STILLWATER — It wasn’t that the players were too flat, or the rain was too heavy, or the Knights of UCF were too good.
The primary reason behind Oklahoma State’s stunning setback in Orlando Saturday?
“We didn’t coach very good,” Mike Gundy said to lead off his Monday press conference, repeating himself for about the 45th time since 45-3 went final. “Their concepts were better than ours were.”
That means we’re right back where we were when OSU went sideways in September. The Cowboys lost 33-7 to South Alabama, then Gundy showed up at the coaches meeting Sunday morning and ordered: “I need you guys to coach, and coach your ass off because we haven’t coached very good.”
Enter Ollie Gordon and Alan Bowman. Exit whatever OSU was trying to accomplish blocking on offense and tackling on defense. Enter simplicity. Exit rotation and complication.
Presto. Season saved.
The Cowboys lost at Iowa State the week after South Alabama, but then coaches used OSU’s open date to turn the wrench. The players digested the fixes and down went Kansas State, Kansas, West Virginia, Cincinnati and Oklahoma.
Enter the Big 12 Championship picture.
OSU can still reach Arlington despite the 45-3 humbling, but only if coaches get back to their ass-busting.
I don’t know what that entails exactly. Was UCF a sign the Gordon-Bowman offense has been diagnosed? Did the Knights expose the inexperienced soft spots in OSU’s defense? Do the Cowboys zig after zagging post-South Alabama, or do they keep zigging and simply do so 100 times better than in Orlando?
Of his assistants, Gundy said: “They’re gonna do what they’re supposed to do when they’re supposed to do it how they’re supposed to do it in their own personality. That’s their job. They get paid to do that. So I’m not worried about them one bit.”
I wonder if that trust is a product of experience as much as ability. I wonder if culture is the key here.
“We have quite a bit of maturity on our staff,” Gundy said Monday, “and they’ve been with us a long time.”
Kasey Dunn has been around since 2011, Tim Duffie and Joe Bob Clements since ‘13, Dan Hammerschmidt and Jason McEndoo since ‘15 and John Wozniak since ‘17.
First-year defensive coordinator Bryan Nardo is the only assistant still figuring out Gundy and Big 12 competition. That shouldn’t prevent Gundy from trusting his staff to do what they have generally done together — repair the damage so one lousy Saturday doesn’t become two or three more.
It is trust born of something Gundy learned after his first embarrassing loss snowballed into an embarrassing season: Much as a head coach might want to, he can’t fix everything.
The Cowboys were 3-0 when visiting Colorado, a team that would finish 7-6, dropped a 34-0 hammer on them in Gundy’s fourth game in charge on Oct. 1, 2005.
“They ran a Power (run play) first play of the game right up the gut for 78 yards and a touchdown,” Gundy reflected. “I had the flu and I threw up that day beforehand, halfway through the game and after the game. I didn’t know what I was doing back then.”
That went for that game and OSU’s response to it. Gundy went into 24-hour repair mode. He couldn’t trust his staff because he had never managed one before. There was no culture to lean on because he was nine months into the job, not 19 years.
Thus the 34-0 loss to Colorado became 38-31 to Missouri, which became 62-23 at Texas A&M, which became 37-10 at Iowa State, which became 47-28 to Texas, the Longhorns the only strong opponent over that five-game collapse.
OSU upset No. 13 Texas Tech to end the skid, then lost to doormat-at-the-time Baylor 44-34 and got clobbered 42-14 at OU to finish 4-7.
Eventually, Gundy got the hang of head coaching. He figured out staff management, assisted by the loyalty and capability of the staff’s core members.
That has served the program well in several ways, among them what matters this week: OSU does not generally suffer extended disasters.
There are exceptions. Gundy went into a lost-soul fog through most of 2014 and the program followed. The 2018 Cowboys took a wrong turn by losing 41-17 to Bowman and Texas Tech, then stayed off course. Fans no doubt recall last season’s mystifying 48-0 loss at Kansas State, a crash that foreshadowed a 6-1 team finishing 7-6.
“We had a number of injuries in the middle of that deal,” Gundy explained Monday. “We had a quarterback that was playing some, not practicing, playing some. That was a mess. I learned a lot from that.
“I don’t think we’re in that situation. Our injuries are about the same as they were a month ago.”
However you explain last year, it is an anomaly in terms of Gundy’s in-season damage control. To review his OSU tenure is to discover that while the Cowboys do throw in a clunker most years, they generally rebuild quickly and stay on track.
In 2007, the Pokes followed a 41-23 September loss at Troy by winning four of their next five. They stumbled to a 7-6 finish because they lost to superior opponents Texas, Kansas and OU in November.
Gundy’s 2011 Big 12 championship season is defined not by the late-November upset loss at Iowa State, but rather by the 44-10 Bedlam rebound OSU’s next time. That was Dunn’s first year on staff.
When Duffie and Clements joined two years later, OSU ran off seven straight victories en route to a 10-win season following an upset loss at West Virginia.
In 2016, Hammerschmidt’s and McEndoo’s second season, OSU won eight of nine en route to a 10-win season after losing to Central Michigan.
When Wozniak came aboard in ‘17, OSU won four in a row en route to a 10-win season following an upset loss to TCU.
Faced with a second clunker this season, these coaches now have similar repairs to make. Gundy expects them to be thorough and timely, same as post-South Alabama.
That has been the norm since 2005, the first time Gundy’s Cowboys were broken and stayed broken, because trust in the staff has become the norm.
“I don’t really control (players) emotionally or mentally because they’re young people who make their own decisions. I can tell the coaches what to do,” Gundy said. “So I’ve told them what to do…
“They’re programmed. I’m not worried about those guys.”