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Many Thoughts: On Excellence, Budgets and Coaches Never Leaving with Mike Holder as AD



I went back and listened to our podcast earlier this week with Mike Holder. I hadn’t heard a snippet of it since we taped last Friday. I needed to get a little distance from it. Let it breathe a bit. Then I dove back in and took some notes. Here are a few thoughts I have on everything he said as well the interview itself for those who haven’t listened.

• On a scale of 1 to an amateur standing over a 6-foot putt to win the U.S. Open this week, how nervous did I sound on the introduction? My gosh. (Also: I was).

• His first point about the importance of how many people were at Karsten Creek for the NCAAs was a great one. I’m not sure if everyone there realized it in the moment, but what transpired that week (and specifically on that title-winning Wednesday) was extremely abnormal for a college golf tournament.

• “Unfortunately in today’s society …” — Somebody’s been hanging out with Mike Gundy.

• “You may make billions of dollars like Boone Pickens or Rupert Murdoch, but this is the best time in your life. Enjoy it. Don’t be in a hurry. Moments like a week ago out there at Karsten Creek, that’s the stuff of legend.” What a quote.

• On paying college athletes: “I don’t buy any of that. They’re all students, every single one of them. They’re here to get an education. A chosen few get the privilege of playing, participating in college athletics.” I disagree with the notion, but I appreciate how passionate Holder is about this subject.

• Holder said he took three rules to ask yourself when taking advice from people and he got these from Boone: “Do they know what they’re talking about? Do they care about me? Do they have a conflict of interest?” A lot of wisdom in there.

• On how much fun college golf was: “I can tell you I’d give up what I have right now and go back and be a college athlete again tomorrow.”

• This was really interesting: “If I would have known then what I know now, I probably wouldn’t have been the golf coach at Oklahoma State or athletic director. I don’t know what I would have been doing, but it wouldn’t have been these things. I wouldn’t want to change that because I’ve enjoyed especially my years as a coach.” I’m not sure what to do with that because I’m not totally sure what it means (Holder might not even know), but I think it’s pretty good insight. My experience has been that sometimes unintentional ignorance is the best thing for your career.

• Said he knew what to expect as an AD because as a coach all he ever wanted was money or for the AD to fix a problem. He also said being AD has been good for him because he had everything going his way as director of golf.

“Absolute power absolutely corrupts. As I stepped into my role as AD, I found out you need everyone. You need to listen to everyone. Everyone is important. Everyone matters. In golf, humility is just one shot away. You get a reminder of that on a minute by minute basis as an AD.

“Humility and unselfishness and thick skin and willingness to listen are probably the most important attributes for an athletic director and to remove one’s self-interest out of every decision and try to focus on what’s in the best interest of the athletes and the coaches …

“It’s easy to get involved in your own career and trying to climb the ladder of success, no different than the business world. Start making self-serving, self-aggrandizing decisions that look really good in the short-run but aren’t very good in the long run … ”

And you guys wonder why Holder is such a good AD? There’s a self-awareness in there that most people never attain.

• “Certainly back in 2008 when we lost $285 million. That wasn’t a whole lot of fun.” I almost lol-ed into the microphone!

• Holder said the qualities that make him a good fundraiser are “counter to what you guys like to say about me. The conventional wisdom out there is that I’m kind of weird, hard to get along with, abrasive, not a people person. I don’t have good interpersonal skills. I think that’s curious because most people who say those things have never met me and know nothing about me.”

For posterity, I’d like to say that I’ve always been a defender of Holder, both before and after the podcast. I was glad he opened this door, though, because it became one of the better anchors for our discussion and one I’m not sure we would have known how to broach otherwise.

• “The second-largest donor to OSU football’s renaissance was the OSU golf program.” I …. am not sure I realized that.

• “What you dream about, what you think about, what you talk about, what you work hard toward, that’s exactly what will happen. No dream is too big. Nothing is impossible. It’s just how big an ol’ boy are you and how much courage do you have.”


• This was great, and it’s something Phillip Slavin alluded to last week in his piece on 3-star football players: “I don’t know what people think allows you to get recruits or sign recruits. It’s your ability to connect on a personal level with an 18-year-old youngster and inspire them. I tell people all the time recruiting is 100 percent hard work … never give up, believe in yourself, just be persistent.

“You’ll be amazed at how many kids you can talk into coming if you have a compelling story, you refuse to take no for answer and just hang in there for the long haul. That applies to every coach who’s been great. No one is a good enough coach to overcome talent.”

This is the Mike Boynton special, right? He has a compelling story, won’t take no for an answer and is in it for the long haul.

• A thing Holder said to me: “It’s sad that you have to defend me.”

• On why he thinks other people think he’s weird: “I’m not a self-promoter. I’m not out in the media a lot. I’m not on the radio a lot. It’s never been about me. It’s always been about the coaches and athletes. I think ADs should be in the background. They don’t really have anything to do with winning and losing other than providing resources to the coaches and athletes to make it happen. It’s probably my own fault. I’ve always been shy, an introvert. All those things probably work against me as far as what public perception is. I’ve never let that define me. Being a successful coach is not a popularity contest.”

• I feel that a 6 a.m. workout with Mike Holder might not be the most fun thing for a college student, but what a compelling (and rare) example to look back on as an adult.

• I asked him if fans complaining about 10-win seasons is a good or bad thing: “It’s a great thing. I can remember when they had something to complain about. It was 0-10-1. Think about it. Our people aren’t satisfied with 10 wins. What a high class problem. What a wonderful transformation. That expectations are at that level, that really gives you a chance to consistently contend for championships, and that’s what we’re all about. Football is the most important thing we do because it provides the revenue, the resources for every other sport. I’m all in on football. I’ve been all in ever since I showed up here.” Whoooo boy!

• “You have to give a lot of credit to Mike Gundy, too. He’s really matured into a difference-maker as a coach.” I won’t go deep on the Mike Gundy recruiting comments because Kyle B. did so here. I certainly raised an eyebrow as he said them, but I think he did so in a way that was both 1. Respectful and 2. True. Like, I’m not even sure he said anything Gundy could reasonably disagree with.

• For those wondering what recruiting post Holder challenged me on, here it is.

Here’s what I wrote.

This data tells us that Oklahoma State is probably spending less than any other Big 12 team on football recruiting and definitely spending less than any other school in the Big 12 on recruiting to men’s sports. No other team is under $1 million in this category, and OSU barely cracks $700K. The numbers, while not exactly accurate — nobody thinks OU and Texas spend less than $1 million on recruiting, right? — still tell a story. And it’s a story that is fascinating to me. I’m confident that these numbers are in the ballpark for most teams, and I’m certain that OSU’s is correct based on publicly-available records.

Regardless, I cannot beat this drum any louder and could not be more excited about envisioning a future in which OSU actually pours its resources and money into football recruiting. It could double its budget for next year, and that still wouldn’t be enough. To me, $1 million should be the starting point. That’s a $650K increase, which is not much for a department that generated nearly $92 million last year. This also seems like the easiest and cheapest way to gain a little bit ground on the teams you’re trying to catch. [PFB]

Here was Holder’s response: “Recruiting is the most important thing we do. You’re only as good as your athletes, and you think our athletic department is going to undervalue recruiting? No, we would never cut a corner in recruiting. Never. You’re using an EADA (Dept. of Edu.) report. Who knows what people put into those things and call it recruiting. If we really put all the different items into that recruiting budget that actually directly or indirectly impact it, you’re talking about a huge number.”

He said we should focus more on overall budget. “That’s the problem. You’re not going to get anywhere dissecting the line items of the budget.”

This is a fair point, I suppose. I don’t know how budgets are put together. I know my personal budget looks a lot different than my friends’ even if the end result looks pretty much the same. There is nuance to the line items that I’m not privy to.

So …. let’s look at overall budgets for Big 12 schools.

According to the most recent report from USA Today, OSU comes in No. 4 of the eight schools required to report revenue (TCU and Baylor don’t have to) and No. 37 in the country. Here they are.

Overall Rank School Revenue Expenses
2 Texas $187,981,158 $171,394,287
6 Oklahoma $150,373,216 $127,268,340
26 West Virginia $105,140,368 $85,900,652
37 Oklahoma State $93,672,676 $92,926,534
38 Kansas $90,658,829 $85,703,264
42 Texas Tech $82,996,321 $78,598,577
48 Iowa State $78,355,500 $78,279,309
49 Kansas State $77,936,664 $70,884,496


OSU is certainly not operating at a Texas/OU level, but it isn’t exactly a bottom feeder, either. My overall point is that I think what goes toward recruiting is of the utmost importance, and Holder sounds like he thinks that, too.

Maybe Gundy simply doesn’t ask for more money. Who knows. But after talking to Holder, I feel more confident saying that clearing the $100 million revenue mark and pushing more and more of that cash toward football and basketball recruiting is something a lot of people in the athletic department think about a lot of the time.

• Holder said he advocated for hiring Gundy when they hired Bob Simmons in 1995. He was 28! “He’s always been a winner. He’s a very competitive guy. He loves OSU. I figured in the long run those qualities would take you a long way.” Prescient.

• I think a lot of the Holder-Gundy scuffles come about because Holder cares maybe more than most ADs about sports that aren’t football. That puts fans in a tough spot. We take a lot of pride in golf, wrestling etc., but those programs need money that is necessarily not going to football to be great. I’m glad Holder values them, but it also makes it tougher to complain about not enough money going to the football program.

• More self-awareness here: “I’ve got some things I’m really good and some things I’m never going to be good at.”

• Holder said he and Boone Pickens have always deferred to Gundy. “I would just say, ‘Mike, you have to change your thinking a little bit on recruting.’ That would be all. I think sometimes we settle when we don’t have to. But I’m not out there recruiting. I have no idea how to recruit football players. The one thing they all have in common is that you have to convince youngsters that your dream for them is better than your competitors’ dream for them.”

• Kyle Cox wrote very well on the Mike Boynton stuff here. I couldn’t get enough of it. From the second he said it wasn’t about what Boynton said in his interview, I was all in. Holder mentioned Boynton having “personal qualities that I value in coaching.” He also noted that when you try to hire from the outside, it’s hard to get a straight answer about what kind of person they are.

• “Surprise at what Brad Underwood pulled.” Loved the language there. “Pulled.”

• Mike Holder might love recruiting as much as Mike Boynton does.

• I asked him if he has any questions for us: “I think you should do a little more homework and never hesitate to call me or Kevin Klintworth to fact check or run your ideas past somebody that’s more on the inside. We’re just here to help you. It’s obvious for the last year or two I’ve paid attention to what you’re doing. That’s a compliment to you.”

• One last piece of self-awareness: “Both of you are really, really important because you help shape attitudes and thought about Oklahoma State athletics. It’s ok to be critical. You should have been critical of me when Brad Underwood left. You should have been critical of the hiring process. You should have been critical of Mike Boynton. Because outside looking in there was nothing there to justify anything that happened.”

How many people, much less powerful executives, are able to say something like that? He went on to give us a stat I was unaware of.

“Have you guys kept track of how many head coaches we’ve lost since I’ve been AD? Just one. Stability, continuity is everything if you’re going to build a successful enterprise.”

• “If we have good talent, even though we have budget challenges we’re going to take care of our people because it’s much more difficult to find a replacement for a great coach than it is to keep a great coach. That’s why we’ve stepped up for Mike Gundy. Does anybody want to see what that looks like, if you transition from Mike Gundy?”

No, no I do not.

• Lastly: “I love Rory McIlroy. I love his golf swing. Who wouldn’t be infatuated with that?” SPEAKING MY LANGUAGE!

• I told Sean Martin that Holder recruited Rory to come to Stillwater and that he could have been on that 2009 team with Rickie and Peter Uihlein. “Yeah, and they could have flown to tournaments on a unicorn,” he said.