STILLWATER — Chris Stiles could easily overhear when former Oklahoma State coach Pat Jones turned to then-offensive coordinator Larry Coker in the locker room at halftime of the Cowboys' game against Houston in 1986 and demanded a change at quarterback.
“Coach was pretty adamant. He wanted (Mike) Gundy,” said Stiles, who was an OSU graduate assistant at the time. “He felt like Gundy was the guy, and he was right. … We needed a change to turn (the season) around.”
That was the moment when Gundy turned from likely redshirt to the Cowboys' starting quarterback as a true freshman.
Now the possibility exists that Gundy the head coach could name true freshman Wes Lunt as the Cowboys' starting quarterback for 2012, meaning it's worth looking back at Gundy's experience in that role in his first season.
Jones says it's difficult to compare the situation that led to Gundy becoming the Cowboys' starter with this spring's quarterback derby. In 1986, Gundy unseated incumbent Ronnie Williams, who had led OSU to an 8-4 season and a Gator Bowl appearance the previous season. This spring, Cowboys find themselves in a three-man quarterback competition because they lost the program's all-time leading passer in Brandon Weeden.
But the qualities needed to be a starting quarterback as a true freshman are generally consistent, regardless of the circumstances. Maturity beyond his years. Strong work ethic. Outstanding skill set, including arm strength, decision-making and leadership. A dash of swagger.
“He had a presence about him,” said Stiles, who is now the head coach at Mount St. Mary's High School in Oklahoma City. “He just had a confidence, and at that time, it was a cockiness, but in a good way. He was confident that he could get the job done.
“Once he got in there, the guys rallied around him.”
Gundy displayed all of that to Jones and the rest of the OSU staff when he first arrived on campus. Even though he was listed as the No. 3 quarterback on the depth chart, Jones and Coker often considered letting Gundy practice with the first team. Jones thought Williams was not taking care of the ball well enough, and he believed Gundy ultimately had the most upside.
Then at halftime of the Cowboys' third game, Jones turned to the true freshman.
“It was hard,” Jones said. “It had been kind of brewing with me. I tell you, there really wasn't any easy way to do it. Ronnie had done some very impressive things with us and was very highly regarded inside the squad.
“I remember I told Mike walking up the ramp at halftime to go in there and find the center and get some snaps. I don't think he even had his knee pads and his helmet. Might not have had his ankles taped.”
The Cowboys were cautious with Gundy at first, installing an option package for certain downs and distances and utilizing running backs Thurman Thomas and Barry Sanders.
But Gundy began his career by completing 138 consecutive passes without an interception, which was an NCAA record until 2008. And he finished the year with 1,525 passing yards while helping OSU close the season with three consecutive victories and a 6-5 record. Additionally, The Sporting News named Gundy the best freshman quarterback in college football.
What that freshman experience really did, though, was give Gundy valuable experience that prepared him for the rest of his career.
“Looking back at it, it was probably one of our better coaching jobs,” Jones said of the decision to start Gundy as a freshman. “It set the stage of the run of the next two years with him.”
OSU went 20-4 over the next two seasons with Gundy under center, including a pair of bowl victories. He amassed more than 2,100 passing yards each of those seasons, then threw for a career-high 2,203 yards his senior season. He finished his career as the Big Eight's all-time leading passer and was OSU's all-time leader in that category until Zac Robinson came along.
It appears the same strategy could benefit Lunt — or even redshirt freshman J.W. Walsh — because of that potential.
And Gundy is clearly not afraid to put the same responsibility on Lunt that was bestowed upon him 26 years ago. He and offensive coordinator Todd Monken flew to Lunt's home in Rochester, Ill. to convince him that enrolling early at OSU and participating in spring practice would be worthwhile. And with two workouts remaining, Lunt is still a contender in this starting quarterback race.
But does Gundy's personal experience as a true freshman quarterback mean he is more likely to hand the reins over to Lunt, either after Saturday's spring finale or at some other time before the season opener?
Jones isn't so sure.
“This is a high school senior,” Jones said. “Lunt does not appear, to me, to be quite as mature with his body language as what Mike was, although Mike didn't come in until his true freshman year. This kid is in way early.
“They're going to have a hard decision to make.”
Staff writer Jason Kersey contributed to this report.