It happened again. An Oklahoma State team was in a big spot on the national stage and lost. The Cowboy baseball team made it to back to Omaha after a prolonged absence by their standards. They started the College World Series with two straight 1-0 victories and put themselves in prime position to make the finals. They just needed one more win. Instead, they were beaten soundly in back-to-back games by the Arizona Wildcats. A once promising run at a title ended in the blink of an eye.
They say it was predictable. Same old Oklahoma State, they say. They even have a name for it. The Poke Choke. Cute, isn’t it? It even rhymes. Listening to many outside of Cowboy Nation and even some within, this is a historical phenomenon as certain as death and taxes. It comes up every time any OSU team loses a big game, or just about any game for that matter.
I’ve been an Oklahoma State fan for as long as I can remember, and that’s not because I have a short memory. Admittedly, there have been what feels like innumerable moments of disappointment. The 2011 loss to Iowa State, the 2004 Final Four last-second loss to Georgia Tech and the loss to Arizona in the Sweet 16 the following year, these were gut-wrenching experiences. There have been times when it’s felt like every time I start to believe, I get let down. Reading social media in the wake of the Cowboys being eliminated in Omaha last month, it’s clear I’m not alone in that. But those momentary emotional responses don’t necessarily tell the truth of the big picture. And it’s time we call the Poke Choke what it is - a myth. When you look at the numbers, removed from the often irrational emotion that comes with being a fan, there really is no basis for claiming that Oklahoma State loses big games or games it should win more often than most schools.
Let's just start at the top, shall we? Oklahoma State has won 51 team national championships, which is the most in the Big 12 and fourth nationally. Let that sink in. Only three schools in the entire country have won more team national championships than Oklahoma State. That alone should be enough to kill the Poke Choke. The fact that one of the most historically successful athletic programs in the country even has to hear something like that seems ludicrous. So why do they? Some say things like “Oh, well that's mostly just wrestling, right? OSU isn't really a powerhouse athletic department, they're just really good at a sport no one cares about.” Okay.
Let's talk baseball, since that wound is the freshest. No, Oklahoma State did not win the 2016 College World Series. Yes, the Cowboys put themselves in great position and were not able to parlay that position into a championship. But does that alone constitute a choke? A team that did not win its conference, had fallen to the bottom of some national polls and out of some others by the start of the postseason made it to the national semifinals. They were one of four teams left standing. When the Regionals began, no one really expected OSU to make it to Omaha. But when they did, and were able to win their first two games, suddenly anything but a championship became a choke.
And that's the lunacy of sports. One team gets to lift the big trophy. One. And while I get being disappointed, while I get being unsatisfied with anything short of a championship, because absolutely that should be the goal, to label what the OSU baseball team did in the 2016 CWS as a choke is just silly. It was a great run that hurt when it ended. And it's okay to hurt. It's okay to be disappointed. But it's not okay to look at a group of guys who, by all statistical measures, overachieved, and label them as chokers.
Let's zoom out and look at OSU baseball throughout history, since the Poke Choke did not originate in the last few weeks. Another knock on Oklahoma State baseball is that it has only won a single national championship. For all of those CWS appearances, the Cowboys have one championship. While I can see how you could look at 20 trips to the College World Series and only a single ring to show for it as disappointing, it's hardly choking. It’s one thing to say anything less than a championship is falling short of our ultimate goal. It’s another thing entirely to say anything less than a championship is choking.
Per the NCAA's records, Oklahoma State baseball ranks sixth nationally in win percentage, all-time. The Pokes also happen to rank sixth in College World Series appearances. Guess where they rank in CWS wins? Sixth. So to review, the sixth winningest program in college baseball has made the sixth most trips to the College World Series and won the sixth most games in the College World Series. They may only have one championship to show for it, but the reality is that OSU baseball has performed almost exactly as you would expect (if your expectations were unbiased and, you know, logical) in terms of making it to Omaha and in terms of how they perform once they're there. And to be fair, only 14 schools have won more than a single national championship in baseball, so even knocking the one ring is probably unfair.
Okay, but that's baseball, and everyone knows OSU has a solid baseball program. Well, true. So let's look elsewhere. How about football? We all know football is king. Some seem to think it's the only thing that matters. And they can gloatingly point to the fact that Oklahoma State has exactly zero national championships in football. But, again, not winning a championship is not the same thing as choking.
Choking really only refers to blowing a big opportunity, particularly when you should win. We can't resort to calling every loss a choke. No one says anyone on Baylor's non-conference schedule chokes when they lose because no one even knew they had a football team until they played Baylor. So the most pertinent data in terms of choking is not purely wins and losses, though OSU has fared quite well by those measures over the last decade, but how a team performs when it's favored. When you're supposed to win. And, yes, there are examples of football games OSU SHOULD have won and didn't. 2013 Bedlam comes to mind. But the reality is every single team has those games. That doesn't make it a trend.
Over the last ten seasons, the Oklahoma State football program has won a staggering 86.9 percent of games in which it's been favored, according to data from TeamRankings.com. That's good for sixth in the country (which DOES seem to be a trend) and, again, is best in the Big 12. As fans, we magnify the 2011 Iowa States and the 2013 Bedlams and soon begin to feel like that's what always happens. But the numbers show that no team in the conference takes care of business when it's supposed to win as well as Oklahoma State. Which means the Pokes technically choke less than any football team in the Big 12. So there's that.
Being a sports fan can be miserable. You passionately care about something you have absolutely no control over. Perspective is so easily lost in the midst of disappointment. Do you really have any concept of how often UCLA or Georgia loses on a big stage when they were supposed to win? I don't. My guess is their fans think it happens way more than it should. I know how easy it is to feel like it always happens to my teams, because they're the ones I care about. Their games are the ones that affect me. Their games are the ones I remember. But the truth is every team loses. And the vast majority lose a lot more than Oklahoma State. So, let's put the Poke Choke where it belongs, right next to the Easter Bunny and all the other tales that are fun to talk about (you guys talk about the Easter Bunny all the time, too, right?) but have no basis in reality, even if they rhyme.