At around 5:30 a.m. on Feb. 8, 2009, Stillwater police executed a search warrant at the off-campus residence of Oklahoma State junior wide receiver Bo Bowling. An ex-girlfriend, whom police officers found inebriated outside Bowling's home, had told them that Bowling had marijuana in his possession. When they searched his home they found 108.6 grams of weed, unspecified quantities of alprazolam (a prescription anxiety medication commonly known as Xanax), ephedrine (a stimulant) and the anabolic steroid stanozolol. There were also several plastic bags (some later found to contain marijuana residue), a digital scale and more than $1,000 in cash.
After police charged Bowling with felony possession of marijuana with intent to distribute as well as misdemeanor charges of possession of a controlled substance and unlawful possession of drug paraphernalia, Cowboys coach Mike Gundy suspended him indefinitely -- and that was that. There was no internal investigation to ascertain whether Bowling's alleged drug dealing involved teammates or if the steroids in his home indicated wider issues of performance-enhancing drugs on the team. A year later Bowling pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors, possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia, and was sentenced to 30 days in jail, community service and counseling. He rejoined the team for the 2010 season.
Oklahoma State's response to the Bowling case was consistent with its approach to drugs over the last decade. As the Cowboys have risen from Big 12 cellar-dweller to one of the nation's elite teams, widespread marijuana use by players and even some drug dealing has gone largely unexamined, unchecked and untreated.
Full coverage of SI's special report on the Oklahoma State football program
"Drugs were everywhere," says Donnell Williams, a linebacker on the 2006 team who says he didn't use drugs but observed other players who did. Other players echoed that, saying it was common for some players to smoke weed before games. "[Against] teams we knew we were going to roll, a couple of guys would get high," says Calvin Mickens, a cornerback from 2005 to '07. "Some of the guys [it] didn't matter what game it was, they were going to get high." In the weeks leading up to the 2012 Fiesta Bowl, running back Herschel Sims says that so many of his teammates were smoking marijuana regularly that if the school had suspended those who had the drug in their system, "we probably would have lost about 15-20 people who actually played." (According to the school, 18 of the team's more than 100 players were randomly tested by the NCAA before the game; one tested positive and was suspended.)
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Three former players admitted to SI that they dealt marijuana while members of the 2001, '04 and '06 teams. Players from seven other seasons between 2001 and '12 were accused by teammates (or, in the case of Bowling, by police) of also dealing drugs, meaning the program hosted an alleged or admitted drug dealer in 10 of the last 12 seasons.
Drug use among college athletes often mirrors that of the student body. Division I football programs, however, have developed different policies and programs to deal with drug use by players. The makeup of those programs and policies and how they are applied can be revealing. Oklahoma State had one of the nation's more lenient policies -- yet the Cowboys still abused it. Frequent positive tests by stars were ignored while lesser players were suspended or kicked off the team. The team's substance-abuse counselor from at least 2007 to the present was an assistant strength-and-conditioning coach with no experience treating drug users; his bio on the university's website incorrectly stated that he had a master's degree in counseling.
The coaching staff did little to deter marijuana use, players say. Some football staff members, including Gundy, allegedly joked about it. "[A football staffer] would be like, If you were trying to get to a blunt I'd bet you'd throw that weight up," says LeRon Furr, a linebacker on the 2009 and '10 teams.
VIDEO: SI's special report on Oklahoma State
When asked about the effectiveness of Oklahoma State's drug program, athletic director Mike Holder told SI, "I feel good about what our goals are, what our intentions are, but we constantly evaluate what we're doing. If there's a better way to do it, I'm interested in hearing about it and thinking about it."
The more than 40 former players who spoke independently to SI about drug use within the program described an environment crying out for that better way. "I was kind of in disbelief that people could do the things that they were doing," says Jonathan Cruz, an offensive lineman on the 2002 team. "It was tied to how well you could produce. If you could produce on Saturday, things could be overlooked."
Andrew Alexander arrived in Stillwater in 2003, the summer before his freshman year, a naive 19-year-old from Lawton, Okla. "I didn't do nothing in high school," says Alexander. "It was books, athletics, home. Nothing else. I couldn't even go to dances. It was that strict. My grandfather had me on a leash."
During his first season Alexander, a defensive back, watched as many of his teammates smoked marijuana, but he didn't partake. "I wasn't trying to fit in," he says. "I was all about school and football." But a year later, during summer school, with the campus emptier and entertainment options limited, Alexander was tired of feeling outside the social circle so he tried marijuana for the first time. Within a few weeks he was smoking daily with some teammates. "It started me on a cycle.?... I'd be partying from sunup to sundown," he says. "I never thought in a million years I would go down that path."
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It is unclear when marijuana use became so pervasive that a player like Alexander would feel excluded for not smoking. Andre McGill, a quarterback in 2000 and '01, says it coincided with the arrival of Les Miles, but that is at least anecdotally false. Players from earlier years say that marijuana was used before Miles was named coach in December 2000, though they say it increased during his tenure. A Stillwater law enforcement official, who asked to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to speak to the media, says that when officers called Miles to tell him about players with drug problems, his usual response was, "What do you want me to do?" Rodrick Johnson, a linebacker and defensive end from 2004 to '07, says of Miles's approach, "As long as you were performing on the field, he could care less what you did off the field."
In a written response Miles said, "This is an outsider's view or perhaps from a disgruntled player who wanted playing time but could not earn it. Yes, I wanted our players to perform on the field, but they had to perform socially and academically too or they would not see the field." Miles added, "I backed the police 100% and did support law enforcement by asking what I could do to provide assistance."
Defensive end William Bell told SI that he was a "borderline pothead" when he arrived as a freshman in 2004 and that he quickly learned he was not alone. He saw an opportunity and began bringing marijuana from his hometown of Belton, Texas, to Stillwater, selling blunts for $10 and quarter ounces for $30. "I kept Bennett Hall hot," he says of the dormitory in which he and other athletes lived. Bell says he also brought 3.5 grams of methamphetamine and sold it for $120 a gram to students who were not football players. "It was [the] country boys that really liked that s---," Bell says.
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Bell says he made between $300 and $400 a week selling marijuana alone. "I just made my living to go out, eat and go to clubs," he says.
A player on the 2001 team told SI he made about $100 a week dealing marijuana to teammates and others. "It was college," he says. "It was something to get by." A member of the '06 team brought "pounds" of marijuana to campus from out of state and sold the drug to players and regular students, he says. Four others players -- safety Chris Massey (1999 to 2002), wide receiver Eric Allen (2003 to '04),Rodrick Johnson and offensive lineman Gerron Anthony (2010 to '11) -- said teammates sold drugs in at least one of the seasons they were on the team. Anthony, who remained in school through the end of 2012, says he was also aware of a player on last year's team who dealt.
Thirty former Oklahoma State players who were members of the program between 2000 and 2011 told SI they used marijuana while on the football team: Alexander, Anthony, Bell, Cruz, Furr, Rodrick Johnson, McGill, Mickens, wide receiver Eric Allen (2003 and '04), running back Tatum Bell (2000 to '03), offensive lineman Doug Bond (2002 to '04), wide receiver Jeremy Broadway (2005 to '08), wide receiver William Cole (2007 to '08), defensive back Ricky Coxeff (2003 to '04), wide receiver Damian Davis (2007 and '08), linebacker Victor DeGrate (2003 to '06), linebacker Ahmed Denson (2000), defensive tackle Brad Girtman (2003 and '04), safety Victor Johnson (2008 to '10), wide receiver Chijuan Mack (2003 to '06), wide receiver Isaac McCoy (2011), defensive lineman Richard Murphy (2000 and '01), running back Dexter Pratt (2009), linebacker Marcus Richardson (2007), running back Seymore Shaw (2002 to '04), defensive tackle Walter Thomas (2004 and '05), offensive lineman Javius Townsend (2010), linebacker Kevin White (2005 and '06), wide receiver Artrell Woods (2006 to '08), and safety Thomas Wright (2002 to '04). The majority said they used the drug daily for at least some stretch of their college careers, and those players and others named more than 20 additional team members, including some of the program's biggest names, whom they classified as habitual users.
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William Bell and Thomas Wright say they smoked marijuana before practice and/or games with other players. Anthony, Bond, Mickens and Woods say they knew teammates who got high before practice and/or games, most often before matchups with "run-over teams" like Kansas.
Says a former assistant coach under Gundy, "There's an issue with drugs at OSU, no doubt. We had all kinds of issues."
Marijuana was the drug of choice, players say, but it wasn't the only drug they used. Thomas Wright says that after a 55-20 victory at Kansas during his freshman season, a game in which he recovered a blocked punt for a touchdown, he returned to Stillwater and immediately went to a party at an apartment complex near campus, where he and several teammates snorted cocaine. "Everybody was doing it," Wright says. "It was a cocaine party." It was the first of several times he would use the drug after games.
Larry Brown, a defensive tackle in 2005 and '06, says that the first time he saw teammates do cocaine was in a dorm during his first year in Stillwater. "It happened a lot of times," Brown says of his teammates' cocaine use. Cruz and Woods also say they were aware of teammates who used cocaine frequently.
In addition, several players say they and other team members drank codeine syrup and passed around hydrocodone pills that had been prescribed by team doctors to combat pain, and they sometimes dipped marijuana in formaldehyde before smoking it. They also consumed all sorts of substances in an effort to conceal their marijuana use. When players learned from an athletic department staff member that they would be drug tested, they raced out to buy supposed masking agents like niacin. Bond remembers seeing one uninformed teammate drinking bleach, thinking it would purge the tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) from his system. "There's some crazy, crazy stuff that goes down, and you don't care because you're big and strong and young and dumb so you think that you're invincible," Bond says.
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Bond recalls Rob Glass, Oklahoma State's assistant athletic director for speed, strength and conditioning, telling him repeatedly, "Hey, why don't you come work out and then go hit your bong?" Glass told SI he doesn't recall making that comment. Shaw says that Gundy, at the time the team's offensive coordinator, would walk past him in practice and, when Shaw was in the training room, put his fingers to his lips and laughingly pantomime taking a drag off a joint. (Gundy was not made available by OSU officials, who promised a statement from the coach but never produced one.)While treated as a joking matter, players frequently left or were kicked out of the program because of academic troubles and other issues directly related to their drug use. Seven months after he first tried marijuana, in 2004, Alexander learned that he had flunked almost all his classes in the fall semester. A few months later he dropped out of school.
"It was the lifestyle," Alexander says. "I'd wake up, and I'd already have missed two classes. It's like, what's the use of even going to school today? Just wait until football practice starts."
Nearly every Tuesday night during the 2003 season, a group of Cowboys -- typically six or more -- gathered at around 7 p.m. in a classroom. Future NFL players Tatum Bell and Darrent Williams were often there, players say, as were DeGrate, Girtman, Thomas Wright and others. It was a counseling session for those who had tested positive for marijuana, and some of the players who attended referred to it as the Weed Circle. Not everyone who violated the school's drug policy was admitted to the Weed Circle; many players didn't even know it existed. It was reserved for a chosen few, many of them stars or top prospects because, according to attendees, it came with an extraordinary perk: Players who went to the sessions could continue to use marijuana without penalty.
"We all smoked and pissed hot, but the coaches were like, As long as you're performing, we'll send you to [the Weed Circle]," Thomas Wright says.
The Oklahoma State athletic department has, in essence, a four-strike drug policy. A first positive test results in no penalty; a second leads to an immediate suspension of 10% of the regular season; a third, an immediate suspension of 50%. After a fourth positive test, the player is kicked off the team -- which is one more positive test than most BCS schools allow.
In itself, the existence of the Weed Circle was not improper. Within Oklahoma State's policy is a relatively rare clause; SI could find versions of it in only six of the 54 other BCS schools whose complete drug-testing policies are online. It states that a player will not incur a strike as long as he is in counseling and as long as subsequent tests reveal a gradual decline in usage. The aim is to allow players to get help and not penalize them as the drugs exit their system.
Oklahoma State players, however, told SI that while in counseling they tested positive with elevated levels and went unpunished. Further, many schools' drug policies specify the maximum amount of time a player can spend in counseling (typically 30 days), but Oklahoma State's had no limit -- some Cowboys remained in counseling for entire seasons or longer. Girtman says that while he was in the Weed Circle for most of the 2003-04 school year, he never reduced his marijuana use, and he tested with elevated levels and suffered no penalty.
Mickens says he remained in the group for most of the 2005 season. Then, in the summer, he says he tested positive for marijuana again, which would have triggered a suspension of up to 10% of the '06 season, but his only punishment was to be put back in the Weed Circle. "There were guys, I'd hear a trainer saying, 'Oh, your levels are going down. Oh, your levels are going down.' Yeah, right. You're covering up for them because they're a star," says Mickens.
A licensed alcohol and drug counselor ran the Weed Circle from 2003 to at least '06. In previous years the counselor met one-on-one with players who tested positive; they say those sessions were productive. But the counselor's attempts to create a meaningful group program were less successful, as players say they often attended the sessions under the influence and many weren't interested in addressing the issues behind their use. They say they saw the sessions as a gathering of friends who enjoyed getting high. "It was like a brotherhood," says Chijuan Mack.
In the early years of the Weed Circle, players say that Miles dropped in on sessions. Shaw says Miles heard the counselor ask the players questions such as, When was the last time you guys smoked? A primary reason universities employ drug counselors from outside the athletic department is so athletes feel they can talk freely. "Having a coach involved jeopardizes what you are trying to accomplish with counseling," says an official who oversees a drug program at another BCS school.
In a written statement Miles said he only stopped by "to be supportive and help players with issues."
Around 2007, Joel Tudman, an assistant strength-and-conditioning coach who is also the team's chaplain and carries the title of Life Issue/Social Development Counselor for the football program -- a mentoring position that has become more common within athletic departments -- was put in charge of the drug counseling program for football. Tudman is also founder of Net Church, which he started in 2006. The congregation has grown quickly, and Sunday-night services were moved from Bennett Chapel to a student union auditorium, where Tudman's sermons are delivered to an audience that often includes 40 or more football players.
Tudman, however, has no formal training in drug counseling. While Tudman's bio on the athletic department website indicated that he had received a "double masters in health and counseling" from Texas A&M-Commerce, he in fact has only a single master's degree, in Health, Kinesiology and Sports Studies. (Tudman's bio on the Net Church website also erroneously stated that he had master's degrees in Health Promotions and Counseling. After Tudman was interviewed by SI the bio was corrected.) His Oklahoma State bio said that he was twice honored by the Lone Star Conference as a running back and was a "3 time All-American sprinter." In fact, that conference recognized him once (honorable mention in 2003) and he was an All-America sprinter only in 2004. (After SI began investigating Tudman's background, the school pulled his bio from its website.)
Tudman says because he took courses in health and counseling while at Texas A&M-Commerce he "thought it was a double masters." He produced a transcript that showed he completed five counseling courses, but none of them dealt with substance abuse and he never enrolled in the two courses Texas A&M-Commerce offered in that area. Tudman concedes that his athletic accomplishments were also embellished. "That's [a mistake] on my part," he says. "I take full responsibility."
In 2008, after two years counseling athletes, Tudman says he began taking continuing education courses so he could become a licensed chemical dependency counselor. Asked why he felt the need to take those courses, Tudman told SI, "I wanted to do it the right way." Asked if he wasn't doing it the right way in the two previous years he was working with drug users, he responded, "I wouldn't say that. Nothing changed. I wanted to be legit so that if anything happened, I would be able to stand and answer questions. Qualified." (Tudman remains unlicensed to treat drug users.)
When asked about Tudman's qualifications and background, athletic director Holder said, "I didn't look at Joel's résumé" when expanding his duties to include counseling drug and alcohol users. "I believe in Joel and what he's been able to do with a lot of these young men. I hear a lot of positive comments about him. We're always evaluating what we do, our drug policy, our drug program. And that's not to say that we couldn't change in the future."
Even if Tudman were qualified to treat drug users, most schools don't have a member of the football staff acting in that capacity. Some players say that Tudman advised them to stop using marijuana, while others say Tudman employed different methods. "I swear one time he told me to start smoking papers," says Isaac McCoy. "Like start smoking a joint instead of a blunt."
Richardson failed a drug test during his only year on the team and began meeting with Tudman. He says they would talk briefly before workouts about how much marijuana Richardson had smoked that week, and then Tudman would suggest a drug regimen for him, such as smoking two blunts one day and then not smoking one the next. While in counseling with Tudman, Richardson says he took four drug tests and in none of them did his THC levels decline. Richardson says he was told he faced a suspension for the first game of the following season but that it would be erased if he remained in counseling.
"I felt like, O.K., this is set up where I can smoke," Richardson says. "So I just kept smoking."
Tudman denies that he advised players on how to continue using marijuana. "My job is to make sure, that when that kid tests positive, whether it's 100 nanograms or 67 nanograms or whatever it is, that he gets to zero," he says. "So, in order for him to get to zero, that means the drug use has to decline and stop."
In the summer of 2009 running back Dexter Pratt failed a drug test and began meeting with Tudman. ("There weren't no steps to his counseling," Pratt says.) After flunking another drug test in the spring of 2010, Pratt says he was not suspended, but a lack of playing time led him to leave school. Twice after moving back to Texas, in October 2010 and then again in April '11, Pratt was arrested for possession of marijuana; the second time he was caught with 71 bags of the drug. He was sentenced to six months in prison.
"Everybody thinks marijuana isn't a bad drug, but it really has destroyed my life," Pratt says. "When I was [at Oklahoma State] I wouldn't have said it was an addiction, but it was. ... It would have helped to have some real counseling."
Bo Bowling was allowed back on the 2010 team in time to contribute to what was then the greatest season in Cowboys history. Their 11 victories set a school record (which has since been broken), and Bowling played a prominent role in that success. He finished third on the team in receptions (42) and against Kansas State -- a 24-14 victory that star receiver Justin Blackmon missed because of a DUI arrest -- he had eight receptions for 92 yards. A week later, in a 55-28 win over Baylor, Bowling caught nine passes for 101 yards. Going into the season there were doubts whether the Cowboys' wide receivers could successfully run new offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen's system, but Bowling's performance helped put those concerns to rest.
Just before the final game of that season -- a 36-10 victory over Arizona in the Alamo Bowl -- safety Victor Johnson, who was not in counseling at the time, failed a drug test for marijuana. Johnson had opened the year as a starter but suffered a season-ending knee injury in the fourth game. He met with Gundy, who he says told him, "This is your second positive drug test so I don't think we can keep you here anymore."
Under the athletic department's policy Gundy was required to suspend Johnson only for 10% of the season. But he had also missed four games at the end of the 2009 season after hurting his knee, and he had been passed on the depth chart. "If I didn't get hurt, I probably could have pissed dirty again and they would have been like, Just don't do it," Johnson says. "But when I got hurt it was a whole different [story].?... They were just going to find a way to get me off the team."
The contrast in how the school handled Bowling's and Johnson's involvement with drugs makes plain what could be called Oklahoma State's unofficial drug policy. Says Thomas Wright, "Once you stop producing, that's when [they] stop looking out for you."