Most, if not all, Oklahoma State fans know of Mike Holder. He has been an ever-present and often polarizing figure in Oklahoma State athletics for over a decade while serving as athletic director. You probably know about him. You probably disagree with some decisions he’s made (ahem, Travis Ford). But you might not know where he came from, and just how good a ride his eight seconds in Stillwater has been.
It’s difficult not to spot Holder roaming the south side of Boone Pickens Stadium on game days. Even among Cowboys, he tends to stand out. He walks around like a host, as if he’s entertaining 60,000 dinner guests in his $300 million dollar home. And make no mistake, even if its not his name in lights at the top of the stadium, this is Mike Holder’s home. It’s where he belongs. And for 50 years now, its where he’s always been.
Holder’s ride at Oklahoma State began in August of 1966, when he arrived as a freshman out of Ardmore High School. And what a wild ride it has been. Since his first days on campus, living in Bennett Hall and majoring in marketing, Holder has done many things. The one thing he’s never done is leave.
After joining the Cowboy golf program as a walk-on, Holder found himself playing for legendary coach Labron Harris. Harris was the only head coach the program had ever known, and he had taken the Cowboys to the NCAA tournament every season since the program began in 1947. Under the expert tutelage of Harris, Holder developed into a very successful collegiate golfer. He was an honorable mention All-American his sophomore season before garnering third team All-American honors his junior and senior seasons. As a team, the Cowboys won the Big 8 Conference title his junior and senior season, and Holder won the individual conference title his senior year.
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in marketing, Holder began work on a master’s degree at Oklahoma State. He completed his MBA in 1973, which happened to be the same year that Labron Harris chose to retire as golf coach. Holder was hired as his successor. He took the reins of the Cowboy golf program from his mentor and never looked back.
From 1973 to 2005, Mike Holder took what had been a wildly successful golf program under Labron Harris and crafted it into the premier golf program in the country. Under Harris, OSU had made 27 straight appearances in the NCAA tournament. Holder ran that streak to 58. Harris won a single national championship in 1963 and coached teams to national runner-up finishes four times. In 32 years with Holder at the helm, the Cowboys won eight national championships and finished as national runner-up 11 times.
Holder’s Cowboys absolutely dominated the Big 8 Conference, winning an astounding 21 Big 8 Conference Championships from 1973 to 1996, when the conference joined teams from the Southwest Conference to create the Big 12. Holder’s 21 Big 8 titles are second only to Phog Allen, who led the Kansas basketball program to 24 league championships. In total, Mike Holder led the Cowboys to 25 conference championships during his illustrious tenure as head coach.
Holder also helped his players achieve individual accolades. Six players became the top-ranked collegiate golfer in the country while playing for Mike Holder. He coached well over 100 All-Americans, including 47 first team All-Americans. Several of his former players have had solid careers on the PGA Tour, including Hunter Mahan, Charles Howell III, Alex Noren, Bo Van Pelt, Bob Tway, and Scott Verplank. And the success of Holder’s players wasn’t just on the golf course. In 1984, college golf began recognizing Academic All-Americans. From 1984 to the end of Mike Holder’s coaching tenure, only 14 golfers were named to both All-American and Academic All-American status. Nine of those 14 played for Mike Holder.
Holder’s 32 years as head golf coach at Oklahoma State produced an unbelievably long list of achievements for him and for the program, but arguably his greatest contribution to Cowboy Golf wasn’t something accomplished on a golf course - it was a golf course. Sitting on an immaculate piece of land to the west of Stillwater, Karsten Creek is undeniably one of the premier collegiate golf venues in the country. And it’s there, largely, because of Mike Holder.
The Cowboys used to practice and compete at Lakeside, which qualifies as an average public golf course. But Holder changed all that. It was Holder who rallied the troops in the fundraising campaign. It was Holder who landed architect Tom Fazio to make the dream come to life. Maybe most importantly, it was Holder’s dream to begin with. Karsten Creek opened in 1994, and was named Golf Digest’s Best New Course that year. Four years later, Golf Digest would rate Karsten Creek a 5-star course, a designation only ten other courses in the United States could claim.
Karsten Creek has hosted the NCAA Men’s Golf National Championship twice, most recently in 2011 (when OSU’s golf team had another famous walk-on by the name of Brandon Weeden). I had the opportunity to attend that national championship and walk the fairways of Karsten Creek. It is an absolute gem. And it wouldn’t exist without Mike Holder.
In 2005, having won eight national championships and having been the driving force behind the construction of one of the greatest golf venues in the country, Holder stepped down as golf coach to take on a new challenge - athletic director. In the decade since, there have been ups and downs, celebrations and tragedies, and Mike Holder has been the man charged with navigating the athletic department through it all.
It didn’t take Holder long to make an impact as athletic director. According to a 2011 story from the Oklahoman, Holder began conversations with Boone Pickens about a massive donation to build and renovate facilities essentially immediately. By Christmas of his first year as AD, Holder had a formal proposal for Pickens. And the rest is (300 million dollars) of history. And according to Pickens himself, Holder was absolutely critical in making that donation a reality.
“That was part of the deal,” Pickens told the Tulsa World last year. “I could trust him. I knew how he’d spend the money. He’s an honest guy and totally dedicated to the university.”
And so, based on his trust in Holder, Boone Pickens donated $165 million to OSU, a donation that produced that same stadium where Holder hosts dinner parties for his 60,000 closest friends these days. Regardless of what happens throughout the rest of Mike Holder’s days as Oklahoma State’s athletic director, Boone Pickens Stadium will certainly be the crowning jewel of his accomplishments.
Unfortunately for Mike, and for all of Cowboy Nation, not all the days have been as bright as the day BPS was dedicated. As is common in Oklahoma, there have been some storm clouds along the way. Holder received substantial criticism and even had some Cowboys fans calling for his resignation over the terms of a contract offered to former Cowboy basketball coach Travis Ford in 2009. At the conclusion of at least the last few seasons, the fanbase all but demanded Holder to buy Ford out of the remainder of his contract and turn the page for the basketball program. Every year Holder didn’t pull the plug, the outrage grew. Some in Orange Country will never forgive Holder for the way he handled that situation. In the end, he had a plan that seemed to have more to do with not putting the athletic department behind a financial 8-ball than it did with his belief Ford could turn it around. This past March, Holder named Brad Underwood the new head men’s basketball coach.
In September of 2013, Cowboys fans were faced with something that appeared even grimmer than Ford’s contract. According to a 5-part series by Sports Illustrated, the success of the Oklahoma State football program had been a complete sham. The Cowboys had allegedly risen from mediocrity on the back of numerous NCAA violations, not to mention totally immoral behavior, spanning over a decade. In the face of this impending attack, Holder faced the media along with OSU President Burns Hargis. The honesty, brevity, and humility with which they spoke was much needed and served as a rallying cry for the Cowboy faithful. We weren’t running from this. We would face the truth and we would do things the right way. In the end, the report was almost completely invalidated, and Hargis and Holder stood tall.
During Holder’s time as athletic director, the Oklahoma State family has also suffered unspeakable tragedies. First, in 2011, when the plane carrying women’s basketball coaches Kurt Budke and Miranda Serna and alumni Olin and Paula Branstetter, went down in Arkansas. Then, again, in 2015, when a woman crashed into the crowd at the annual homecoming parade, killing four and injuring many more. And most recently, just over a month ago, when Cowboy basketball player Tyrek Coger passed away after a team workout.
At times like these, there are no words that can erase what happened or lessen the pain felt by those affected, but words must be spoken still. Again, Holder has been among those bearing the responsibility of delivering those words to a heartbroken nation. It may be part of the job, but its not a part that anyone should ever have to do. Holder has always done so with empathy and sensitivity, clearly speaking not to fans or alumni, but to family.
It’s a family he’s been a part of for over 50 years now. It’s a family he knows and understands. A family he has celebrated with and cried with. Just like any family, it hasn’t always been pretty and we haven’t always gotten along, but at the end of the day, we are still family. A family that’s been through a lot together. A family that’s headed in a good direction. And a family that wouldn’t look the same if it wasn’t for Mike Holder. That’s why we ranked him as one of our All-Time Cowboys, and that’s why you guys have voted him into the Elite 8. We should all be proud to call Mike Holder a Cowboy and happy to congratulate him on 50 years worth of a good ride.