- Ivan Maisel, ESPN Senior Writer
- 0 Shares
Forty-one years is a long time. So is never.
Stanford has gone to major bowls in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1969-70. Oklahoma State is a conference champion -- not co-champion, but champion -- for the first time, period. The teams that played such a thrilling Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, won by the Cowboys 41-38 in overtime, overcame adversity, skepticism and history to stand among the college football elite.
But there's a difference between a seasonal rental and a permanent home. Climbing to the top is a story that writes itself, full of sentiment and that can-do element that resides in the American DNA. Staying there is a task devoid of the Hollywood ending.
"They have to accept the challenge and the pressure of people thinking they're better than they used to be," Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said of his players. "... They don't have a choice. They have to accept that we're better and live up to it. That's just the way it is."
They are better even as they lose the players who led the climb. Oklahoma State lost two first-rounders: the No. 5 pick, wide receiver Justin Blackmon, and quarterback Brandon Weeden, the 28-year-old ballast of the team. Stanford had four players taken in the first 42 selections in the NFL draft, including the top pick, quarterback Andrew Luck, and another team leader, guard David DeCastro.
"It's not our sole motivation," Stanford coach David Shaw said, "but I think there is a little bit of a chip on our shoulders that people have kind of discounted us and said, 'OK, great, Andrew's gone, and let's put the quote-unquote great programs back on top."
Better that than the self-satisfaction that comes with success. Nothing sabotages a program quicker than a second-teamer with a bowl ring, except maybe a four-star recruit who thinks that means something.
"The plague of entitlement," Stanford strength coach Shannon Turley called it.
The most celebrated recruiting class in Cardinal history will arrive on campus June 23, two days before summer school begins. That class sees only that it's joining a program that has produced three consecutive Heisman runners-up while going 31-8. Turley will be as vigilant as a playground mom with hand sanitizer.
"They don't understand and appreciate the struggles that everybody else went through to build the program," Turley said. Only the fifth-year guys remember 2008, when the Cardinal lost their last three games to finish 5-7.
Neither program reached the top with a core of four- and five-star recruits. The danger of success is the temptation to bypass the type of players who made Stanford and Oklahoma State what they are in favor of recruits with faster 40-yard times and better bench presses.
They have to accept that we're better and live up to it. That's just the way it is.
”-- Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy on his players' attitude
"My office doors revolve with coaches coming in and wanting to go to Oregon and Michigan and New Jersey and Florida and everywhere," Gundy said of the recruiting process. "... There's two things that happen: One, it costs too much money, and two, it costs too much time. I could be in Texas and Oklahoma hitting four or five schools in the same amount of time that I can get in one school and try to convince a young man to come get an education and play football at Oklahoma State, and he's 18 hours away from his home."
Both programs are reveling in the spoils that go to the football well-to-do. In the Pac-12 television contract that expired last season, the conference doled out money based on appearances. In 2007, the year after the Cardinal went 1-11, the program received $3 million, last in the league. In 2011, Stanford tied for second at $7.3 million.
Overall athletic fundraising at The Farm hit $50 million, including the funds to build an $18 million, 27,000-square-foot addition to the athletic administration building that will include new locker rooms, meeting rooms, coaches' offices and a player lounge -- all of the latest from the collegiate arms race catalog. The project is in the building-permit stage, and shovels may go into the ground as early as midsummer.
Oklahoma State is 3,000 season tickets ahead of its 2011 pace, when the program sold a record 49,000. Gundy said early this week that Oklahoma State has sold 98 of 99 suites at T. Boone Pickens Stadium. An athletic department spokesman corrected him. There are 100 suites, and all are sold.
A suite here, a suite there doesn't diminish Gundy's point. He grew up in Oklahoma, played quarterback for the Cowboys and has coached there 18 seasons in a 23-year career.
"If anybody would have said 10 years ago that Oklahoma State football could sell 99 suites," Gundy said, "I would have said, 'Yeah, right. You can forget it. We'll be lucky to sell 20.'"
Stanford last season sold 24,400 season and family-plan tickets combined. More important, the athletic department expanded the student section to 6,000 seats and still didn't have enough to meet demand from a student body of 13,000.
"It's a good illustration of the power of success in football," said senior associate athletic director Brian Talbott, the chief financial officer of the program.
So are contract extensions. Gundy recently agreed to a deal through the 2019 season. All nine of his assistants are committed to Oklahoma State for three to five seasons.
"That's a long time in our profession," Gundy said. "So we need to relax and enjoy what we're doing. We need to coach the players in the right way. We need to come across as confident and develop them in that manner. We're not on a one-year deal. There's no reason for us to be nervous.
"The good thing," Shaw said, "is our guys understand that part of the reason why they came to Stanford is to not live in a momentary world. You love those great moments. You love the moments of the Orange Bowl [2010 season]. You love the moment of being at the Fiesta Bowl. Eventually those memories fade and we're about things that are in the here and now. How can I be better today? How can we work toward that next great bowl game?"
Climbing to the top of college football's mountain is difficult. Staying there is an even greater challenge.