STILLWATER — Stepping into the Stillwater sunshine, Boone Pickens pauses a moment at the top of his jet’s carpeted steps.
The Gulfstream 550’s engines hiss and cool on the Stillwater Municipal Airport tarmac after the 40-minute flight from the billionaire’s West Texas ranch. He used to have to helicopter to nearby Pampa to fly out on his jet, but since he built a runway on the 45,000-acre ranch a couple years ago, trips have been so much easier.
The man who made his fortune as an oil man and a corporate raider, then made his mark on Oklahoma State athletics, spent the flight lounging in one of the tan leather chairs with his initials stitched into the upholstery. A big television on the wall in front of him showed a football game while two smaller screens jutting out of the wall beside him provided business news and a map charting his plane’s flight path.
"What’s going on?” he had asked Mike Holder as the Oklahoma State athletic director stood in the plane’s entryway last Saturday. "Anything?”
Pickens says those words often. The people around him know when he does that he expects information.
"Going to have a record crowd,” Holder said.
"You know, you always amaze me as the athletic director that when we play Grambling you get a record crowd and when we play Georgia you get 53,000,” Pickens needled.
Holder: "When you come for the Texas game, it’ll be full.”
Pickens: "Is Kendall Hunter going to play?”
Holder: "No, sir. Neither is Dez Bryant.”
Finally, Holder reminds him that they’d better get going if Pickens wants to make it to join The Walk to the stadium.
With his wife, Madeleine, Pickens follows Holder to the front of the plane. Brown-tinted Ray-Bans shield his eyes, but as he stands in the doorway, you have to wonder if he is surveying the land like a monarch eyes his kingdom.
This is a place Pickens loves. It is also a place where he is beloved. Celebrities seek him. Common folks cheer him. He is a symbol of hope, a face of a school, an orange-clad ambassador to the world.
Spend game day with the man who transformed Cowboy football and his alma mater, and you realize that what happens means as much to him as anyone else in the stadium. The place just happens to have his name on it.
Boone Pickens rides shotgun.
As Holder steers a white GMC Denali through the back streets of Stillwater, avoiding traffic and skirting the south side of campus, Pickens taps on the passenger side window.
"That’s where I used to work,” he says.
He points toward the Kappa Alpha Theta sorority house.
"Washing dishes,” his wife says.
"I was darn good at it,” he says.
"He’s still good at it,” she says.
Pickens may be one of the richest people in America with a net worth estimated by Forbes at $1.1 billion, but when he steps out of the Denali on the steps of the student union, he is a man of the people.
Jeremy Anderson and Josh Walker notice him first. The orange-clad pals from Chickasha approach with Sharpies and posters in hand. Even though they met Pickens a year ago and snagged his autograph then, they want it again.
Before long, dozens of fans have gathered around Pickens. There are autographs and pictures, handshakes and thank yous.
A little boy takes off his hat and hands it to Pickens. The hat looks like it was on a souvenir-shop shelf earlier that day.
"This’ll mess up your hat,” Pickens warns. "You want to do that?”
The boy nods.
The billionaire signs.
The love affair kicks into high gear as the team makes its way to the stadium. Pickens falls in behind the players, flanked by his wife and Cowboy coach Mike Gundy.
"Booooone!” the fans serenade.
The man with the thinning gray hair, plaid orange shirt, khaki pants and Nike shoes waves. He gives thumbs up and handshakes and high fives. He is The Mayor of Cowboy Town.
"Mr. Pickens, can I shake your hand?” Daniel Grossman says as Pickens stands talking to students who’ve camped out for the game. "I’m very thankful for what you’ve done.”
The wide-eyed sophomore isn’t the only one.
The elevator doors slide open, and the aroma of warm popcorn wafts in.
"It smells so good,” Madeline Pickens coos.
"It smells like a circus,” her husband says.
They walk past popcorn and pretzels, chocolate and cheese sitting on different tables around the suite level. Even though Pickens is a spry, healthy 81-year-old, he loves to eat, and he is on a mission — vanilla frozen custard topped with Oreos.
He chooses not to have it available in his mid-field suite — too tempting — but he has everything else. There are hot dogs, chips and nachos as well as cheese-stuffed, bacon-wrapped jalapeÃ±os on the black marble counter in the back.