Gundy learns to trust his instincts
Oklahoma State hired Mike Gundy seven years ago at age 37, the equivalent of coaching adolescence. He had started at quarterback for the Cowboys for four seasons and been an assistant coach there for 10 of the 15 years after his graduation. He was as orange and black as Pistol Pete, and also green.
"I look back," Gundy said, "and never would have hired me, knowing what I know now."
The arc of Gundy's success at his alma mater has yet to bend toward earth. He has won as many or more games in each season than the previous one, from four wins in 2005 to 11 and counting as No. 3 Oklahoma State prepares to play No. 4 Stanford in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl on Monday.
When Gundy looks back, he sees a young head coach who tried to do things the way that head coaches are supposed to do them. In his first three seasons, Gundy went 18-19 (.486) and became best known for a rant at a news conference.
The more he has trusted his gut, the more that he refused to heed the Coaching 101 textbook of conventional wisdom, the more games the Cowboys have won. Beginning in 2008, Gundy has gone 40-11 (.784). Over that same time, the coach on the other side of the Bedlam rivalry is 41-12 (.774).
That's right, Mike Gundy is toe-to-toe with Bob Stoops. Actually, Gundy got in the last good lick. That 44-10 defeat of the Sooners to finish the regular season earned Oklahoma State its first Big 12 championship.
"There's so much growing that goes on that can only happen during experience," Gundy said. "... [There's] the evolution but also the mistakes, making mistakes, and sitting in my office and thinking, 'OK, how can I eliminate that, and what's the solution for the next time?' It was patience and making mistakes."
Coaches don't have a lot of time to sit in their office and think. When Gundy took the job, someone told him to keep a fire extinguisher on his desk, because that's what a head coach does.
"You just put fires out all day and then you get home," Gundy said. "And you continue to do it. And I thought, that doesn't sound right. That doesn't sound like much fun. That is exactly the way it is, for the most part."
Gundy remembered what T. Boone Pickens, the billionaire godfather of Oklahoma State athletics, told him when he got hired: (1) take risks, and (2) be unpredictable. So he began to ask questions. Why did Oklahoma State get to the end of the season with more players in the training room than on the field? Why did certain coaching hires click and others not? Gundy asked questions, and he didn't go to the Coaching 101 textbook for his answers.
Take the injury issue. The old-school reaction to not winning enough is to double down, to make a team tougher, to tackle more and hit more. But Gundy saw a team spent physically and emotionally.
"Our guys were losing too much weight during two-a-days," Gundy said. "In August, it's 100 degrees down here, and we practice a lot. We said, OK, why is that happening? Obviously, we're on the field too much. So what's the answer? We've got to back off. How much can you back off?"
Strength coach Rob Glass started trying to quantify what had been done because it had always been done. How many steps can a wide receiver run in August and still be fresh in November? How much pounding can an offensive lineman take before his shoulder needs to be reassembled? If the approach sounds familiar, it should. Brad Pitt made a movie about it.
"Like 'Moneyball,' we do a lot of things, put a lot of thought into formulas," Gundy said.
Gundy didn't back off -- he stopped. Two-a-days?
"We started [compiling] all that about three years ago, and we started putting it in effect really this year," he said. "Last spring, spring ball, we did not scrimmage one time and tackle to the ground. This August, we did not scrimmage one time and tackle to the ground. Nothing."
Two-hour practices? Out. The Cowboys are on the practice field five hours a week. Gundy took the risk. He made the unpredictable decision.
"We were confident in all the research that we've done," he said, "... but there's always a risk because it's still football. My coach [at Oklahoma State] was Pat Jones. He's still around here, does some radio talk shows, and he's a good friend of mine. He told me I was crazy. I said, 'You may be right.' But I guess what I'm saying is, I'm not afraid to take a chance."
Gundy tried hiring assistant coaches in the conventional manner. Needed a recruiter? He hired a guy known for recruiting. Needed a position coach? He hired a guy for that position. "But they weren't great hires for me," Gundy said.
Gundy decided to focus on intelligence and loyalty. He figured the rest would work itself out. When he needed an offensive coordinator after last season to replace Dana Holgorsen, who went to West Virginia, Gundy hired Jacksonville Jaguars wide receivers coach Todd Monken, a former Oklahoma State assistant who had never been a coordinator. The Cowboys averaged 49 points and 557 yards per game this season.
When Gundy needed a running backs coach this year, he hired Air Force assistant Jemal Singleton. Air Force? It runs the option. Oklahoma State runs a spread.
"Because he's smart," Gundy explained. "He's got a good demeanor. ... He had to understand loyalty, structure and discipline, because you don't graduate from the Academy without all those things. He's been tremendous for us."
Gundy is through with Coaching 101. He swears he will err toward character over talent in recruiting. The coach who became a YouTube sensation with his "I'm a man!" rant has become more open to the media, not less.
Whether he does or not, he is clearly less defensive than he used to be. There is a sense of calm about him now.
There's also a lesson. When Gundy struggled as a young head coach, he stopped doing what he thought a head coach is supposed to do. He trusted his gut. The results can be seen from Stillwater clear to Glendale, Ariz. For the first time, Oklahoma State is in the BCS.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.
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