How Did This Happen and How Will It Be Fixed? That Is What Is Important!
STILLWATER -- I really don't want to be that guy that says I told you so, but we've told you for the past three weeks in repeated stories after multiple conversations with current and former Oklahoma State players that Mike Gundy is not a racist. When you've been at the majority of practices throughout the Mike Gundy head coaching tenure at Oklahoma State and in his time as an assistant too it is pretty clear cut to determine if a racist atmosphere is part of it. Having been with the team on road trips, bowl trips, and knowing so many of the players on a personal basis I can tell you that I've never heard a player say that Gundy ever made a racist comment, gesture, or persona to, except Sam Mayes.
There is the Alfred Williams and Colorado players claims from 1989. I covered that game and can tell you that while I did not hear Gundy use the n-word, I heard plenty on the sidelines. Ninety percent of it came from Colorado players and it ran the gamut. with a lot of it having to do with sexual innuendo referencing player's mothers. I'm wondering if Williams and his teammates want to discuss those comments.
I would characterize all of the conversations on the field back then between Colorado players and their opponents, as former Oklahoma State head coach Pat Jones called it, "bottom of the pile trash talk."
When asked about it, Oklahoma State athletic director Mike Holder, sure didn't seem to care much.
"I read the news accounts of it at the time," Holder said of the accusations by Williams and several Colorado teammates. "Mike Gundy addressed it and denied it, and moved on. I think the actions over the last 15 years of Mike Gundy as our head coach are more important than what happened 31-years ago."
This is an example of wasting time on something that doesn't factor. The situation from 31-years ago versus the issue at hand, which the investigation, both Holder's and Weiberg's and our interviews, revealed had a different tint, different subject completely.
“The missing link has been a more personal relationship with their head coach," Holder said of what the players voiced. "They respect him as an excellent game-day coach, but they want more coaching on a personal level. This crosses all racial lines. To a man, our players want a better connection (with) Mike Gundy. They view him as a difference-maker, and they want him to help them grow as leaders."
If Mike Gundy were a racist then it would make sense the players would want less of him. Heck, they wouldn't want any of him at all. That is not the case.
Okay, so how did it get that way? How did it get to where Gundy didn't have relationships as strong with his players as they desired?
"I don’t think it started out that way with Mike or any coach, but over time, things can change," Holder said later answering a question over relationships being part of the job. "The job gets bigger. Responsibilities get bigger. With that, you have more people to manage (and) more players on your team. That can blur your priorities. I think it has awakened (Gundy) or alerted him to the fact that he wasn’t as close to his players as he needed to be. He’s going to change that."
When Gundy took the job, his "New York Yankees" job in 2005, he was all about being around the players. Gundy instituted family night where he and his family and all of the coaching staff and support staff would bring their families and eat dinner with the team. Back in those early days, Gundy and his staff were in the football offices more, keeping later hours after practice. He would occasionally send the team back to the locker room during fall camp and tell them to change into street clothes or shorts for a swim party, a softball game, going to a movie, or going bowling.
It's like Holder said and with anybody in their job, they are it long enough and they learn how to be more efficient, how to get more done in less time. The problem is that while that works on game plans, watching video, supervising staff, reviewing player's academics, and even recruiting, which you can do some at home or in your car with phone calls it doesn't work with building relationships. Those generally happen with time spent and face-to-face. They happen with interaction outside of a meeting room or on the practice field.
Holder started his Zoom conference media with this tidbit.
"We learned that all of the players love and respect Rob Glass and the strength staff," Holder said of knowledge gained in their investigation. "It seemed to be counter intuitive that the most demanding person (Glass) in the university would be universally loved. Why? Because the players know that he cares about them.
"The same goes for (assistant director of football operations) Rod Johnson, a behind-the-scenes superstar on our staff," Holder added. "He knows every player and their families and would do anything for them. He’s a 24/7, 365-day ambassador for all that is good in society."
Johnson is the player's most important resource in day-to-day campus life from living arrangements to how to navigate the campus. A former player, Johnson relates really well to the players and is on call for them, as Holder said, 24/7 and 365-days.
Glass is, as Gundy often has mentioned, around the players more than maybe any other coach, as he has them in off season and in the summer, not to mention in season as well. Glass has a tough love exterior, but as players spend more time in the program they get to know his interior is very player caring. He has been know to go hunting and/or fishing with some of the veteran players.
Two other staff members, both assistant coaches in defensive coordinator Jim Knowles and offensive line coach Charlie Dickey, players and sources told Pokes Report came up strong in relationships with players.
Credit has to go to Mike Gundy for all of those hires. He made Rob Glass his first hire to bring with him outside of the actual coaching staff. Rod Johnson is a key hire. Remember, that his very first hire was Joe DeForest, who is an excellent coach at player-relations.
Those relationships with the players are a time investment. Remember, quarterback Mason Rudolph talked about not having a strong relationship with Gundy his first couple of years. He aggressively asked for it and the last two seasons at Oklahoma State, Rudolph met with Gundy and talked football, quarterbacking, the upcoming opponent, and life for an hour or more every Thursday.
Ask yourself, do you think the Nick Saban has a strong personal relationship with every one of his players at Alabama or Dabo Swinney is sliding down the Clemson football facility indoor slide with every one of his players. The answer is, no, they don't. Right now division I football schools can have 110 players reported and in training. Most of the time the past five years, Gundy has kept close to 130 players in the program. That is impossible to build strong close relationships with every one of those young men.
You do need to know all their names. No more calling players out by numbers to the media. Those are the guys that play, you have to know them. Group settings, like the meal once a week, special events, and coming out to practice 15-20 minutes before the whistle for stretch. Those are opportunities to build with the group. Gundy has done a good job of being at the Coaches vs. Cancer events. Add to those and make another 10-15 player events a year.
Gundy could also think more defense occasionally.
"I knew Coach Gundy wasn't racist," said former linebacker and captain Chad Whitener. If anything, Coach Gundy was offensive biased and he spent more time with the offensive players. It made sense because he played offense and coached offense."
You can tell that the attitude the current players happened over time because so many of the former players from Gundy's early days as head coach remember him differently.
"Coach Gundy would come into our special teams meetings," former punter Matt Fodge once told me. "He would act like he knew what he was doing with punting and try to help me some on technique. I knew he didn't but it made me feel he cared."
Former defensive end Richetti Jones, one of the program's all-time highest ranked recruits said this about Gundy.
"I know that I could pick up the phone right now and ask Coach Gundy for a reference and he would say, 'sure Richetti, I'll have Danielle (his assistant) send that off right away. Is there anything else I can do to help you.' That is the way Coach Gundy is. He's my man!"
Time, that is what it will take and Mike Holder has confirmed from his head football coach, in fact, more important the players have confirmed from their head football coach that he is going to make that change.
“He was aware of it. He’d had a team meeting and he heard it all," Holder said of Gundy's reaction to the findings. "Chad Weiberg and I sat back and listened to what the student-athletes had to say. (Gundy) had a preview of coming attractions from that first team meeting. He immediately started meeting with the players on an individual basis, at the same time we were meeting with them. Not the same (players), necessarily. (Gundy) has been absolutely 100% cooperative in the whole process. That’s why I’m so confident that things are going to be better. This is going to be ultimately a good thing for everybody who loves and cares about Oklahoma State football.”
Distractions have never rarely been good for a football team and these days there are plenty of distractions simple coming from COVID-19 and whether there will be a college football season, but this one may actually be good, even galvanize a talented football team for a season where they will have a stronger relationship with their head coach and all the coaches.