STILLWATER, Okla. -- Mike Gundy's spent just under half of his 44 years on the planet playing for or coaching Oklahoma State in some capacity.
In 2011, he finally scaled the mountain and provided an outright conference title, the school's first and only since the birth of the Big 8 in 1958.
Gundy is preparing for his eighth season at Oklahoma State, but still holds the rare distinction of improving or equalling his record in every season in Stillwater.
This year's team doesn't have a player on the roster who has been on a team that won fewer than nine games, Gundy notes.
"These guys think they’re better than they really are, and I’ve kind of told them, 'You know, look guys, you've got a ways to go here,' but they don’t believe that. Just because they’ve been here," Gundy said. "And a good portion of them have won 11 or 12, so they don’t know any different, which is a good thing. Now, if it ever becomes an issue where they don’t think they have to practice hard, then I’ll have to deal with that, but they think they’re better than that."
The task ahead of Oklahoma State now is clear: The Cowboys proved they could do a great Texas or Oklahoma impression for one year, winning a Big 12 title.
The Cowboys are further along the road to becoming a national power than any other Big 12 team, but now must prove their worth in the most difficult of proving grounds: the "rebuilding" year.
Winning, or even being a factor in the Big 12 title race, in a season like this would be no greater proof that Oklahoma State has arrived.
This is not the purest of rebuilding years for Oklahoma State. Sixteen starters return from last year's team, 29th-most in college football. However, the loss of near-Heisman winner Brandon Weeden and two-time Biletnikoff Award winner Justin Blackmon is enough to demote the Cowboys from postseason top three to preseason top 20.
Gundy knows what has to happen if OSU's going to fight its way back to the top of the Big 12 in a season when few outside of Stillwater see it as a possibility.
"There are a small percentage of teams that can have good and/or great success with just a guy at quarterback. But there’s a large percentage of them that have good or great teams with good quarterbacks," Gundy said. "So, I think developing a quarterback is key as anything to continued success."
Anyone who watches the Big 12 knows that. Dominant defenses in the SEC make it easier to replace quarterbacks. In the Big 12, though, it's score or lose. Most places are like that.
There have been plenty of conversations in the coaches' offices this spring about the quarterback race, and offensive coordinator Todd Monken told Gundy about celebrations in the NFL when teams see drafted quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers or Peyton Manning start to see success blossom in their first minicamp or fall camp.
"Everybody celebrates, because you know you’re good for eight or 10 years. Well, in college, you don’t have that luck. It takes them a year to get ready, and you only have three years out of them and then they’re out of here," Gundy said. "In the NFL , you hang onto those guys for so long, because you know you’re in good shape for a number of years. So, I think establishing a quarterback for us, and probably just about anybody other than your teams that dominate on defense."
OSU got its first taste of big-time success in 2011, capping the Big 12 title by beating likely No. 1 pick Andrew Luck and Stanford in the Fiesta Bowl, the program's first trip to the BCS.
Weeden, a former walk-on, and Blackmon, a moderate receiving recruit, emerged in the last rebuilding year. Oklahoma State was picked to finish fifth in something called the Big 12 South. It earned a share of the Big 12 South and won 10 games.
Oklahoma State will likely be near the middle of the pack in the Big 12 preseason poll this year. Gundy's already got his Big 12 title ring, but getting the Cowboys to finish at or near the top might be even more impressive.