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Mike Holder’s $17 Million Problem

The most expensive t-shirt in OSU history.



I do not envy Mike Holder right now. As Oklahoma State’s world burned last week, an untenable future began to present itself. Holder and those in charge at Oklahoma State were presented with two emerging realities.

1. Keep Mike Gundy and pick up the pieces of the last week for the next few years.
2. Remove Mike Gundy and pay him $17 million to go away.

Neither seems very appealing as we sit here on Monday, one week after the fireworks. Go read the language. If OSU fires Gundy with Just Cause, it owes him $2 million. If it fires him without Just Cause, it owes him seventeen million dollars or roughly 75 percent of the remainder of his contract. Whether there is Just Cause is up to the billable hours folks.

What is Just Cause? The clause most applicable here is 5.03 of Gundy’s contract which states that Just Cause includes, “Conduct Affecting University. Participating in any conduct, committing any act, or becoming involved in any situation, occurrence, or activity that brings Employee into public disrepute, contempt, scandal or ridicule or that reflects unfavorably on the reputation or the high moral or ethical standards of the University.”

If OSU decides there’s not Just Cause, then what? Where do you go from here? The path to being made whole as a program and on the recruiting trail is a long one, and you don’t pay people $5 million a year in the middle of a pandemic for long paths (especially after 15 years). It’s probably being overstated a little bit right now in terms of how difficult recruiting will be, but the reality is that an already-difficult war just got a little bit (a lot?) more complex.

More importantly in the short term, there’s a sudden divide within your primary revenue source — OSU fans. As soon as this went public, sides were sorted and they will not be unsorted. This is not an uncommon theme nationally, but it feels more intimate now that it has descended upon Stillwater. If Holder fires Gundy, he alienates those on Gundy’s side of things — the folks who were upset that he apologized to begin with. If he keeps him, he alienates those who were not on Gundy’s side of things — the folks who were upset that, you know, Gundy would put OSU in this situation at all.

That this happened is irrevocable. You cannot put that toothpaste back in the tube. It’s here forever whether you want it to be or not. Now it’s about mitigation. When you consider all the factors — money, power, future success, a pandemic, the overarching morality of it all — which is the right side to be on if you’re Holder? It’s an impossible question to answer, which is again why I do not envy Mike Holder right now.

To compound the situation, not only is a fan base divided, but past players are as well. When you’ve lost Vernand Morency, you’ve clearly lost your way. It’s one thing for Patrick Macon to tweet a few things about Gundy. It’s a far different thing for Vernand Morency to go on the record with the Tulsa World about his feelings on Gundy. That’s not a blip on the radar, it’s a legitimate alum holding a megaphone on top of Gallagher-Iba Arena.

“When I wear my Mike Holder hat, I think of the job he has to do (as OSU’s athletic director),” Morency told the Tulsa World. “His job is to raise money for (the entire athletic department). Not just for football. Mike Gundy’s action undermines everything Mike Holder is trying to do for Oklahoma State.

“Basically, Mike Gundy is the CEO at Oklahoma State. Imagine what would happen if Elon Musk did something like Mike Gundy did with that shirt. Elon Musk would hurt the Tesla shareholders. Mike Gundy hurt the university and the alumni. I still root for Oklahoma State, but I’m concerned.”

Holder is not acquitted here either. He — of everyone in the Oklahoma State universe — is familiar with Gundy’s quirks and relational dysfunction (to the extent that you want to call it dysfunction). Still, he gave his head coach what amounts to a lifetime contract back in the summer of 2017 less than a decade after walking through the Travis Ford fiasco of a deal.

If OSU’s leadership had become as ambivalent as I believe they’ve become with Gundy’s personality behind the scenes then some of this is on Holder as the leader of the department. Not to mention the reality that somebody ought to be steering Gundy in the right direction here (of course whether or not Gundy actually listens is a different story altogether).

The one thing we know here is that last week was an inflection point — in some way — in Oklahoma State athletics history. Whether that’s for better or worse remains to be seen. Whether it includes Gundy or not also remains to be seen.

The only certainty in all of this is that OSU will pay a price for what Mike Gundy did last week and how alienated he seems from his program. It’s still unknown whether OSU will pay it now or later and whether it will be paid in dollars or public relations restoration currency. But regardless of the specifics of how it all plays out in the coming weeks and months, it does seem as if OSU is on the verge of unfortunately discovering just how much a $20 t-shirt actually costs.

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