Third Place Writing – Sports

Cody Stavenhagen

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Oklahoma State University
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Cody Stavenhagen

Paradise Lost? Mike Gundy, OSU and a culture of secrecy

By Cody Stavenhagen

THIS IS THE STORY it seems Mike Gundy wants.

It’s what he wanted seven years ago when his infamous postgame rant made him a YouTube sensation. Something wrong? Don’t write about the players. Write about him.

It’s still the story he wants in 2014. His Cowboys are 5-6, fighting for bowl eligibility, gearing up for a game against their hated rivals with a quarterback controversy in full effect.

Yet Gundy won’t talk with the media about the following things: personnel decisions, recruiting, injuries, the College Football Playoff, coaching changes, the Bedlam Rivalry and just about anything else.

By not talking about his own team, by hardly talking about football, Gundy has made himself the story.

It’s not the fact itself, but the reasoning behind it that is so curious. It ties in all too well with a prevailing narrative that has quietly but viciously consumed the public’s perception of Gundy.

Either you love Mike Gundy or you hate him.

It’s hard to characterize a man when you don’t know his motivations. His actions hold little meaning unless you understand why.

Does his ego crave attention? Or does he sacrifice looking bad to deflect negative publicity from his struggling team? Is he consumed with himself and his power? Or is he secretly the most selfless man in Stillwater?

Mike Gundy – maybe the most revered figure in Stillwater, a former star quarterback, the architect of a rising program – has become a self-made mystery. As a product, an OSU fairytale is turning into a marriage on the rocks.


GUNDY STOOD AT HIS USUAL PODIUM in the Boone Pickens Stadium press box Tuesday, going through a routine he’s managed more than a hundred times.

The average Gundy presser is mundane, but this was a new level. Gundy, clad in an orange Oklahoma State polo, looked bored, almost checked out in front of about 25 reporters from media outlets around the state. Still, the atmosphere his presence commands was tense.

Question after question came. Answers were a different matter.

“I would never talk about personnel decisions we make publicly.”

“We never comment on the recruiting process, personnel decisions or injuries.”

“I’m not going to discuss (which quarterback) gives us the best chance to win or why.”

“I would never talk about personnel decisions with a coach or a player during the season.”

A reporter fired back. “This list is getting long.”

Gundy certainly has reasons for being tight-lipped. He believes keeping his quarterback situation in secrecy lends a competitive advantage. Same goes for injuries.

Even after Gundy’s 2007 rant, he received praise for defending quarterback Bobby Reid, who was the subject of a negative column in a local newspaper. It became a recruiting advantage. There were T-shirts bearing the “I’m a man, I’m 40” catchphrase, which Gundy admits he tried to trademark.

A year later, Reid told ESPN he thought Gundy’s defense was insincere and the rant “basically ended his life.”

Tuesday, it was a mind game. Gundy brought out the heavy artillery in his ongoing war of words – or lack thereof – with the Oklahoma media. To some, that’s not a bad thing.

“Anytime there’s been any negative image of him in public, he was defending us,” junior tight end Jeremy Seaton said. “You have to respect a guy who’s not afraid to make himself look bad or not worry about his own perception … That’s a guy you want to play for.”

But when a reporter asked about the development of David Glidden, a 5-foot-7 receiver from tiny Mustang who has blossomed into OSU’s leader in receptions, Gundy was mum.

“Yeah, he’s been consistent.”

By the end, Gundy appeared to be texting behind the podium.

I’ve got a meeting because today’s Tuesday – as much as I’d love to stay and chat,” Gundy said shortly before hurrying out of the room.

It’s not out of the norm for college football coaches to be guarded with the media. But the interesting thing with Gundy? It wasn’t always like this.

From a 1989 column by John Rohde in The Oklahoman:

“… Gundy would head anybody’s all-interview list. I’ve seen Gundy dodge plenty of defenders, but I’ve never seen him dodge a question.

‘I enjoy talking to the media,’ Gundy said. ‘Media people usually don’t talk to people who don’t enjoy talking to them. I don’t go out looking for reporters. If they come to me, fine. If they want to talk, I’ll talk.'”

That was the young Gundy, the OSU quarterback with the big smile and goofy mullet, an energetic and friendly kid from Midwest City, one of Oklahoma’s proudest sons.

As recently as the mid-2000s, when Gundy was OSU’s offensive coordinator under Les Miles, Gundy had a reputation for being cool. He would put his feet up and sip a Red Bull while drawing up OSU’s offense.

Then, something changed. Maybe it was the pressure of being a head coach, maybe the negative backlash from the rant, maybe something else deep within the confines of Gundy’s psyche.

That, we’ll likely never know. Unlike so many top coaches, good luck finding an objective, definitive Mike Gundy profile. You won’t get much insight into Gundy’s personal life beyond the fact he loves his 110-acre ranch. Gundy keeps his program and his life insulated like the CIA of Stillwater. Only those with the highest security clearances get in. That means little to no information gets out.

Gundy, though, is heralded as a family man’s coach.

He was the only power conference coach to skip this summer’s ESPN “Carwash.” He was attending his son’s baseball tournament. His players swear by his ability to develop personal relationships.

Meanwhile, outside the fortress of Boone Pickens Stadium, Gundy carries a cold persona.

“You really can’t judge a book by its cover,” cornerback Kevin Peterson said. “If you’ve never talked to the man, you really can’t judge his personality.”


TO MANY OSU DIEHARDS, any criticism of Gundy is automatically invalid.

He is the Big Eight’s all-time leading passer, OSU’s all-time winningest coach. He brought the program to new heights in 2011 when he won the Big 12 and the Fiesta Bowl.

“Everybody loves him around here,” linebacker Ryan Simmons said. “Nobody has any ill will toward him.”

In Stillwater, Gundy is infallible. It is an isolated community, an hour removed from any metropolitan area.

Oklahoma State University is Stillwater.

Mike Gundy is Oklahoma State University.

“I think Coach Gundy has kind of built a dynasty here,” senior fullback Teddy Johnson said. “The whole athletic program, football, has revolved around him. He’s the image, the face here.”

He is, as four players were quick to point out Tuesday, a player’s coach above all else.

“He truly does have our best interest in mind,” Seaton said. “He thinks of us. If we’re going home, he’ll let us have an early practice. It’s little things he does that add up and amount to such big things.”

But there’s a problem here. For a man so widely respected, he has a growing list of instances where his motives were questionable at best.

After the 2012 season, quarterback Wes Lunt decided to transfer after his freshman year. Gundy elongated the process, reportedly blocking Lunt’s ability to transfer to 37 schools before finally lifting the restrictions and allowing Lunt to go to Illinois.

Around the same time, Gundy ostracized veteran quarterback Clint Chelf. Chelf went through a long saga, earning the starting job three different times, almost inexplicably unable to keep it. In the 2013 season opener against Mississippi State, Gundy benched Chelf for J.W. Walsh after only six pass attempts.

After Chelf reclaimed the starting job and went on to play the game of his life in a 49-17 primetime win against Baylor, the ESPN GameDay crew invited him on the set for a postgame interview. Gundy nixed the interview, barring Chelf from the media as he did all season.

The person who filled in for Chelf on national TV? Mike Gundy.

Then there are more indicting situations, such as when Gundy put receiver Artrell Woods on medical exemption before the 2009 season. Woods was a promising receiver who suffered a severe spine injury in a weightroom accident. Despite recovering and becoming a feel-good story, Woods said Gundy didn’t see a future for him at OSU.

Woods would have been able to stay on scholarship and finish school, but he would not have a spot on the team. Woods felt disrespected and asked for a release from his scholarship, eventually moving on the play at Central Oklahoma.

Even this season, Gundy opted to remove quarterback Mason Rudolph’s redshirt with two games left in the season after Daxx Garman was dealing with a reported concussion. Despite Rudolph being the crown jewel of the 2014 recruiting class, program sources say walk-on Taylor Cornelius appeared to be the starter early in the week.

Sources said it wasn’t until Gundy met with Rudolph, who insisted on playing, that he pulled the redshirt. Rudolph’s high school coach, Kyle Richardson, told Fox Sports Rudolph only got “three or four days” of first-team reps.

Might Gundy have been planning to throw in the towel on his seniors despite bowl eligibility on the line?

Now, Gundy says Rudolph is not a lock to start against Oklahoma. Gundy said Rudolph and Garman are splitting reps 50-50 – though sources say it’s closer to 60-40 in favor of Rudolph. Could it really be an option to pull Rudolph’s redshirt for one game?


AFTER THE 2012 SEASON, the King of Stillwater nearly left his throne.

Gundy was linked closely to openings at Arkansas and Tennessee. Some reports even announced Gundy had taken the Tennessee job.

“At some point, that’s where we thought we were going to go,” Gundy told CBS Sports in 2013.

Quite the turn from Gundy calling OSU his “Yankees job” at his introductory press conference in 2005.

So what’s the cause?

Again, Gundy’s motivations remain clouded. Some around the OSU program claim it was all at the hands of Gundy’s ex-agent, Jimmy Sexton, who saw an opportunity for leverage on OSU Athletic Director Mike Holder.

Regardless of whose idea, politics were at play. Gundy has had public disagreements with Holder for years. Gundy wants to control his own schedule and play in Stillwater as often as possible.

Holder, the longtime friend of megabooster Boone Pickens, wants to schedule games at neutral sites against premier teams to make money and gain national exposure.

There is also tension between the two regarding from the 10-year, $20.375 million contract extension Holder gave OSU coach Travis Ford in 2009. It made Ford the highest paid college basketball coach under age 40. In 2012, Gundy bargained an eight-year deal worth $30.3 million.

In this case, Stillwater becomes host to its own game of thrones.

Jim Traber is a former OSU quarterback and the most recognizable sports radio personality in Oklahoma. He has a reputation for being over the top, but he also tends to tell things like they are. Traber, who does not get along with Gundy, says egos have created political turmoil in Cowboy Nation. On a Tuesday broadcast, Traber said it would do no good for Holder to walk in Mike Gundy’s office. Gundy, no matter the circumstance, would not listen.

“Right now it is just a horrible, horrible atmosphere up there,” Traber said on WWLS The Sports Animal. “I don’t know how it’s going to get any better. I just don’t know. The only one that can make it better is Mike Gundy. Mike Holder can’t make it better. Boone Pickens can’t make it better. None of them.”

The more important political figure in the mix might be Pickens. The oil tycoon and OSU alum also disagrees with Gundy on issues like scheduling, and there is likely more at play. Specifically, who deserves more credit for OSU’s rise in status –Pickens and his money that built facilities and opened new doors, or Gundy and his coaching and recruiting that won games?

Pickens made a record-setting donation to OSU athletics in 2006, really for one reason: To see his alma mater rise to perennial national prominence.

Last month, the Austin American-Statesman asked Pickens if he still had confidence in Gundy as OSU’s coach. His reply:

“I’m certainly supportive of Oklahoma State University,” Pickens said. “I’m always going to be for OSU, I don’t care who coaches ’em.”

For a straight-shooting man like Pickens, anything less than an endorsement is a condemnation. If you’re not with him, you’re against him. And Boone Pickens does not lose.

This is, after all, the same man who began a campaign in the late ’80s to have readers cancel their subscriptions to the newspaper in Amarillo, Texas, after a series of negative coverage on Pickens. Partially in fear of Pickens, the paper arranged to have its general manager, Jerry Huff Jr., transferred. Before the move ever became public, Pickens had a large banner hung from his downtown Mesa Petroleum building. It read “Good-Bye Jerry.”

Gundy’s response to Pickens’ comments didn’t seem anything close to an attempt to make peace.

“I don’t need anybody to tell me they like me or dislike me,” Gundy said at a news conference. “I don’t really care. I just like to coach my guys and keep playing ball … I don’t know what to say. He’s old enough to make his own comments now, right? I can’t control what he says.”


DURING THE 2012 CONTROVERSY, Gundy met with his team to denounce rumors he was heading out of town.

“You were hearing it in media, but he came to meetings far before it was released and said, ‘Guys, I’m not looking into it,'” Seaton said. “He told us what was going on. He told us, ‘There’s going to be media coverage on it. Don’t worry about it. If there was anything we were to change, I’m going to tell you guys before anyone else knows.’

“You have to respect that. That’s something big in his life that he could keep from us, and he chose not to.”

Gundy is again being linked to job offers. At one point, he was the Vegas favorite to succeed Will Muschamp at Florida, though the Gators hired Jim McElwain from Colorado State on Friday. Now, jobs are opening up across the country. The opportunity to leave will be there.

But again, there is confliction. Veteran reporters have cited anonymous sources who say Gundy would still never leave Stillwater. Then and now, players such as Johnson agree.

“You can almost expect that with any positive coach, to have the opportunity to go elsewhere,” Johnson said. “This being his alma mater, he’s built a dynasty here. I honestly wasn’t too worried about Coach Gundy ever leaving this program.”

However, a source close to the Gundy family told the O’Colly two weeks ago that Gundy is “definitely looking around” for other jobs.

The season isn’t quite over, but sources also say Gundy has not addressed the issue with his team in any way.

Pat Jones, Gundy’s coach at OSU, had little to say on the matter. Would Gundy ever leave?

“I don’t know,” Jones said via phone before quickly changing the subject.


GUNDY MIGHT BE the only person who fully understands his transition from the seemingly eternally young coach to a stoic, bully-like figure.

All we really know: Somewhere along the road, something sparked a change in Gundy. And it might lead to his downfall – where there is smoke, there is almost always fire.

As the 2014 season winds to a close, Stillwater’s savior finds himself engulfed in politics, at war with the media and struggling to win football games.

Mike Gundy made himself the story.

Fitting, because answers remain hard to come by.