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Five Thoughts on a Wild 10 Days of Talk About Mike Gundy and OSU Recruiting



It’s been 10 days since we posted the Mike Holder podcast. A lot has happened. Some of it I expected. A lot of it I didn’t. This would not be PFB if I didn’t have thoughts on what has transpired in the wake of what I thought at the time was a somewhat innocuous comment about the state of Oklahoma State football.

A preamble: I have a baked-in bias here. Mike Holder came on our podcast, and we had a terrific conversation. He made good points, and it has been difficult to extricate myself from agreeing with them. I’ve struggled to find objectivity within all of this, and I continue to do so in my five thoughts below.

So go in knowing that but also that I’ve at least searched for it as I’ve thought about what all of this means for the present and the future. I’ve tried to think about this as if Carson and I did not conduct the interview but rather it came from ESPN or Sports Illustrated (ok, maybe not Sports Illustrated).

Let’s jump right in.

1. PTI? PTI?!

I’ve said this on a number of radio hits and to our writers privately, but I would have lost a lot of money betting against the comments Holder made about Oklahoma State’s recruiting efforts ending up as a national talking point (and I believe PTI is the universal arbiter of national talking points).

Did I envision it becoming a segment or two on the Sports Animal or The Franchise? Sure, maybe. But for folks at the national level to choose up sides like it was a playground skirmish and lob incensed verbal volleys back and forth all in the name of College Sports Opinions? Yeah, not a thing I imagined happening.

Somewhat humorously, I had multiple national golf writers who know I attended OSU but don’t know about my secret blog life come up to me at Shinnecock last week asking if I could be-LIEVE what my school’s athletic director had said.

2. Extremes sell

This has probably always been true, but it has come into focus more in the Trump era of media. A thing — any thing that is spoken, done, achieved or otherwise created or perpetuated by a human being — must be absolutely right or absolutely wrong. There is no room for nuance.

Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately?) I am unable to wriggle myself free from nuance within this sports media world, and I cannot help but take up residence on both sides of an argument. I’ll argue one point of it, sure, but sometimes for fun I’ll argue the other side. And sometimes I’ll argue both sides until I figure out which one I actually believe (this is actually the most enjoyable place to reside).

All of that being said, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised by the rigid backlash to the comments. Taken within the context of the podcast, it was a line that had no nefarious underpinnings. I understand why people have removed the contest — sports blogs like this one have been built on removing context from quotes and actions — but I also sort of sympathize with Holder because how it has been perceived is not how it was originally intended.

3. And yet …

I think the points about all of this being tough for players on campus to hear is a salient one if, you know, players on campus cared about this kind of thing. Sure, some of them might, but to insinuate that players currently in the Oklahoma State football program are teeming with frustration is to probably overstate how much players care about things that exist outside of their day-to-day world. As Kyle Boone reported here, even incoming recruits aren’t really paying attention.

Also, I’m not sure I buy the “what if your employer said this about you?” argument. Yeah, and what if your salary was publicly available and every single action you partook in at your job was nationally televised and you were grilled by two dozen people with microphones and MacBooks after every week on the job?

It’s a false equivalence to compare your job as a structural engineer to Mike Gundy’s job as a college football coach. We are more comfortable levying criticism in the arena Gundy exists in, and the outrage over what Holder said has been overwrought. In the same way Gundy going public with proposed booster support after Bedlam 2017 applied pressure for that to actually get done, Holder is applying pressure the other way. A cat-and-mouse game en route to (hopefully) more championships.

4. Baylor is the point

I think there is an underlying insinuation when we talk about these things that OSU is what OSU is going to be as a football program. Fully formed. Like, if you’re really, really mad about what Holder said — and I think this is probably more true of national writers and thinkers — then you probably believe that Oklahoma State, as an institution, cannot improve or get better. If that’s true, then Holder’s comments were maybe not great. If this is the ceiling then I can understand the outrage. But … what if it’s not the ceiling?

I had a discussion last week with our CBS Sports college football team in which they were aghast at the comments made by Holder. I think they probably see OSU right now as peak OSU and can’t imagine them getting any better (this is fundamentally the opposite of how Mike Holder sees OSU, but more on that in a minute).

Anyway, they told me to defend my position, and the only point I used was that Baylor, which went 1-11 last season, finished three spots ahead of Oklahoma State (which has won 30 games in the last three years) in the recruiting rankings.

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That is the primary point of this entire discussion. That that is not a thing that should be happening. You can argue about the politics involved in recruiting rankings or that OSU’s players were hidden gems or whatever you want to argue, but those two teams — especially with their current situations and coaches — should not be near each other in the recruiting rankings. They just shouldn’t!

They conceded that the point was a good one, and we moved on. But I was surprised to see that media who cover this nationally don’t understand how feeble OSU has been in the last 10 years when it comes to recruiting.

I’ve written (a lot) more about this here, and I’ve include a handy chart below showing that of the top 30 teams in the country since Gundy took over in 2005 in terms of winning percentage, only TCU and Wisconsin are worse at capitalizing on the recruiting trail.

5. Beating a dead horse?

Those of us who write for this site have been beating this drum for 2-3 years, myself loudest of anyone. It is the off-the-field talking point as it relates to Oklahoma State football, and yet I have found it to have gotten mildly stale in the last six months or so. It just feels like the same cycle every year with no changes on the horizon. Maybe all of this will change some of that. Maybe this is exactly what has been needed to increase the quality of input into the program (as Boone noted, OSU has risen 10 spots to No. 25 in recruiting rankings for 2019 since the comments).

I have thought about all of this a lot, and there are times when I’ve thought, “Yeah, that was kind of dumb and should not have been said.” Then there are other times when I’ve thought, “This was maybe one of the more brilliant things that has been said by anyone at OSU in recent memory.” The truth is likely somewhere in the middle there, but as a thought experiment I’d like to throw out there the following: What are Gundy’s potential responses to this criticism?

  1. Keep doing what he’s been doing
  2. Improve recruiting to prove to stick it to his boss (so to speak)

Before, only No. 1 existed. So if you’re Holder, you’ve changed the potential outcomes for the near future. Isn’t that sort of the point of what you’re trying to do on a daily basis as the athletic director. And for those saying, “Now Gundy’s going to leave!” … please. Gundy just turned down the keys to one of the 10 richest athletic departments in the country and a salary equivalent to a coach who has won a national championship. He’s never leaving Stillwater.

On that note: Who exactly did this harm? If Gundy is never leaving — and he’s not — and if he’s going to flirt with other jobs anyway — he apparently is — then how exactly has this been “the most damaging” Gundy-Holder rift to date?

I don’t know what Gundy is motivated by or, at this point, if he’s even motivated by anything other than himself. I don’t know if he even wants to get out of the pattern of success he’s lived in as it relates to running his program (a program, by the way, which Holder said Gundy has final say in), although these comments from earlier this year tell me that he doesn’t.

“If you go back 75 years, particularly the last 15 years, Oklahoma State recruits differently than Oklahoma,” Gundy told the Tulsa World in April. “It’s always going to be that way. Maybe it’ll be different if I’m not here, but we understand our concept and what direction we go, what kids we’re looking for. And we have realistic expectations …

“If you make a living selling vacuum cleaners, you’ve got to sell some vacuum cleaners. If you go to a place and try to do something different and you don’t sell any, you may have swung for the fence but then you don’t get to eat.” [Tulsa World]

So maybe nothing changes. Maybe it’s business as usual. But I think the reward of a public exhortation of Gundy was worth the risk of … well I still don’t even really know what the risk was unless you think a 51-year-old Mike Gundy is going to take another job at a different school.

My biggest takeaway from the last 10 days of fallout is that Mike Holder expects championships. I would have posited that before we talked, but I did not know the degree to which he holds his athletic department accountable to this future (potential) reality. What Gundy has done so far in Stillwater is objectively great. Nobody doesn’t think that (although I do feel as if I have to write an annual “wait, morons, this dude is one of the best coaches in the country” post). But Holder wants to go beyond great and enter national championship territory.

This is a good thing, but it’s also a really difficult one to reconcile with Oklahoma State’s (and to a larger degree Oklahoma’s) current reality.

At the end of all of this I arrive at the following: The biggest difference-maker for Oklahoma State University as a school and an athletic department from a financial and materially-relevant perspective at the current moment is increasing its recruiting input by 10 percent or 15 percent or 20 percent. It’s an important talking point — maybe the important talking point — and now a greater spotlight will be on Gundy to improve in this arena. The monster must be fed, after all, and he is the one who feeds it.

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