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.
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.”
Even before that, however, Miles had to repair the Cowboys' culture.
Mayes, an outspoken critic of Miles for the way he left OSU for LSU following the 2004 season, won't deny the impact the coach had on the Cowboys.
“It was a team that really needed some leadership from a coaching standpoint,” Mayes said. “And Les just brought this, ‘Hey, this is who we are now and this is how we're going to play.'
“Obviously, he brought some key recruits in and things like that, but it was more the attitude that he displayed and what he wanted us to display. Les would look you right in the face and say, ‘People don't think we can win this game, but I guarantee you, whoever we play is going to limp home.'
“And he meant that.”
And, eventually, the Cowboys bought it.
“Les could talk you into running through a wall,” Mayes said. “He could tell you that you could run through a brick wall, and 10 minutes into that talk you were bound and determined to do it.
“He had the most amazing pregame speech ability that you ever heard your entire life. He felt like we were good enough. And it made us all feel like we were good enough.”
In Miles' second season, the Cowboys were 8-5 good. They beat Nebraska for the first time since the Kennedy Administration. They beat the Sooners, again. And they won a bowl game for the first time since 1988.
“I'm real proud,” star wide receiver Rashaun Woods said after OSU's win over Southern Miss in the Houston Bowl. “I can actually say I'm happy with the season. Of course, we could have won more. But you've got to crawl before you walk.
“This is a good season for us and something we can really build on.”
The Cowboys tacked on more the following year, finishing 9-4 for OSU's most wins since Barry Sanders' Heisman season in '88. They played in the Cotton Bowl, the program's first post-New Year's game since 1949.
And in 2004, after losing Woods and Tatum Bell and Josh Fields and Greg Richmond and Elbert Craig, the Cowboys went 7-5 and made a third straight postseason appearance in the Alamo Bowl.
Miles soon left for LSU, but not before leaving his mark on an OSU rise that continues today.
Without the Miles-led change in direction and that taste of winning, bolstered by those back-to-back wins over the Sooners, the Holder-Pickens facilities push may have never taken hold. And if Miles had failed, would Gundy have been elevated off that staff to take his place?
“He's such a positive guy,” said Cowboys offensive coordinator Todd Monken, an assistant under Miles at OSU and LSU. “He would look at our team and I really think he believed in every game we went into, we could win. And I looked at him like he was crazy. I looked at our team sometimes like, ‘There's no damn way.'
“But in his mind, he believed in the guys and the coaches that we had assembled. Even when he went to LSU, I thought that was a big strength in the way he handled the team and he handled the coaches.
“You rarely ever see Les throw players or coaches under the bus. He's a big proponent of ‘Us' and ‘We' and rarely calls out anybody. And I think that's a strength. I think he's a believer that he can figure out a way that we can outwork somebody and out-tough them.
“And I think there's a lot to be said for that.”
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.