STILLWATER — The man who sealed Sean Sutton's fate as Oklahoma State's basketball coach never wanted to be an athletic director. Never gave it any thought, really.
Mike Holder was plugging right along as the nation's most successful golf coach until three years ago when his billionaire best friend threw him under the bus — or, as it were, into the OSU athletic director's chair.
"They were looking for a new AD and I said, ‘Well, you got the perfect guy for the job,' ” OSU alumnus and oil magnate T. Boone Pickens said. "They said, ‘Who?' I said, ‘Well, Holder.' It was so obvious to me that you had a guy who could do everything you want to have done.”
Pickens' word and wallet carried a lot of weight.
"(Former OSU President David) Schmidly said ‘We've got to go through a search process.' I said, ‘If you already know who the best man is, why waste money?' But that's what they wanted to do. As far as I was concerned, it was a sham. I was going to make a major gift, and I told them, ‘I'm not making a gift unless I have somebody I'm comfortable with as the AD.'”
Pickens made a record-breaking $165 million donation to the athletic department less than four months after Holder got the job.
But Pickens also had to sell Holder on the idea, which wasn't easy. Over 32 years as OSU's golf coach Holder had raised the funds for and completed an extraordinary golf course, won eight national golf titles, and was pretty content with, what he calls, "kind of our own kingdom for golf.”
But Pickens knew how to push the buttons of a man he considers "like a son.”
"I told him, ‘You figured out how to win in NCAA golf,'” Pickens said. "‘You proved to everybody you've got the best program. In the same way you're going through life with your feet on the handlebars. You figured out how to win, but you haven's had to think for a long time.' And that ticked him off.'”
Ticked him off to the point where he took the job.
Holder and Pickens
It is ironic considering his current position, but in many ways the golf program was a self-sustaining universe Holder built despite an athletic director.
He tells the story of going into the athletic director's office the year after he became the coach and having the AD tell him he was cutting the program's already-small budget. Holder informed the AD that if the budget was cut he was worried the Cowboys wouldn't be able to compete for national championships.
"And he said, ‘Well, we don't necessarily want a national championship contender in golf,'” Holder recalls. "And I don't know of I just thought this or if I actually said it to him, but I thought, ‘Well, you may not want one, but if I'm going to be the coach you're going to have one.' From that day forward I understood that if we were going to have the resources we needed they were going to have to be created by someone, probably the golf coach.”
Pickens, of course, figured into Holder's success as a fundraiser and ultimately building Karsten Creek Golf Club. The two met in the early 1970s when mutual friend — and fellow OSU alum and donor — Jerry Walsh brought Pickens, his closest friend, to the first Cowboy Pro-Am golf tournament. Holder was an assistant golf coach at the time, and Walsh told Pickens he wanted the two to meet.
"Jerry thought he was a serious guy for such a young age,” Pickens said. "Jerry kidded him all the time; he thought he was gullible. I later kinda decided that he let Jerry think he fell for some of his jokes because he knew he had a good backer in Walsh.”
When Walsh died in a car accident in 1995 Pickens and Holder grew closer. They started hunting quail together, and Pickens compares Holder's hunting skills to his life skills.
"He wasn't a very good shot at first,” Pickens said. "But he goes after something and stays on the trail until he gets it.”
Turning out the lights
Pickens describes Holder as "staying on the trail.”
Former player Willie Wood calls him "an extremely driven individual.”
PGA golfer Scott Verplank stands by the initial impression he had when Holder recruited him.
"He's all business,” Verplank said. "He's very demanding, but he does it the right way. He always set a good example. He doesn't drink, doesn't smoke, doesn't use bad language. He doesn't ask anybody to do anything he hasn't done. If he wanted you there at 6, he was there at 5:30.”
Holder is at the gym by 6:30 a.m. and in his office at 8. He pays a member of the OSU strength and conditioning staff to train him, even though he could probably hit him up for tips for free. He insists on paying for everything, all the way down to candy bars at football games — "They'll say ‘Coach, you can just have it,' but that's not the right thing,” he says.
He is usually wearing something of a uniform — black pants, white shirt, orange sweater vest — and notices appearances.