In almost every way, 2011 was a difficult year. The Oklahoma State family lost four of its own in a plane crash. Hours later, it lost a perfect football season and a spot in the BCS National Championship Game. But months earlier, a Cowboys' coach suffered another loss, one even more personally devastating than what took place in November. During a late night rain delay in Tulsa, Glenn Spencer was called back to Stillwater. His lost his wife to a battle with heart disease that night. That heartbreaking season impacted the future of a coach and the future of a program, and it reminded us all that football isn't everything. Nearly five years later, that truth is evident in the life of that same coach and in how he has helped shape that same program.
Few things in this world are as unrelenting as the will and determination of Glenn Spencer. He is an unyielding force of motivation and humility who breathes fire into the hearts and minds of those in his charge. His words are deep and powerful. He celebrates the victory of the moment with unmatched enthusiasm while never, for a second, losing sight of the big picture. He soars yet remains grounded. And he demands that his players do the same, that they learn to walk the line between embracing triumph and maintaining an insatiable hunger.
There may be no better word to describe Spencer than genuine. Who he is, he is to the core. And that is exactly who he lets the rest of us see. He doesn't put on a show. He doesn't wear a mask. He doesn't withdraw. He stalks the sidelines with heart and soul laid bare. This is who he is. And Cowboys fans love who he is. And for good reason. Even in the wake of defeat, he is who he is. After the Sugar Bowl last January, Spencer tweeted this to the OSU faithful.
It's no rarity for a coach to express gratitude to a loyal fan base. The thing is, when he says it pains him to sickness, I believe him. I believe he cares that much. I believe he tried that hard. I believe it hurts that deeply. And I'm guessing most Cowboys fans do. Because that is who we know him to be. It is in keeping with his character that has been on display for years and through much more difficult times than a loss on a football field. As much as a loss pains him, he's been through worse. He's lost more than a game. And through it all, this is who he is. Passionate. Determined. Humble. Genuine.
Glenn Spencer is an elite human being, partly because he doesn't think that he is. But that doesn't necessarily mean he's an elite defensive coordinator. Maybe he isn't. There is no shortage of stats that suggest OSU's defense under Spencer has been mediocre at best. The old guard of statistics certainly is none too kind. In 2015, the Cowboys defense ranked 99th in the country in total defense, 88th in scoring defense, 73rd in red zone defense, and 92nd in 3rd down defense.
But this is the Big 12. This is the land of high-flying offenses. It's, perhaps, unfair to compare OSU to, say, Michigan, who has only to stop the sloth-like offenses of the Big Ten. Fine. Within the Big 12, where everybody plays everybody so statistical comparisons should be perfectly fair, OSU ranked 5th, 6th, 4th, and 5th in those same categories, respectively. Mediocre in a conference not known for its defenses. No one is writing home about having a better defense than Kansas or Texas Tech.
So, next we turn to the evaluation system itself. The old statistics aren't a true measure of a defense, we say. What matters are things like points per play and points per drive. In points per play, OSU ranked 74th in the country, good for 6th in the conference. In points per drive, the Cowboys were tied for 68th in the country. Tied with Buffalo, by the way. Not the Bills. That mark put them 5th in the conference. So, the defense looks a little better by these metrics, but still pretty mediocre. I doubt very much anyone has ever tweeted "We tied with Buffalo! #Goals," at least not without a tremendous amount of sarcasm.
There are other factors to consider. Other arguments to be had about the defense. The Cowboys suffered some injuries. Ryan Simmons and Jimmy Bean, in particular, were difficult losses to sustain. There's also the schedule to take into account. The Cowboys' schedule was back-loaded last year, creating a gauntlet of elite offenses in late October and November that destroyed what were decent defensive stats through the first half of the season. There is the argument that they simply wore down. That is difficult to swallow when the company line in Stillwater was that this was the deepest and perhaps most talented defense of the Gundy era. And they certainly had more than enough time to rest and heal before facing Ole Miss in the Sugar Bowl.
There's also the "blame the offense" argument that goes something like this: the offense can't sustain drives and puts the defense on the field too long and in too many bad field position scenarios. Okay. The OSU offense ranked in the top 25 in the country in total offense (22nd), scoring offense (14th), red zone offense (9th), points per play (10th), and points per drive (13th), and barely outside the top 25 in 3rd down offense (31st). So exactly how good does the offense have to be for the defense to not be at a disadvantage here? Could OSU run the ball? Nope. Was the offense still statistically superior to the defense by a large margin? Yep.
The fact that OSU fans are even willing to go this far in the debate makes one thing very clear - we love Glenn Spencer and we want badly for him to be great. We search for evidence of his success instead of proof of his failure. Maybe he's a great defensive coordinator. Maybe he's not. But if Mike Yurcich's offense ranked where Spencer's defense ranked last season, OSU fans would be calling for his head. Some are anyway. But not so with Spencer. Why? Because he is who he is. And we love who he is.
Maybe this is who he's always been. Or maybe the man he is was forged during those difficult times, like 2011. Maybe it's those very struggles that allow him the perspective that he has, a perspective that constantly keeps in view that while his livelihood may depend on what happens on a football field on Saturdays, there are far bigger things in life. There is absolutely no questioning Spencer's love and passion for the game, but in everything he does and says, it's clear that he's never forgotten. Football isn't everything.
That's not always easy to remember as a fan, let alone as a coach or a player. Sports has a way of catapulting itself up our priority lists until some are all too willing to compromise far too much in the name of victory. Ambition and greed hollow words like character and integrity. A look to the south is all that's needed to see the inevitable outcome of misplaced priorities (okay, true, but I meant farther south, keep going, yep, there). Winning at all costs is actually losing at great cost. What is great about Glenn Spencer is that he so clearly counts the cost and understands what is truly worth paying the price. And his goal is to help his players do the same.
Spencer is as much philosopher as he is play-caller. He seeks to instill into his players not just principles about how to defend against a spread offense, but a life-changing code, an attitude and a mindset that will serve them in every arena of life, not just in Boone Pickens Stadium. In his own words, he is "compelled to empower a group of men with the phenomenon of a sacrificial life for otherwise unattainable destinations." Anyone still think we're just talking about football?
Life is much more than football, and Spencer much more than a football coach. He embraces his opportunity to help his players grow into the men they want to be and to prepare them for life after football because, as he knows all too well, life is coming. It's coming for each of them. And while he will probably one day blow out a knee jumping in celebration of a sack or an interception, he will never let his players think that's what life is really all about. This is who he is. And we love him for it. And I, for one, wouldn't want anyone else. Win or lose.