Oklahoma State has invested a lot over the last decade in turning its middleweight football program into a contender, and it's paying off: After a steady rise into the national consciousness, the 2011 season produced school records for total offense, the Cowboys' most lopsided win ever over Oklahoma, their first outright conference championship since 1926, and — with Monday night's overtime escape against Stanford in the Fiesta Bowl — the highest poll finish in school history to go with a school-record 12 wins. The current run under head coach Mike Gundy is without a doubt the highest point in the history of Oklahoma State football.
OK, so… now what? The Cowboys' prolific pass-catch combo, Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon, is on its way to the NFL, along with All-Americans on the offensive line (Levy Adcock) and secondary (Markelle Martin) and a half-dozen other senior starters. Now that most of them are on their way to big paydays, Gundy thought now might be a good time to remind the faithful that they need to start asking themselves just how long they want this thing to last:
"If we're going to compete with Oklahoma and Texas and Nebraska and LSU and Alabama and Stanford and all these teams, then we need to do the same things that they're doing," Gundy said during a conference call [on Tuesday].
"We've been fortunate. We've competed at a very high level the last two years but we've done it a little bit short-handed. We're not going to always be able to do it short-handed. We have to have the same opportunities as everybody else."
"We're at a point now we have to make a decision whether we want to be a big-time football school or not, and there's just a lot of things involved. We're in some uncharted waters here at Oklahoma State and I think there's some decisions that have to be made by the powers that be whether we want to be a big-time football school or not."
First on Gundy's wish list: Finishing an indoor practice facility and three grass practice fields across the street from Boone Pickens Stadium that remain years behind schedule. Next: Better season-ticket sales and more sellouts — a modest goal, really, considering Cowboy fans have failed to sell out the Boone (capacity: 60,218) a single time over the last two years to watch one of the nation's most prolific offenses power the two best teams in school history. Meanwhile, Oklahoma has sold out every home game of Bob Stoops' tenure as head coach, and counting.
Not specifically mentioned, but certainly on the table: Gundy's salary, which — at $2.1 million per year — is barely half of what Stoops makes, and somehow ranks below the salaries of two fellow Big 12 bosses (Turner Gill and Mike Sherman) who were just shown the door. The current salary pool for the entire coaching staff ($4.87 million) is in the top half of the conference, but still lags far behind the largess at Oklahoma ($6.77m) and Texas ($8.81m). Gundy's agent, the omnipresent Jimmy Sexton, reportedly rejected a contract extension in mid-December that would have paid Gundy more than $3 million a year.
The one thing even T. Boone Pickens cannot buy — even if he was willing to defy the NCAA to try — is another Justin Blackmon, who showed up in 2008 as a random, three-star recruit and leaves as a widely decorated All-American twice over, bound for the top of the first round. Exactly one month before national signing day, Rivals ranks Oklahoma State's 2012 recruiting class 36th nationally and fifth in the Big 12, significantly behind the likes of Texas Tech, Vanderbilt and Purdue. That's where OSU's classes have usually finished in the rankings under Gundy — he's never inked a class that ranked among Rivals' top 20 — who's literally made a living defying those projections and will no doubt tell you he could care less about the opinion of some website.
But if Oklahoma State is planning on making Big 12 championships and BCS bowls the new normal, he also knows he's not going to go on defying them on that level for very long.