STILLWATER, Okla. -- Mike Gundy and his family spent Oklahoma State's spring break skiing in Crested Butte, Colo., a popular destination for many in Big 12 country. They'd been several times before, but this year they noticed something different: more skiers in Oklahoma State hats and T-shirts.
On the heels of an unprecedented 12-1 season and the Cowboys' first outright conference championship since 1948, it's suddenly cool to cheer for this school.
"We've run the race forever around here, and we finally finished first," said Gundy. "It's changed the perception of the way people see us."
Gundy, who's spent 21 years at Oklahoma State as a player or coach, makes no attempt to downplay the significance of his program's historic 2011 season. "For our community and our university, it's been the biggest thing that's ever happened to this school," he said. Letters of gratitude poured in, including one from a 70-year-old man who said: "Thank you. Now I can die in peace."
The decade-long climb that began under Gundy's former boss and predecessor, Les Miles, saw the Cowboys gradually rise from a losing team to a middle-of-the-pack team to a team in contention until the final week in 2009 and '10. They finally broke through last season, finishing No. 3 in the BCS standings and beating top five foe Stanford 41-38 in the Fiesta Bowl.
Oklahoma State won 41 games over the past four seasons, but as Gundy said, "Until you win one, people don't ever really know if you're going to."
Winning one took help from mega-booster T. Boone Pickens, whose $165 million donation in 2005 helped pay for the spacious modern office from which Gundy spoke on a late-March morning. Dana Holgorsen, now the head coach at West Virginia, spent just one season as Gundy's offensive coordinator in 2010, but installed the up-tempo passing offense that helped the Cowboys average 49 points per game last season. And of course, it took substantial recruiting efforts from Gundy's staff.
But the two cornerstones of Oklahoma State's breakthrough were a minor-league baseball washout turned quarterback and a late-blooming receiver. With Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon gone to the NFL, many of the same people who doubted the Cowboys would ever end Oklahoma's and Texas' stranglehold on the Big 12 presumably feel the same way about their chances of repeating.
"We don't want it to be, 'They're nothing without Weeden and Blackmon,'" said senior offensive lineman Lane Taylor. "They're great players and everything, but we want to prove we can still play."
Therefore, the first order of business this spring is finding a successor to Weeden, who completed 72.3 percent of his passes last season for 4,727 yards. He attempted 40 or more throws seven times in 2011, and his replacement will be expected to maintain a similar pace.
"We're not going to change what we do," said Gundy. "We want 80-85 plays a game and we're going to throw it 55 times."
Three similarly untested quarterbacks -- rising junior Clint Chelf, redshirt freshman J.W. Walsh and early enrollee Wes Lunt -- have split reps equally this spring.
The 6-foot-1, 201-pound Chelf, who moves better than Weeden and has a decent arm, holds the edge due primarily to his experience in the offense. "We function best when he's in there," offensive coordinator Todd Monken said, though he added: "If he's not further ahead of the other guys, significantly, then he can't be our starter, because the other guys are going to improve at a faster rate. If he doesn't keep that gap, then you've got to move on down the road."
Walsh (6-2, 199) is the most agile of the three, a true dual-threat quarterback during his time at Guyer High in Denton, Texas. "If the protection breaks down and he takes off, he may score," said Gundy. But the coach has no plans to reshape his offense around a running quarterback, so Walsh needs to improve his confidence as a thrower.
Meanwhile Lunt (6-4, 211), a true freshman from Rochester, Ill., is more of a prototypical passer like Weeden, but faces a significant challenge trying to grasp the offense by Sept. 1. Both Gundy and Monken admit it's not realistic. But unlike many coaches in the same situation, conditioned to drag out the competition until the last possible moment, Gundy is intent on a quick resolution, preferably "the end of spring." The spring game is April 21.
"I would prefer to not have any doubt of who was going to start in our first game at quarterback when we come back for preseason camp," said Gundy. "Someone needs to take over the reins and say, 'OK, I'm orchestrating summer practices.' Three guys can't do it.
"As soon as we know who it is, we're not going to keep it a secret."
Whoever takes the reins won't have the luxury of throwing to Blackmon, a potential top five pick who amassed a staggering 222 receptions the past two seasons and caught 38 touchdowns. As Gundy puts it: "Last year on any key third or fourth down you could just throw it to Blackmon, it didn't matter. Everyone in the stadium knew he was getting it, and they still couldn't stop it."
Realistically, no one player is going to approach Blackmon's production, so Oklahoma State will look to redistribute the wealth.
Senior Tracy Moore, last season's third-leading receiver (45 catches for 672 yards), is moving to the outside position vacated by Blackmon. Josh Stewart (19 catches, 219 yards) and Isaiah Anderson (28 catches, 315 yards) return as well. And the Cowboys are counting on a trio of newcomers (juco transfer Blake Jackson and redshirt freshmen Torrance Carr and David Glidden) to contribute. Someone in that group will have to emerge as the new go-to threat on third downs and in red-zone situations.
With the passing game in flux, Oklahoma State should lean more heavily on underappreciated tailback Joseph Randle (1,216 yards, 24 touchdowns) and sidekick Jeremy Smith (646 yards, nine TDs). But since Gundy and Monken don't plan to reinvent the offense, they're not going to start running the ball 40 times per game. Randle can still make a greater impact, however, due to his receiving abilities (43 catches, 266 yards last season).
"Is he Scottie Pippen or is he Steve Kerr?" Monken said of Randle. "Is he the beneficiary [of Weeden and Blackmon] or is he a big piece? We're going to find out this year."
Oklahoma State's defense, meanwhile, was a popular source of criticism last season, particularly in SEC country. When the Cowboys nearly usurped Alabama for a spot in January's BCS championship game, skeptics were aghast that a team with a defense ranked 107th nationally in yards allowed (456.7) would even be considered.
Supporters were quick to note numerous reasons that number was deceiving. For one, due to the Cowboys' quick-strike offense, the defense played the equivalent of three-and-a-half extra games (1,089 plays) than Alabama's (720). The unit also faced a gauntlet of elite quarterbacks, including both the Heisman winner (Baylor's Robert Griffin III) and runner-up (Stanford's Andrew Luck). And it led the nation with 44 forced turnovers.
But Gundy's spin only goes so far. "Were we a top 20 defense? No," he said. "But were we [107th]? No? We won a championship here with in my opinion, statistically, what would have been about the 50th [best] team defensively."
Though it lost two first team All-Big 12 performers in defensive end Jamie Blatnick and safety Markelle Martin, the defense returns eight starters. Juco defensive tackle Calvin Barnett has raised eyebrows this spring and could wind up starting. The linebacking corps, led by junior Shaun Lewis, is the deepest of Gundy's tenure. And starting cornerbacks Brodrick Brown and Justin Gilbert could merit All-America consideration.
Meanwhile, the most accomplished returnee on the entire roster is kicker/punter Quinn Sharp, a former all-conference honoree at both positions whose stated goal for his senior season is to be both a Lou Groza and Ray Guy finalist.
"He ought to be preseason all-everything," said Gundy. "He's looked better this spring than he has in his career so far."
For Sharp and his fellow Cowboys, spring is about preparing for the 2012 season, when they'll face the daunting and possibly unrealistic task of defending their Big 12 crown. But the residual effects of last season's historic feat will be felt down the road for a program intent on becoming an annual contender.
Recruits in Oklahoma and Texas "see Oklahoma State as being as prominent as any program in the country, for the first time ever," said Gundy. "It's a huge step for us as an organization. Because if you never get in the game, it's extremely difficult to win it."
This fall, the Cowboys find out if they're deep enough into the game to win without Weeden and Blackmon.