With a 24-17 loss to an interim-coached Wisconsin in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl on Dec. 27, Oklahoma State capped off a stretch of five losses in six games to close its 2022 season -- the worst campaign in Stillwater, Oklahoma, since 2018. Afterwards, Cowboys coach Mike Gundy took out his frustrations at a reporter who asked him a basic question about staff changes heading into the offseason.
"I might have to cut you out. Don't be an ass," Gundy fired back. "Those are people's lives. Don't mess with people's families ... I'm not mad about the game, I just don't like ignorance."
There has not been a single staff dismissal in the four weeks following Gundy's outburst, which punctuated a disappointing 7-6 season. An offense that once ranked top 25 nationally for five straight seasons just posted its second year outside the top 50. What had been a team with NFL-caliber players turned into one that didn't land a single offensive player on the All-Big 12 team. The defense was even worse, finishing among the bottom 20 programs nationally in yardage allowed.
For most of the 2010s, Gundy has been untouchable. His program won at least nine games eight times between 2008-17. In October 2021, Gundy signed a "perpetual" five-year contract that automatically renews annually and amounts to a "lifetime deal." Since that incredible run, complacency has set in. The Cowboys have won more than nine games just once since 2017. Gundy has not fired a key assistant since Glenn Spencer in 2017 and hasn't fired an offensive assistant of any type since offensive line coach Greg Adkins.
Right as the program has faced its toughest challenges, Gundy has doubled down.
Offensive coordinator and receivers coach Kasey Dunn has received the majority of the criticism, but problems persist across the board. The offensive line has struggled under veteran assistant Charlie Dickey. No running backs primarily recruited by John Wozniak have earned All-Big 12 honors. The tight ends had fewer than 10 combined catches under Jason McEndoo.
Only Iowa State performed worse on the ground than Oklahoma State in yards, yards per carry and rushing touchdowns. Ultimately, no steps were taken to rectify the staff issues; every assistant was brought back. Short of swapping former defensive coordinator Jim Knowles for Derek Mason after the former left for Ohio State, the on-field staffs were identical at Oklahoma State from 2019-22, an eternity in the coaching world.
Mason also represents the only voluntary staff change. He opted not to re-up his one-year contract, announcing instead that he was taking coaching sabbatical one year after taking a $400,000 pay cut to leave Auburn. Gundy has since replaced the former Vanderbilt head coach with Bryan Nardo, an assistant at Division II Gannon University without any D-I play-calling experience.
Gundy is no stranger to using press conferences to send messages; look no further than his famous "I'm a man, I'm 40" rant in 2007. But unlike that incident, the program appears to be fighting back this time.
Four-year starting quarterback Spencer Sanders was the first major piece to enter the portal. Then, top rusher Dominic Richardson transferred. Receivers Bryson Green, John Paul Richardson and Stephon Johnson Jr. also left, leaving Dunn with only one of his top six pass-catchers after an underwhelming campaign.
To add insult to injury, defensive end Trace Ford crossed the Bedlam rivalry and committed to Oklahoma. Former four-star recruit and in-state product Braylin Presley transferred to Tulsa. Linebacker Mason Cobb joined former rival Lincoln Riley at USC. Western Michigan running back transfer Sean Tyler, a two-time 1,000-yard rusher, reneged recently on a commitment and flipped to Minnesota.
Presley, a former Gatorade Player of the Year in Oklahoma, notably expressed frustration with assistant coaches on his way to the transfer portal.
"I just feel like our backs weren't being used correctly, if I'm being completely honest," Presley told the Tulsa World. "I just didn't feel like they were being coached right -- to be the best running backs they could be."
After landing 6 inches short of a Big 12 championship in 2021, Oklahoma State is reaching deep into the transfer portal just to try to field an offense. Michigan quarterback Alan Bowman had a productive career at Texas Tech early, while receiver De'Zhaun Stribling led Washington State in receiving yards. They highlight the transfer class, but the rest is a mix of unproven and lower-level players, including pass-catchers from Division II Pennsylvania Western University and Division III George Fox University -- a far cry from the receivers joining rival Big 12 schools from Alabama, Georgia and Arkansas.
Betting on unknowns
Gundy has weathered storms before and flipped it into results. From 2007-17, every five-loss season was rewarded with an AP top-20 finish the next season with six 10-win campaigns mixed in. Despite a 12-2 season and Fiesta Bowl victory in 2021, this time feels different.
Five of the top six receivers are gone, and Gundy had to go to the transfer portal to search for a quarterback after underclassmen Garret Rangel and Gunnar Gundy struggled. Bowman wasn't even OSU's first transfer target, but the Pokes missed on Virginia transfer Brennan Armstrong, who committed to NC State after considering the Cowboys. Upon the conclusion of the Guaranteed Rate Bowl, every starter from Oklahoma State's brilliant 2021 defense is gone.
Nardo at least brings some new blood into the program, but calling his hire a reach is an understatement. He is the only defensive coordinator in the Big 12 who was hired externally without Division I play-calling experience. Knowles and Mason, for comparison, had a combined 14 years of D-I coordinating experience when Gundy hired them. Maybe Nardo can flip the unit, but he is far less qualified than hires at similarly successful programs.
There's obvious comparisons to former small college assistants Mike Yurcich and Sean Gleeson at Oklahoma State. However, Yurcich's Shippensburg offense led the nation in scoring. Gleeson's Princeton offense in 2018 broke the Ivy League record for scoring. Gannon was 53rd in scoring defense under Nardo's watch and allowed -- oddly enough -- 35 points in a loss to Shippensburg in the final week of the season.
After winning 156 games in 18 seasons, Gundy deserves some benefit of the doubt. But for Oklahoma State fans, it must be tempting to look down I-35 and see the way TCU has thrived since moving on from Gary Patterson, its greatest coach in history. In the first year after Patterson's sudden resignation, TCU earned its first trip to the College Football Playoff and played for a national championship. Getting a forward-thinking mind in the room can change everything.
There was a time that Oklahoma State was a plucky upstart under Gundy, reaching 10 wins for the first time since the days of Barry Sanders and forcing their way into the national conversation. With five 10-win seasons in the past decade, though, expectations are higher.
Oklahoma State believes it can be the top program in the new Big 12 when Texas and Oklahoma depart for the SEC. Only Oklahoma has more wins since 2012 realignment among Big 12 programs. The Cowboys have won more games than any of the Big 12's new additions -- BYU, Cincinnati, Houston and UCF -- had in the Group of Five over the same period.
Their chief competition have all made power moves in recent years, however. The Horned Frogs dumped the winningest coach in program history. Baylor fired its veteran defensive coordinator after a disappointing year. Texas Tech swung for the fences with coach Joey McGuire. Kansas State keyed a Big 12 title run by firing veteran coordinator Courtney Messingham and handing young offensive assistant Collin Klein the keys.
Gundy has faced a few career crossroads and managed to wiggle back to success. He gave up play-calling and hired offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen in 2010, which rejuvenated the program. Then, Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon got things completely back on track the next year. While the 7-6 season in 2014 went off the rails, the Bedlam win, combined with another QB-WR tandem of Mason Rudolph and James Washington, stabilized things. This time, there is no Weeden and Blackmon, no Rudolph and Washington.
With the conference shifting in 2023 and an expanded College Football Playoff coming in 2024, now is the moment for Oklahoma State to assert its will and establish itself as a premier brand in college football. With ink dry on a lifetime contract, though, it's unclear whether Gundy even feels the pressure to try.