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 PickensIt 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 lightsPickens 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. David Edwards, who played under Holder from 1976-78, recalls playing in a tournament in Ohio his freshman year. "We checked into a hotel and 10 minutes later coach came and said, ‘Get your stuff, we're leaving. This isn't a nice enough hotel,'” Edwards said. "It really wasn't that bad. It wasn't a flea bag, but it wasn't great. We didn't check into the Taj Mahal — where we went wasn't a huge step up – but there was a mindset there that we had a standard and less than that wasn't acceptable.” But wasting money is a cardinal sin. An OSU coach said it's a common understanding that athletic department money should be spent like it's your own, and Holder shakes his head as he mentions how the golf coaches at another Big 12 school always rented Cadillacs on the road. Athletic department employees notice him looking in offices to see if they're occupied, then turning off the light to save electricity if nobody's in there. "I think it's good that you present the right image,” he said. "A lot of times how you feel about yourself is reflected in the score that you shot. If you feel good about yourself and have confidence and you think you're as good as anyone there, chances are you're going to play at that level. At the same time, wasting money is not acceptable.” Holder is adamant that he does not micromanage his coaches. "I'm not going to come in here and tell a coach how to run his program,” Holder said at the news conference announcing Sutton's resignation. "I think it's up to each coach to manage their own program, to be the captain of their shop and the master of their fate.”
People skillsWhile lobbying for Holder to become athletic director, somebody opposing the idea told Pickens that Holder wasn't "too golf-course friendly.” "Holder had said something to him about parking his cart on his grass (on the course) and he didn't like that,” Pickens said. "I said, ‘You should have parked your golf cart where you're supposed to.” But Pickens and Holder both acknowledge Holder's people skills needed some changes. "We'd go on campus and I'd ask him who people were and he didn't know,” Pickens said. "I'd say Mike, you're part of this. In a way he wasn't. He was out at Karsten Creek. His record was impeccable, but he wasn't tied in real tight to the campus. He is now.” Said Holder: "I've had to become a lot more outgoing and I listen to a lot more people now. It was very difficult for me at the beginning, but I think I've grown into the job.” For those attributes he's looked to his wife, Robbie, who former player Willie Wood calls "the sweet side.” "She's the polar opposite of me,” Holder said, beaming when her name comes up in conversation. "I would like to take her personality and put it in my chair. Let me be in the background and coach her a little bit and I think we could be really good.” Holder is blunt and honest — "When you ask me something you're going to get a no comment or exactly what I'm thinking,” he says — and even now athletic department employees occasionally refer to his office as "the lion's den.” "If he has a fault it's that he's just so straightforward and honest,” said former OSU golfer Doug Tewell. Said former player Bob Tway: "I'm not going to say he's the best people person, but it's just how he is. Once you get to know him and get through the barrier, it's different. Sometimes he gets labeled as aloof, but I think he's gotten much better.”
All about OSUWhile the OSU fan base is ecstatic about the improvements to facilities Holder is working on, he has made some polarizing decisions in his tenure as athletic director. He's raised ticket prices and donation requirements, and, of course, forced out Sutton, a favorite son of OSU. It's also frequently asserted that Pickens has too much influence. "People are generally suspicious when there's a lot of money involved,” Holder said. "Does he have influence? Well certainly, because I value his opinion. But he's way too busy trying to make money to give away, he can't be bothered with the everyday dealings here in the athletic department. But sure, any big decision to be made around here if I'm involved I'm going to ask his opinion about.” With Holder's biggest and most public test as an athletic director in motion, Holder said Tuesday he wasn't yet sure how he would proceed with the search for a new men's basketball coach, but would be taking suggestions from other coaches. "I've always said I'm very coachable,” he said. Weeks back, when talking about his job, Holder wanted to emphasize one thing to his fan base. "People out there don't need to worry about what my motives are,” he said. "They're good. I'm not the smartest guy in the world, but I don't have to be. I've got smart people around me. And aside from my family, Oklahoma State is the most important thing in my life.”
Boone Pickens, left, and OSU athletic director Mike Holder are longtime friends. by STEVE SISNEY, THE OKLAHOMAN archive