Mike Gundy has made his feelings known about playing Mississippi State on a neutral field in Oklahoma State's season opener. He's not exactly thrilled about the whole thing.
But if the Cowboys are going to start 2013 away from Boone Pickens Stadium, they might as well play in a city that features OSU banners greeting travelers at the airport.
Houston has become a bit of a second home for OSU, a prime recruiting ground and a place where the Cowboys captured a key bowl win more than a decade ago that helped spark their rise to national prominence under Les Miles and Gundy.
And Reliant Stadium should provide an exciting atmosphere Saturday afternoon, featuring the raucous ringing of cowbells from Bulldog fans, high tech video boards in an NFL stadium and the contrasting playing styles of the Big 12 and SEC.
Here's a guide to why Houston matters to OSU.
OKLAHOMA STATE — SOUTH?
Names from the past include NFL Pro Bowler Russell Okung, All-Big 12 linebacker Orie Lemon and cornerback mainstay Brodrick Brown.
Names from the present include preseason All-Big 12 linebacker Shaun Lewis, starting cornerback Justin Gilbert, rising receiver Jhajuan Seales and potential impact freshman Rennie Childs.
All these current and former Oklahoma State players hail from the Houston area, a recruiting ground in talent-rich Texas that has been especially good to the Cowboys during the past decade. And playing in the city's NFL venue in a marquee nonconference game against SEC foe Mississippi State on the season's opening weekend will only give the OSU more exposure.
That, Gundy admits, does have its benefits, even if he would rather be playing a cupcake opponent in Stillwater on Saturday.
“I think everyone would agree with that,” Gundy said. “We've had a lot of success recruiting in Houston and central Texas and the San Antonio area. So if you're gonna play on the road, which is not easy — we'd always prefer to play at home, especially to start the season — we might as well play in Texas.”
For years, former assistant Joe DeForest manned the Houston turf for the Cowboys before departing to join Dana Holgorsen's staff at West Virginia following the 2011 season. Now, the OSU staff includes Van Malone, who is from Houston and began his coaching career in the high school ranks there. So far, six of OSU's 20 commitments for the 2014 class are from the Houston area.
But Saturday, the OSU-MSU matchup will also serve as a Homecoming of sorts for many current Cowboys. Even for those who come from other parts of east Texas, such as receiver and Bullard product Charlie Moore.
“My whole family will be at the game,” Moore said. “It's not a long drive. My best friend and my brother are going to be making the trip. It's going to be really cool. I can't wait to play there.”
LOOKING BACK: THE 2002 HOUSTON BOWL
Oklahoma State rallied into the Houston Bowl in 2002, climbing back from a 2-4 start to earn the program's first postseason bid in five years.
The Cowboys have been climbing ever since.
And the momentum started and gained steam through that 2002 season, culminating with a 33-23 win over Southern Miss in the bowl game inside Reliant Stadium.
“I'm real proud,” star receiver Rashaun Woods said at the time. “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 have been in a bowl game all but one year since, producing the best stretch of football in program history.
Such future success wasn't so apparent early in 2002, when OSU lost four of its first six games, including a 44-9 pounding by Kansas State in Manhattan. Ironically, that blowout loss eventually became known as the turning point in Les Miles' second season.
Back home the following week, the Cowboys beat Nebraska for the first time since the Kennedy administration. They closed the regular season with wins in five of their final six games, including a rousing Bedlam conquest that raised their stock with several bowl committees.
“The fact that they finished strong, that got our attention,” Houston Bowl president and CEO Jerry Ippoliti said. “I think OSU is one of hottest teams in the country right now. And beating the conference champion (OU), I think they really showcased a lot of talent on the football team.”
Woods, Josh Fields and Tatum Bell highlighted the offense. Kevin Williams and Darrent Williams were the defensive standouts. Four of the five played in the NFL and Fields made it to the big leagues in Major League Baseball.
The fan base jumped in, too, with an estimated 35,000 OSU fans coloring a crowd of 44,687 distinctly orange.
In the game, the Cowboys trailed 23-20 entering the final quarter, when Bell went off, running for a 22-yard touchdown and scampering 88 yards to get OSU off its own 2, leading to Luke Phillips' fourth field goal, extending the margin to 10.
Fields passed for 310 yards and two touchdowns. Woods latched onto nine of Fields' 21 completions for 164 yards and a score. Bell finished with 160 rushing yards and a touchdown.
Kevin Williams wrecked the Golden Eagles game plan, finishing with seven tackles — four for losses, including three sacks.
The Cowboys finished 8-5, representing OSU's first winning season in five years and just the second since 1988.
“It puts the program in a position where the young guys know where the bar is,” Miles said after the game. “And in fact, for them to raise it, they're going to have to go some.
“But our goals will be much more ambitious next season.”
All these years later, as the Cowboys prepare for a return to Houston and Reliant Stadium to face Mississippi State, the goals and ambitions have been ratcheted up.
Only this time, this is where it starts.