Mike Gundy is issuing a challenge to his college coaching colleagues.
It doesn't involve mullet growing, shirt removal or rattlesnake hunting. Other coaches can't compete with Gundy in those noble pursuits.
This challenge is directed at coaches pursuing new coordinators. The early signing date marks the start of the second wave of the coaching carousel, filled with coordinator hires.
Gundy's challenge boils down to this: Would any Power 5 coach conduct a coordinator search that begins on the internet, includes several phone calls to a football office where no one answers and ends in a Pennsylvania hotel lobby with a young Division II coach making $52,500 a year?
"No chance," Gundy told ESPN. "I don't care what people think. They can go fly a kite for all I care. Nah, most people aren't going to be strong enough in their own skin to say there's a guy at Division II wherever that's the best coach for a major Power 5 conference school that had been in the top five in offense year after year after year."
Gundy's pursuit and hiring of Mike Yurcich in 2013 to coordinate Oklahoma State's offense should at least make other coaches think before they target big-name assistants in the coming weeks. Oklahoma State leads the nation in passing and ranks third in scoring and second in total offense under Yurcich, a 2016 finalist for the Broyles Award, which goes to the top assistant in college football.
The Cowboys have had top-10 passing offenses in each of the past three seasons and produced four of the top-10 offenses in team history during his five-year tenure. Since the unknown coach from college football's Siberia came to Stillwater, Oklahoma State has averaged 474.1 yards and 38.1 points per game. The offense needs 204 yards and 327 passing yards against Virginia Tech in the Camping World Bowl on Thursday (5:15 p.m. ET, ESPN and ESPN App) to set team single-season records in both categories.
"Pretty humbling experience," Yurcich said. "It's very unique. It doesn't happen, and I've got to try to capitalize on the opportunity given."
When Gundy began searching for an offensive coordinator after the 2012 season, he sought two qualities: talent and anonymity. He was tired of losing assistants.
Todd Monken had left for the Southern Miss head-coaching job after two record-setting seasons with Oklahoma State. Monken followed Dana Holgorsen, who spent the 2010 season as the Pokes' OC before taking the West Virginia job. Since becoming Oklahoma State's coach in 2005, Gundy had only one offensive coordinator last longer than two years -- Larry Fedora logged three seasons before becoming head coach at Southern Miss.
"I said, 'Forget this. I'm going to go find somebody that nobody will want for a while,'" Gundy said. "And I got lucky, and it worked out great for us, and it solved and/or ended the issue I was concerned about."
Gundy went online and looked up offenses that excelled both with rushing and passing numbers. He then narrowed the search to no-huddle, tempo-based offenses similar to Oklahoma State's. Next, he found coordinators who also coached quarterbacks. The last step, the trickiest, was identifying lesser-known coaches who might stick around even after successful seasons.
Starting at the FBS level, Gundy worked his way to Shippensburg University, a Division II program in south central Pennsylvania. Under Yurcich, Shippensburg had led Division II in offense (529.2 yards per game) and ranked second in scoring (46.9 PPG) in 2012, a year after shattering team records for scoring and yards.
Gundy had numbers but no video, and tracking down the person who handled Shippensburg's film wasn't easy. "He was a fireman and [was] teaching class," Gundy recalled. Oklahoma State eventually got three games sent its way as part of a film exchange, and Gundy liked what he saw.
The next challenge: finding Yurcich.
"You called the office and nobody answered," Gundy said. "It essentially was recordings, and I kept trying. Finally somebody answered -- I don't know who it was, maybe somebody who worked there and walked by and grabbed the phone -- and they said, 'He's gone recruiting,' or something. And I said, 'Well, how do I run him down?'"
Gundy finally connected with the Raiders' offensive coordinator and arranged a meeting at a hotel near where he would be recruiting. On a cold, snowy day early in 2013, the two men met and talked ball for three hours. Gundy did some vetting, talking with Shippensburg coach Mark Maciejewski, but knew he had his man.
"That doesn't happen every day," Maciejewski said. "It was a unique situation and very fortunate for him. At first, it was like, 'Wow, that's amazing.' But then, as time goes on, you sit back and you see there's a reason [Gundy] wanted him."
"Mike, here's the deal," he told Yurcich. "I'm going to offer you the job, and I have a three-year contract that pays $400,000 a year."
Silence. Three seconds, four, five, six ... Gundy worried that Yurcich had been caught in a snowstorm.
"Are you there?" he asked.
"Well, do you need to talk to your wife?"
"I don't need to talk to anybody."
In hindsight, Gundy admits he didn't appreciate what that moment meant to a coach making $52,500 a year who had played Division II ball, started coaching at the NAIA level and had spent just two years in the FBS, as a graduate assistant at Indiana. Gundy was offering the standard contract for an Oklahoma State offensive coordinator.
But Yurcich wasn't the standard candidate.
"I wasn't going to pay him less because he was from Shippensburg," Gundy said, pronouncing the school Shippings Burg. "But I didn't even think about, when I said it, he's probably saying in his mind, 'Holy s---, are you kidding me?' Compared to what he had."
Oklahoma State announced Yurcich's hiring about a month before spring practice. The reaction, not surprisingly, was one of surprise. Gundy took heat. He received text messages from Oklahoma State power brokers asking if the hire was a joke, to which he replied: No, it's not a joke. He's the best coach. The doubting continued in Yurcich's second season as an offense plagued by quarterback injuries, a shuffling line and disciplinary issues finished seventh in the Big 12 in yards and points. Gundy heard how he needed to fire Yurcich, or he'd soon be pink-slipped.
Three years later, Oklahoma State's offense is surging under the leadership of a coach who, according to wide receiver Jalen McCleskey, teaches the game with creativity, patience and enthusiasm.
"Mike came in and Mike was like the movie 'Hoosiers,'" Gundy said. "He was the small school that made it to the state finals and had a chance to win. We've never talked about this, but I think he felt the pressure of being 'Hickory' in that, 'I'm a Division II guy, and I went from making $50,000 a year to $400,000 a year, and I'm trying to do it for all the little guys who never got this shot.'"
Yurcich occasionally tells Oklahoma State's players about his unique path to becoming their coach, reinforcing this message: Take nothing for granted.
"There always is that sense of urgency," Yurcich said. "It's that fear of losing, man, and getting outcoached or out-schemed. I always try to do right by [Gundy]. I feel like I owe him a whole bunch of gratitude. I just try to always work my ass off for him. It's never changed for me."
Gundy knows he won't be able to keep Yurcich much longer. Yurcich has been in the mix for recent head-coaching vacancies at Tulane and Kent State, as well as a coordinator spot at Auburn last year.
"Mike's going to be a head coach," Gundy said. "It's just a matter of time."
When Yurcich leaves, Gundy plans to search the lower divisions again. He believes some of the best football coaches work at high schools or small colleges. They either don't want the lifestyle challenges of working in the FBS, or they haven't had the chance to move up.
If he can find another Yurcich, both capable and loyal, he won't hesitate to hire him.
After Oklahoma State's success, will other coaches accept the Mike Gundy Coordinator-Finding Challenge? Gundy doesn't think so.
"Let me build a scenario for you," Gundy said. "It's the AD that hires everybody's favorite as the next head coach, because then, if the guy doesn't make it, he can say, 'Well, everybody wanted him. He was the logical choice, right?' You're not going to see very many coaches that have a gut feeling on a guy and hire a guy at Shippensburg, and have the fans or the administration patronizing you because you hired some guy [and] everybody thought you lost your mind.
"Most coaches aren't going to be like that."