Hunkered down in his office overlooking the turf at Boone Pickens Stadium, Mike Gundy often sits in the dark and ponders the past.
Why did I do this?
Why did I do that?
OK, this was good.
His mind races a million miles per hour, trying to separate the important from the inconsequential, the one-alarm fire from the five-alarm blaze.
It’s a different Oklahoma State head coach sitting in the chair than the Mike Gundy who took over the Cowboys program in January 2005. Now it's a man who, if he were giving advice to a rookie coach, would hammer home the importance of patience and thinking instead of emotion and reaction.
“One head coach, when I got the job, told me, 'You need to get a fire extinguisher and put it on your desk,'” Gundy said. “'All day long you’ll be spraying things because essentially what you do is put out fires.' I thought, 'He’s lost his mind.' But he was right.”
The Cowboys head coach has been in charge in Stillwater, Oklahoma, for more than a decade, learning valuable lessons along the way. Patience has become his most valued attribute, allowing him to handle everything from media to replacing coaches to managing 18- to 22-year-olds in a much different fashion than he did in the first few years after he took over Jan. 3, 2005.
“The first three or four years, I let that stuff eat me up,” Gundy said. “I tried to control everything.”
That desire to control bled into all aspects of the program, from his stint as a playcaller to his interactions with his players to his relationship with the media. For example, Gundy handled player discipline in a different way in the first half of his tenure. A missed academic appointment would mean an earful and plenty of stadiums for the offender. Now it means a simple conversation.
“I’ll say, ‘Here’s the deal. I told your mom and dad you were going to get an education. You’re wasting their time and money. You’re wasting my time and money. So show up when you’re supposed to [and] do what you’re supposed to, or you’re not going to be able to use the facilities anymore,’” said Gundy, who believes his previous punishment of running guys “to make them puke” didn’t work anyway.
Gundy’s growth as a head coach has coincided with the most successful decade in OSU football history. The Pokes are 84-44 under Gundy, with a .656 win percentage since 2005, which ranks No. 24 nationally, ahead of Texas Tech, Kansas State, Baylor, Michigan State, Notre Dame, Stanford, Texas A&M and Michigan, among others.
Yet that success hasn’t come without pitfalls.
The Cowboys' West End Zone football offices have become a magnet for other programs looking to poach up-and-coming coaches. Recruiting in small-town Oklahoma remains a challenge, and expectations rise each year.
When he reflects on the program’s rise, replacing coaches has been the biggest challenge for Gundy.
“It’s the most difficult part of what I do now,” said Gundy, who has seen 24 coaches depart during his time in Stillwater. “It’s not hard on me. I just don’t look forward to it because it’s time-consuming.”
The 2014 season was full of struggles that had become uncommon for Gundy’s program, and they resulted in a 7-6 record after a five-year stretch that featured 50 wins from 2009 to 2013. Yet the Cowboys still lost three coaches, with running backs coach Jemal Singleton (Arkansas) and cornerbacks coach Van Malone (SMU) departing for jobs that included a coordinator title and offensive line coach Bob Connelly leaving for USC.
“I think that says a lot about our core values here,” Gundy said. “I think opposing coaches have respect for us, [thinking], ‘Well, they’re winning more games than they ever have in there. They have to be doing something right.' It just doesn’t happen.”
As the Cowboys’ national reputation rose, doors opened on the recruiting trail as OSU’s logo became recognizable and correlated with success. But it hasn’t been enough. The Pokes still struggle to consistently sign the best of the best, which has forced Gundy’s program to return to its roots of quality evaluation after striking out on some elite prospects in recent years.
“We win 10, 12 games, and we can get in on these [five-star] guys. We would get in a little bit, but we didn’t finish,” Gundy said. “So right, wrong or indifferent, we’ve gone right back to know your area, find out who’s out there, this is what we’re looking for to fit our system. Do they like to play football? Do they have respect for themselves, which gives them a chance to be successful? Do they fit what we’re looking for? Do we believe in them? If so, we’re going to go for them.”
The most noticeable transformation under Gundy rose to the forefront this past fall. OSU was one play from a second Big 12 title in three seasons in 2013, yet when the Cowboys looked like a shell of themselves in 2014, some fans were calling for Gundy’s job. Winning seasons and bowl eligibility are no longer good enough.
“There was a time I felt underappreciated,” Gundy said. “When you start to feel sorry for yourself, you think back and think, 'Really? I’ve done this, I’ve done that, we’ve done this.' Then you realize it doesn’t matter anyway.
"The reason that happens is because of what we build up. There’s going to be a time when people are pressing and demand a lot from us.
“We have created this monster. Now we have to feed it.”