OSU football program's rise started with Les Miles

The efforts of four men were key to the Cowboys' ascension, but it started with Les Miles, who initiated the rise with a change in attitude, direction and talent.
BY JOHN HELSLEY Staff Writer jhelsley@opubco.com Published: June 18, 2011

All signs point to Oklahoma State's arrival as a football program with staying power, a status backed up by last year's school-record 11-win season in the wake of the losses of first-round draft picks Russell Okung and Dez Bryant, quarterback Zac Robinson and others.

Rather than retreat, the Cowboys reloaded, which is what the big boys do.

So, how did the Cowboys get here after decades of operating as a program in disrepair? Credit belongs with the efforts of four men: Les Miles, Mike Holder, Boone Pickens and Mike Gundy.

It started with Miles, who initiated the rise with a change in attitude and direction and talent.

And success.

We kick off a four-part, four-man series with a look at the man with the high hat, the Michigan Man who turned two stints at OSU, and as a first-time head coach aligned the program on a proper path.

When Miles arrived as Oklahoma State's 21st coach in December of 2000, he inherited a hint of talent, a history of neglect and a whole lot of problems.

“It was a complete mess,” said former Cowboys standout Sam Mayes. “It really was.”

After some early signs of promise in the Bob Simmons era, the program slipped badly from 1998-2000, with three straight losing seasons amid a deteriorating climate of unrest and mistrust. Throw in a stadium in decay, a turned-off fan base and a Big 12 Conference leaving OSU in the rearview mirror, and any job appeal truly was in the eye of the beholder.

Simmons eventually lost his team when he continued to start his son, Nathan, at tailback while fans and even players screamed that nepotism was getting in the way of winning.

“He had anarchy on his hands,” Mayes said of Simmons. “The players didn't care for him. They didn't listen to him.”

The Cowboys were in need of an overhaul.

Enter Miles, who had served as an assistant under Simmons before leaving, although with an eye on coming back in a greater role. He was an assistant with the Dallas Cowboys when the call from Terry Don Phillips came, albeit after OSU had first turned to Arizona State's Dirk Koetter, who balked at the job after first agreeing to replace Simmons.

“I can remember being on the Dallas Cowboys practice field and I was mad,” Miles reflected to The Oklahoman three years ago. “‘Dadgone it, that was my job.' I really felt like I could have been the man for that job and it was Dirk Koetter's.

“I remember communicating with Terry Don Phillips and telling him, ‘It's my decision to absolutely be loyal to Oklahoma State. I enjoyed the place. You can always use me as a reference.'

“Then, 24 hours later, it was much different. I certainly enjoyed the turnaround.”

The real turnaround was yet to come.

Miles' debut season was a struggle, yet there were glimpses of hope and optimism even as the Cowboys stood 2-7 and riding a five-game losing streak late in the 2001 season. The skid ended with a win at Baylor, before a breakthrough moment on Owen Field in the season finale.

A massive underdog, OSU upset No. 4-ranked Oklahoma 16-13 in a game that served as a launchpad for the program.

“I think Les instilled some discipline and some pride in the program,” said Joe DeForest, who was on Miles' first staff and remains as a key assistant to Mike Gundy today.

“I think the first step in … I don't want to say fixing the program, but in us taking it from where it was to where it was now was beating OU.”

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Editor's note

Our look at Les Miles' impact on Oklahoma State football begins a four-part series on the four key men behind OSU's football program renaissance. Coming up the next three weeks: athletic director Mike Holder; alum and booster Boone Pickens; and former player and current head coach Mike Gundy.

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