I’ll admit it — it was hard to doubt the Oklahoma State football fans who called for head coach Mike Gundy’s ouster earlier this season.
The 2023 season began with a fair amount of optimism that the team could rebound from a disappointing 7-6 finish the year before. The team unraveled in the middle of 2022, starting off 6-1 before losing 48-0 to Kansas State, an all-time worst of the Gundy era, and losing five of six games to end the season.
This September’s games didn’t inspire much confidence. OSU opened with a lackluster win against FCS opponent Central Arkansas and then got blown out by the Sun Belt’s South Alabama at home. Fans booed the team during that 33-7 loss to the Jaguars, who would go on to finish the year with a paltry 6-6 record.
Defying the naysayers after a mediocre start to 2023, Mike Gundy and Oklahoma State football will play in the Big 12 title game Saturday against Texas.
It looked like rock bottom for Gundy. In his 19th season as the team’s head coach and after calling this gig his “New York Yankees job,” it was fair to wonder if the game had passed him by in the transfer portal era. Plenty of talent had left Stillwater after the past two seasons and plenty of fans grumbled about the team’s culture, the direction, and the play calls under offensive coordinator Kasey Dunn.
Fans who recalled the 2020 spat with then-star running back Chuba Hubbard and wondered if Gundy had lost his touch with being a leader among young men, too.
It looked like the 2021 season was a miraculous blip on the radar that wouldn’t repeat itself for the Cowboys, destined to be an average program that gets a good season every once in a while like Baylor or West Virginia.
After the Cowboys lost at Iowa State, though, Gundy and Co. turned things around, reeling off five consecutive wins. Wins against Kansas, Kansas State, and Bedlam archrival Oklahoma gave Cowboys fans memorable moments to savor. The team seemed to act like it was up all night looking for goalposts in Theta Pond after that Bedlam victory, the Cowboys’ second win in the last three games against the Sooners, as OSU followed that up with a 45-3 blowout loss to Central Florida.
After needing a comeback to beat 4-8 Houston (a couple of weeks before the Cougars fired head coach Dana Holgorsen), the Pokes had it all on the line for the regular-season finale against Brigham Young: win and advance to the Big 12 championship game or lose and allow OU to advance to face Texas instead.
And Saturday afternoon’s cold, rainy affair at Boone Pickens Stadium had all the makings of another Cowboys disaster. The Cougars jumped out to a 24-6 lead at halftime, and it was hard to imagine what was going through Gundy’s head as he trotted to the locker room impassively staring out at the crowd.
He apparently said the right things to his team at the intermission. The Cowboys held BYU scoreless for most of the second half, allowing a late field goal to tie the game and take it to overtime. If the fourth quarter wasn’t compelling enough drama, the back-and-forth continued until OSU recovered a fumble in the second overtime to seal the win.
Being interviewed just moments after the win, Gundy said that leading this year’s group of players has been the most fun he’s had in his nearly two decades as head coach. He might like riding roller coasters, because this team’s twists and turns have been unpredictable and maddening.
Instead of wallowing in another empty-feeling end to a frustrating regular season, however, Gundy and the No. 19-ranked Cowboys (9-3, 7-2 Big 12) will be lacing up their sneakers to face No. 7 Texas (11-1, 8-1) in the Big 12 championship game on Saturday. It’s the second trip to the league title game in three years for the Cowboys, who will now have the chance to exorcise the demons from the oh-so-close finish at the final inch line in the loss to Baylor in December 2021.
After a slow start to the season, star sophomore running back Ollie Gordon leads the nation in rushing with 1,580 yards, and quarterback Alan Bowman has rediscovered himself after early success at Texas Tech a few years and then riding the bench at Michigan until this year.
Gundy is now 165-78 in his 19 seasons in charge in Stillwater as the head coach for his alma mater. His wins are the fourth-most of any active coach at a single school in college football.
OSU showed remarkable poise and had some good luck in coming back to defeat the Cougars, the first time the Pokes had mounted double-digit comebacks in back-to-back weeks.
Maybe OSU fans will trust Gundy a little more after last Saturday.