STILLWATER, Okla. (AP) Oklahoma State athletic director Mike Holder has been involved with the school in some capacity for most of the past half century.
Even he acknowledges he didn't expect the football team to be so good this soon. Not after losing 17 starters and 33 letterwinners from last year's team that went 10-3 and played in the Cotton Bowl. Yet, three weeks after nearly knocking off No. 1 Florida State, a team that was supposed to be rebuilding is ranked No. 24. The Cowboys (2-1) host Texas Tech on Thursday in their Big 12 opener.
''From my perspective, I had some reservations about this season,'' Holder told The Associated Press. ''A lot of youth, and you wonder where your leadership's going to come from. I knew we had some good athletes, but you really don't know how that translates into big-time football players.''
It translated immediately. The Cowboys went toe-to-toe with Florida State before losing 37-31 to the defending national champions and reigning Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston. Rarely has a loss done so much good for a program.
''You couldn't have put them on a bigger stage, in a better environment,'' Holder said. ''And it kind of tests their mettle. And I think we passed every test with flying colors except the final score.''
Perhaps the person least surprised was Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher. He praised the Cowboys and coach Mike Gundy in the weeks leading up to the game, and did so again afterward.
''I told you Mike has a got a good football team, and he's a heck of a football coach,'' Fisher said. ''He has done a great job for a long time.''
The 2008 Cowboys needed four wins, all by at least 19 points, just to get into the rankings. Gundy said the Cowboys were on the wrong side of perception for years, but now, the program has earned the benefit of the doubt through consistency. Oklahoma State entered this season having won 59 games since the start of the 2008 season, the eighth-best total in the nation, all under Gundy. But with so much talent leaving, the Cowboys entered this season unranked for the first time since 2010.
Now, the Cowboys have proven they can reload.
''We've gotten to a point now where people recognize who we are,'' Gundy said. ''And so that's kind of working to our advantage, in my opinion, in what's important, which is marketing student athletes to come here and do the things that we need them to do to help us improve and build this program.''
Holder said Gundy has put an extra energy into the job because he played for the Cowboys. With stars such as Barry Sanders, Thurman Thomas and Hart Lee Dykes around him, Gundy quarterbacked the Cowboys to a 20-4 record and two bowl victories his sophomore and junior years. He finished his career in 1989 as the Big 8's all-time leader in passing and total offense.
''When you're coaching at your alma mater, it has special meaning for you,'' Holder said. ''I think he's taken a long-term perspective for most of the decisions that he's made. For a lot of reasons, he's been the right guy for us, the right fit.''
After becoming offensive coordinator in 2001, Gundy took over as head coach for Les Miles in 2005. Gundy went 4-7 in his first year, then won at least seven games and went to a bowl game each year thereafter. The Cowboys won the conference title in 2011 and beat Stanford in the Fiesta Bowl, and played in the Cotton Bowl after the 2009 and 2013 seasons. It's been an impressive run, especially given Stillwater's off-the-beaten-path location.
''He understands the challenges,'' Holder said. ''He didn't come out with any misconceptions about how difficult the challenge was to build a winning football program in Stillwater. He'd seen it firsthand. And I think that that's given him some advantage over anyone else that could have been the football coach here, and he's taken advantage of it.''
The Cowboys have gotten a major boost from business magnate T. Boone Pickens. The program took off not long after his record-setting $165 million gift to his alma mater for athletics in 2005. In all, he has donated more than $500 million to the school.
''Oklahoma State football is different than it was six years ago,'' Gundy said. ''It certainly is different than it was 10 and 20 years ago, for a lot of reasons. The facilities, the money that's been poured into it, and then we've won games.''
The only damper is the possible penalties looming after a Sports Illustrated report last year that said the school committed numerous NCAA rules violations. Investigations by the school and the NCAA are ongoing.
''That's what hurt the most about that Sports Illustrated story, is that they question your integrity,'' Holder said. ''We hope to shine a light on who we are and hope that we come out of it looking like true cowboys.
''I think what comes out will kind of speak for itself, good or bad. It's been my position all along - if we are who we think we are, then this would ultimately be a good thing. The day of reckoning is coming. I don't know when, but it's coming.''
Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/CliffBruntAP