In December 2000, Les Miles addressed the Oklahoma State football team for the first time as its head coach. The players sat in theater-style chairs in the meeting room of the school's athletic complex looking down toward Miles, who spoke from behind a lectern.
"We're going to win and we're going to do things my way," Miles told the Cowboys. He then described what he meant. The program would become more disciplined. The talent would be upgraded. And the mediocrity of the past would no longer be tolerated.
At the time, any suggestion that Oklahoma State would join the elite verged on laughable. The Cowboys had just gone 3-8, their 11th losing campaign in 12 years. Miles was familiar with the struggles in Stillwater; he had been the school's offensive coordinator from 1995 to '97 before leaving to become the tight ends coach for the Dallas Cowboys. But he told the players that he was confident the program could redefine itself.
"We are going to win here," he stated flatly.
And they did. After going 4-7 in Miles's first season, Oklahoma State improved to 8-5 in 2002 and went to a bowl game for only the second time since 1988. Under Miles and then Mike Gundy -- who was promoted from offensive coordinator in 2005 after Miles, catapulted by OSU's success, was hired by perennial powerhouse LSU -- Oklahoma State has racked up 10 winning seasons out of the last 11. Two years ago the Cowboys finished 12-1, earning the school's first Big 12 Conference title, and ended the season ranked third in the nation. Miles's prediction had come true.
How does a Division I program make such a large leap in such a short time? SI dispatched senior writers George Dohrmann and Thayer Evans to begin searching for the answer. After receiving information about widespread corruption at Oklahoma State, they spoke with more than a hundred sources with ties to the program. This included 64 former players, all of whom spoke on the record and independently of one another. While most of them did not graduate from the university and many left on ill terms, the picture they paint is consistent: The school acted on two fronts to build a winning program.
In the open, the Cowboys closed the gap by infusing the program with money. In all phases -- from the meals players ate at training table to the hotels they stayed at on the road -- the university upgraded. The year before Miles took over, Oklahoma State paid its assistant football coaches a combined $727,008; by Miles's first season that total exceeded $1 million, more than any other program in the country in 2000. In concert with the team's success, billionaire alumnus T. Boone Pickens donated $165 million to the university, funds that were used to renovate the football stadium (now bearing his name) and to upgrade the athletic facilities, which rank among the nation's finest. In 2011-12 the football program spent $26.2 million -- more than any other Big 12 team -- and grossed $41.1 million.
But outside of public view, Oklahoma State took extreme measures to recruit top players and keep them eligible. The results of SI's findings are part of a five-part series that begins in this issue of the magazine, continues on SI.com and culminates in next week's issue. "I knew this day was coming, and today is that day," said a former Cowboys assistant coach when told about SI's reporting. "It was a matter of time." OSU's transgressions included:
- A bonus system orchestrated by an assistant coach in which players were paid for their performance on the field, with some stars collecting $500 or more per game. In addition, boosters and at least two assistant coaches funneled money to players through direct payments and a system of no-show and sham jobs. Some players say they collected more than $10,000 annually in under-the-table payouts.
- Widespread academic misconduct, which included tutors and other Oklahoma State personnel completing coursework for players, and professors giving passing grades for little or no work, all in the interest of keeping players eligible.
- Tolerating and at times enabling recreational drug use, primarily through a specious counseling program that allowed some players to continue to use drugs while avoiding penalties. The school's drug policy was selectively enforced, with some starters going unpunished despite repeated positive tests.
- A hostess program, Orange Pride, that figured so prominently in the recruitment of prospects that the group more than tripled in size under Miles. Both he and Gundy took the unusual step of personally interviewing candidates. Multiple former players and Orange Pride members say that a small subset of the group had sex with recruits, a violation of NCAA rules.
"It's very disconcerting to hear about all these things that are alleged to have happened," athletic director Mike Holder said last week when presented with SI's findings. "But there's nothing more important to us than playing by the rules, being ethical, having integrity. To hear we have some shortcomings or could have ... in a way I guess I should thank you. Because our intent is to take this information and to investigate and do something about it."
Illicit payments, toothless drug policies, academic dishonesty and even the use of sex to induce recruits comport with the most cynical perception of big-time college sports programs. More troubling and revealing, though, was the human cost of the corruption in Stillwater. From Dohrmann and Evans's reporting, a portrait emerges of ill-prepared young men who feel they were exploited by the university. Over the past decade an astonishingly large cohort of OSU players never earned a college degree, lasting only a season or two, their scholarships revoked after they were injured, arrested or simply deemed unable to contribute. Once the perks ended and they were discarded, some former Cowboys turned to drugs and crime, and a few attempted or contemplated suicide. As one former OSU assistant says of the players, "The sad part is when [the coaches were] done, they threw them away."
Much of what SI uncovered falls outside the NCAA's four-year statute of limitations. But an examination of Oklahoma State offers insight into how a football program in the 21st century, hell-bent on success, can achieve it.