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Some Things are More Important Than Winning. A look at Oklahoma State and Alumnus Head Coaches.

College athletic programs, and even most pro teams, end up with their institution and their fanbase having some defined qualities that make them who they are. Sure every team out there chants some version of "Let's Go Pokes" (and I hear that Tech invented it), but there are some things that make Oklahoma State, and every other program/school, unique. Usually these things are based in tradition (mascot, historic building or statue, chants, tailgating, etc), but sometimes these qualities actually spill over onto the field of play, and affect whether teams win or lose games. For example:

  • Princeton has to run the Princeton offense. No matter what personnel they have (and this offense requires very unique personnel), they have to run it. It was created and perfected there, and has roots going all the way back to the 1930's. There would be a full on rebellion if they suddenly switched to a ball screen or fast break offense. So what if the Princeton offense doesn't work anymore, or with a certain mix of players, or for whatever reason isn't the best strategy for a particular game or season? It doesn't matter, run it. In this way Princeton definitely has a tradition that is more important than winning games.
  • Army, Navy, and Air Force running the option. Army briefly switched to a pro-style offense in the mid 00's and the backlash was enough to lead to the firing of head coach Todd Berry (his horrible record didnt help either). These teams, for better or worse, run the option, and if they are to remain popular among their fanbase, they will continue to run the option, win or lose.

And I am sure there are plenty more examples out there, these were just the two most obvious that jumped out to me (maybe we can add that OSU basketball has to play a man-to-man defense?).

The question I have about the Oklahoma State Athletic Program is .... Is having an Alumus as the basketball and the football Head Coach more important than winning?

Sure, at first the question sounds silly.... "if we are winning I dont care who the coach is" we all immediately think to ourselves... but is that really true? I'm not going to try to argue that it would still matter if OSU went 12-0 or 33-0 every season with a non-alumnus coach, of course we would be ok with that. Hell, if a coach could accomplish that at OSU he would be able to take a daily dump off the roof of Old Central and slap Garth Brooks in the face and still be a beloved figure on campus. Saying we would be that good is taking the argument too far to the extreme. What I want to discuss is, given reasonable expectations of success, will we ever be happy with a non-alumnus coach? I think not, and follow me through the jump for an explanation.

What do we hold dear about Oklahoma State? If you ask this question of an OSU fan, 90% of the responses will center around experiences in Stillwater before, during, and after attending school there. I think the #1 thing we hold dear as OSU fans is our connection to the school and Stillwater. When I watch Markel Brown's beautiful jump shot, I am not so much watching some athlete who wears a uniform that I like do something great, I am watching an extension of myself as my ties to the school run that deep.

Contrast this with an OU fan who might say the thing they hold most dear as a Sooner fan is the championships, or something else that everyone else in the country already knows about OU. This isn't meant to be a slam on OU fans, but since their football program has such a broad reach, most of their fans have little to no affiliation with Norman or the school itself. We are the opposite, and due to the two schools sharing a state I have no illusions that part of the reason we value our university connection so much is to differentiate ourselves from big brother. And this pride in our Stillwater family, while well meaning and my favorite thing about being a Cowboy, definitely has an affect on the way we want the athletic department to be managed, and in turn the play on the field/court.

We have spent our OSU obsessed lives bonding with all things and people orange, and have developed some trust issues with outsiders. Jimmie Johnson and Les Miles reinforced this mistrust, while Eddie Sutton and Mike Gundy proved that alumni can get the job done, and now we feel more comfortable with coaches that look at Oklahoma State as their dream job, and plan to stay for as long as we will have them.

While there is no way to put any concrete evidence to this, would there be as much Travis Ford mistrust if the exact same results had been garnered by Bill Self, Brooks Thompson, or even Sean Sutton? Would we have given a non-alumus head coach as much slack as we gave Gundy when he finished 4-7 and 6-6 after Miles had set the precedent of 8 and 9 win seasons? Now we are at a point with Gundy where if Bill Cowher said he wanted to coach at OSU I think the fanbase would lean towards keeping Gundy.... I doubt the same would be true if Miles were still in charge.

The thing is, many programs are in some way used to the revolving coaching door that exists in college athletics, just as they are in some way used to college being seen as a place where a degree is received, and used to move their lives forward... these are just steps in a process to some people. Oklahoma State fans do not have this mentality. An big piece of an Oklahoma State fan's heart never left Stillwater, and we aren't all that comfortable with an outsider, who for all we know is using our hallowed grounds as a stepping stone to something "bigger", affecting that piece of our heart. Sure, Travis Ford can coach, but does he understand what OSU and Stillwater is all about? Did he ever play in GIA or BPS/Lewis Field? Did he connect with his fellow 18-22 year old Cowboys at parties, in class, and on campus? Has he ever been thrown, or fallen into, Theta Pond? Has he received an MIP citation that he felt was completely unwarranted? Has he been to Short Cakes at a ridiculous time? And the list goes on and on....
(and yes, I know that many people at every other university shares the same passions we do, I just believe that a much higher percentage of OSU fans feel that strong bond to the university and town compared to most fanbases, and that we are probably more sensitive to the school tie thing as well, given that it is what we love to hang our hat on.)

All of this is really just a hugely elaborate way of explaining why I think we have arrived at the point as a fanbase where having an alumnus as the basketball and the football Head Coach has become more important than wins and losses (to an extent). Travis Ford can keep his job as long as he doesn't completely disappoint us, and an alumus prospect doesn't become available, but neither he nor us are ever fully comfortable with the arrangement as both sides are always at least passively keeping an eye out for what else is available. On the other hand, Gundy is safe unless he really screws up because he is one of us, and deep down we believe that his goals mirror our own for the football program, the school, and the town of Stillwater.