As he addressed his Oklahoma State team before its game with San Diego State last Saturday, coach Pat Jones smoothly shifted from his normal cadence—which is that of someone selling a Veg-O-Matic—to the solemnity of a preacher. Of course, he was still selling. "We're playing," he told his undefeated troops, "for the national championship." Jones didn't mention that the last time Oklahoma State cracked the Top 10 the school was called Oklahoma A&M and Jones wasn't even born. But this is a coach who wants to make sure the Cowboys never forget that "we have more bullets in our gun this year than ever."
Ample ammo also makes it easier to shoot yourself in the foot, and Oklahoma State nearly did that against the Aztecs, losing three fumbles before they finally squeaked out a 19-16 win. Trailing 19-14 with 1:44 remaining, San Diego State had second-and-goal on the two and seemed set to upset the Cowboys. But Cowboy cornerback Mark Moore and tackle Leslie O'Neal knocked the ball loose from halfback Chris Hardy, linebacker Jim Krebs fell on it—and Oklahoma State escaped.
Forcing fumbles and making interceptions are the main weapons for the Cowboys, who are 3-0 and ranked No. 8 by SI. So far this year, Oklahoma State has picked off 10 passes and recovered three fumbles; in all, the defense has produced 20 points. Six of them came in a 45-3 trouncing of 12th-ranked Arizona State in the season opener. Strong safety Rob Brown leads the team in interceptions with four, and free safety Adam Hinds, who swiped a Big Eight-high eight passes in '83, has three.
The Cowboys began to shoot straight last year under coach Jimmy Johnson. They led the nation in fumbles recovered (27) and interceptions (26) and finished 8-4. Their defeats came by a total of 12 points, including a 14-10 loss to Nebraska and a 21-20 heartbreaker to Oklahoma. But OSU ended the year with a bang, defeating Baylor 24-14 in the Bluebonnet Bowl.
"That game gave the players their first taste of glory," says Jones, then the defensive coordinator. He got the head job on June 7, two days after Johnson was wooed away by the University of Miami. OSU lost only six starters, and Jones never missed a beat. "There's a reason we haven't changed things much," he said with his customary down-home reasoning after demolishing Arizona State. "I had a hand in this thing before, and it wasn't messed up."
Oklahoma State has a strong ground game and an excellent placekicker in Larry Roach. However, Jones counts most on his defense, which should have an All-America in the 6'4", 250-pound O'Neal. On Saturday, O'Neal had 11 tackles, including two sacks. To compensate for an overall lack of size and to maximize their advantage in speed, the Cowboys line up in difficult-to-block spread formations and blitz about 25% of the time. Once the ball is snapped, the Cowboys are all pursuit. Jones believes in getting "good kids who can run" and teaching them defense. Jones regularly checks in with former OSU basketball coach Henry Iba for some "tips from the top." He adheres to Iba's adage: "When they put me in a pine box, I want to be in a good defensive stance."
When Johnson left, the OSU players signed a petition to have Jones hired as his successor. Even the local sportswriters wanted to start a "Hire Pat Jones" campaign, though Jones quickly nixed it. As it was, the school's board of regents wasted little time in promoting the 36-year-old Jones to the top job. Enthusiasm for Jones ran so high that only one coach went to Miami with Johnson, and more players than ever stayed on campus for the summer to work out with weights. The offensive line gained an average of more than 20 pounds a man.
Aside from the knowledge he gained in five years as an assistant at Arkansas, Pitt and SMU and five more under Johnson in Stillwater, Jones's strength is that he flat loves his job. "All I ever wanted to do was coach," he says. Unlike some of his peers, Jones's bearing is anything but coachly. At 5'8" and 195 pounds, the former Arkansas Tech and Arkansas linebacker and defensive lineman looks like an overworked driving-range pro. The short sleeves on his sport shirts hit him at mid-forearm, and his red hair is thinning and usually out of place.
"Just a tough-ass little ol' guy who loves the game" is how Jones describes himself. That also describes his everyday speech, which he tones down only when answering questions on one of his weekly talk shows. "Ah, his shoulder's about halfway boogered up," is a Jones reply to anyone who asks about the condition of quarterback Rusty Hilger. It's rare, but if Jones gets a query he can't answer, he's likely to blurt, "I'm totally bumfoozled."
So are those who watch Jones put in 16-hour days that begin at 6:30. And for all his ease in public—Jones is a favorite speaker of the ominously named Cowboy booster group, The Posse Club—he's essentially a private person. According to the school's sports information department, Jones is the only Division I-A head coach never to have been married. For three years he has dated a woman from nearby Perry named Becky Adams, but he's wedded to his job.
Jones is a disciplinarian. His "reminders"—a 250-yard run with a push-up every five yards is one—have improved punctuality. But he says that by this point in the season most of his coaching is "mind games." He tells his players not to be afraid to dream because "sometimes they come true. One of mine did."
Hilger's dreams haven't come true yet. A 6'4", 160-pounder from Oklahoma City, he obtained the 29th and last grant offered by the Cowboys in 1980. It was the only scholarship offer he received. Discouraged with his play late last season, Hilger, who now weighs 205, began listening to New Age Thinking tapes by motivational counselor Louis Tice. Presto! MVP in the Bluebonnet Bowl, a great spring practice, Big Eight Offensive Player of the Week after completing nine of 17 passes for 138 yards and a TD at Arizona State. Following an erratic performance against Bowling Green on Sept. 15, Tice offered encouragement—and Hilger was pleased with his play (14 of 24 for 168 yards) against San Diego State.
To most scouts, Hilger has only marginal pro passing ability. However, his powers of rationalization are superior. When he's playing poorly, Hilger will often fill his time on the sidelines by chanting softly, "That's not me. That's not me." Says Jones, "Rusty isn't a great athlete. But he's a fighter, and I'm gonna stick with him."
Oklahoma State has more than its share of Hilgers, but the best indication that the program is on the rise is a newfound ability to sign blue-chippers in Oklahoma and Texas. Two years ago, the Cowboys landed Charlie Crawford, a 6'2", 230-pound power back from Bristow, Okla., who busted for 137 yards on 13 carries against Arizona State but suffered a knee injury against Bowling Green and had to miss the San Diego game. "A difference-making back," says Jones. This year's hot prospect is scatback Thurman Thomas of Missouri City, Texas, who has run for 148 yards in three games.
In a state where it's said only three sports matter—fall football, spring football and recruiting—Oklahoma State has been a very weak sister to Oklahoma. A recent joke had it that the physician of the widow of a famous coach told her to move to Stillwater so she could get as far away from football as possible. Cowboy fans carry a lot of scars and are reluctant to go wild over their new success. Jones knows Stillwater's emotions run deep, but he would like to see them displayed above the surface on Saturdays. So he spent part of his week before the San Diego State game drumming up interest along fraternity row. Typically, after about 10 minutes of discussing how to get the crowd riled up, he would ask the students, "Anything you want to know about the X's and O's?" He then would answer questions for half an hour.
The big question, of course, is: Can Oklahoma State beat Nebraska and Oklahoma for its first-ever undisputed Big Eight championship? Prospects don't look good. But this year, thanks to Jones, the Cowboys may have that extra bullet.