd win. We had an attitude. We wanted to score 20 runs every game, win 20-0. It was an amazing feeling to be that good where we could pummel people. It was a lot of fun, a great time.”
College baseball has evolved. Ward's blueprint wouldn't work today. He said private schools like Rice and Tulane now have an edge because baseball revolves around partial scholarships.
“It was a different era back then, scouts, pro ball, everything,” Wine said. “Nowadays, none of those talented guys would slip through the cracks. There are no hidden gems. Back then, it was the eye test and pro scouts' evaluations.”
Wine, who resigned this past summer after eight years as Penn State's head coach to pursue a job in pro baseball, was on Holliday's staff for 20 years after the renaissance began.
“A lot of us didn't really realize what we accomplished until we started playing pro ball,” Wine said. “You look back and realize, ‘We were really good.' Coach Ward and Coach Holliday built a great program. We had a lot of talent, but they knew how to really drive guys.”
During Ward's 19 seasons at OSU, the Cowboys made 10 trips to the College World Series.
“Coach Ward was the best at bringing kids together for a common cause,” Holliday said. “He teased me about someday being a major league general manager because of my ability to bring in kids from all over. I teased him about being a manager in the big leagues, if not at least a hitting instructor.
“Looking back, (Ward's) plan was genius. Getting kids like Johnny Farrell and others, we built a program that was as good as any in the country.”