'This was about way more than a T-shirt' – How Chuba Hubbard saved Mike Gundy from himself

Yahoo Sports

When Oklahoma State star tailback Chuba Hubbard publicly called out his coach, Mike Gundy, and essentially threatened to boycott the program after Gundy was photographed in the T-shirt of a far-right news network, he did more than assert himself in the players’ rights movement in college football.

He may have saved Gundy’s career.

Perhaps unwittingly, Hubbard and other players inside the Cowboys program embarked on a daunting project that no Oklahoma State president, board member or athletic director has publicly attempted – save Mike Gundy from himself. Essentially, Hubbard’s public outcry is forcing Gundy to make significant strides in his personal growth and evolve to the modern era by addressing deficiencies that other OSU leaders let spiral for more than a decade.

“Some people need to be educated,” Hubbard said in an ESPN video. He added: “I’m going to do my best to educate him and do my best to make Oklahoma State a better program for all athletes.” 

Through interviews with Oklahoma State players, athletic department officials and a review of documents and written communication within the program, Yahoo Sports learned that Hubbard and his peers have spent the past week pinpointing Gundy’s deficiencies. In doing so, they paint a portrait of a coach so distant from his program and consumed by his own ego that he’d lost touch with his team. 

Gundy has long cultivated his image as the caricature of a maverick coach – hunting rattlesnakes, bullying reporters and relishing in T-shirts glorifying his mullet. Along the way, he became a hero to much of the school’s loyal fan base and immune to criticism from school officials. 

As that persona has grown, so has the disconnect between Gundy and the players on the OSU team. They complained this week about his aversion to personal relationships. 

“This was about way more than a T-shirt,” said a source with direct knowledge of the program. “Think about it. Chuba didn’t risk everything because of what channel Gundy watches. It was a lack of general respect for the well-being of the players.”

Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy takes the field prior to an NCAA college football game in Stillwater, Okla., Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Brody Schmidt)
Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy takes the field prior to an NCAA college football game in Stillwater, Okla., Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Brody Schmidt)

One of the most consistent points of contention in the program was the players’ perception that Gundy didn’t know many of the players’ names, which resulted in awkward interactions around the facility.

In media interviews, Gundy has spent years referring to the younger players on his roster by their jersey number. And even the best players felt like Gundy had become so far removed from the program that they couldn’t build a relationship with him.

“It’s always better to communicate better and have better relationships,” Oklahoma State redshirt senior linebacker Amen Ogbongbemiga said generally of Gundy. “Communication can always be improved everywhere.” He declined to go into detail because “it does no good to air out anything within the program.” 

Nothing epitomized Gundy’s lack of respect for players more than the near-death of Anthony Diaz, a walk-on whose heart stopped on the field during a November practice the week of the Oklahoma game in 2019. As Diaz was treated on the field, practice moved away from the scene and continued, even as concerned teammates worried about his fate. He eventually woke up in an ambulance.

When Gundy addressed the team after practice, he called Diaz by the wrong name – “Nate Diaz” – and expressed jarringly little empathy.

“There have been a lot of teachable moments for me here recently,” Gundy said in a statement to Yahoo Sports when asked about his lack of relationships with his players. “When the players said they felt I was disconnected, it broke my heart. Hearing that led me to look at myself and acknowledge that it’s probably true. I’ve spent a lot of time listening and learning lately, and now I feel better about moving forward in developing deeper relationships with my players. That’s what they told me they wanted and that’s now a top priority for me.”

As Gundy’s aloofness grew, no one could stand up to him until he suddenly faced the biggest confrontation of his career. As Hubbard said on Twitter: “I had to hold him accountable.” 

Mike Gundy’s tone-deaf timeline

The tipping point for player unrest came last week when a picture emerged on social media of Gundy wearing a T-shirt from the One America News Network on a fishing trip with his sons. That prompted Hubbard’s tweet, where he demanded change from Gundy and called his actions “completely insensitive” and “unacceptable.”

OAN is a far-right wing news network that has degraded the Black Lives Matter movement, perpetuated internet hoaxes and happily employs on-air talent that more closely resemble Ron Burgundy than Walter Cronkite. (One anchor actually signs off by saying, “Even when I’m wrong, I’m right.”)

Gundy’s promotion of OAN infuriated Oklahoma State players, nearly half of whom are Black. The racial insensitivity cut deep considering the network’s coverage of BLM, which continued a pattern of Gundy’s obliviousness to his players’ feelings. That’s one reason why Hubbard received a tidal wave of support from both his teammates and former Oklahoma State players. “We Are More Than Athletes,” junior safety Kolby Harvell-Peel said in a tweet.

It may have been the strongest stance of authority that Gundy has faced in his entire 16-year career as head coach at Oklahoma State. And it came from Hubbard, who led the nation in rushing last season and is a Heisman Trophy candidate.

A timeline of events during the coronavirus pandemic leads to a better understanding of why tensions escalated in the program. In interviews, OSU players and those around the team revealed that the disconnect between Gundy and his players was exacerbated by his binges of public ignorance.  

After OSU players got a text message from team officials on March 17 telling them there’s “no need for you to return to Stillwater for any football related activities” because of COVID-19, they had little contact with Gundy as a team in the following two months.

Gundy compounded his lack of leadership and presence in front of the players with a series of actions and comments that simmered an undercurrent of anger in the program.  

In his infamous COVID-19 news conference in early April, Gundy did more than issue his decree for the players to return to Stillwater to “run money through the state.” It wasn’t lost on the players that their coach, who makes $5.25 million per year, cast the players as robotic economic pawns rather than humans vulnerable to the pandemic.

Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy during an NCAA college football media day in Stillwater Okla., Saturday, Aug. 3, 2019. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy during an NCAA college football media day in Stillwater Okla., Saturday, Aug. 3, 2019. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

Along with trying to restart the economy, Gundy resisted a pay cut.

He said of salary cuts, which have become commonplace for millionaire coaches: “I personally don’t want to get involved in that. It’s too early for me.”

Some of the internal frustration came from an announcement in late April of the athletic department taking away the football players’ stipends and a limit on access to summer school classes. While the players eventually received stipend money from the school when they returned to campus in early June, the uncertainty amid the pandemic led to a period of frustration and a rise in tensions.

On April 23, a few weeks after Gundy’s remarks about “running money through the state,” Oklahoma State football players received a group text message from Rod Johnson, the assistant director of football operations. It came under the header: “IMPORTANT SUMMER SCHOOL INFORMATION.” Johnson told the players that access to summer classes would be limited to scholarship players “making progress toward summer or fall graduation or eligibility purposes for fall competition.” 

Johnson also told them in text messages viewed by Yahoo Sports: “THERE WILL BE NO ROOM & BOARD STIPENDS.”

That news blindsided many of the Cowboys’ players during the financial crunch of the pandemic. Stipends pay about $1,200 per month. The lack of access to summer school classes for players meant some players wouldn’t be eligible for federal Pell Grants, which pay up to $3,000 for summer classes. 

In an environment where many coaches rallied for their players, Gundy didn’t announce the cuts to the players or address them directly. Instead, Gundy had an underling text them. While coaches around the country were lobbying for schools to send extra money (via gift cards), nutritional supplements and workout equipment to help players during the pandemic, Gundy spoke to the media about vacationing in Montana and working on his farm.

A poll by Yahoo Sports of Big 12 schools showed that Oklahoma State was the only school that both announced cuts on summer classes and a stipend withdrawal while not cutting coach or athletic department salaries. Many cringed at the perception OSU presented, as Gundy has made nearly $45 million in salary as a head coach and athletic director Mike Holder is slated to make $950,000 this year. (Gundy declined to answer a Yahoo Sports question regarding his resistance to take a salary cut.)

While most players ended up whole financially after returning weeks later, they didn't get there without uncertainty. “We took pay cuts for the very reason to prevent that from happening,” said a Power Five assistant coach. “We wanted to make sure we still had money in the budget so we didn’t have to cut anything from our players.”

In the end, things worked out financially for the players.

Nine of the 10 players eligible for Pell Grants, which were in flux because of an inability for some to enroll in classes, ended up receiving more money from the Cares Act than Pell Grants, an OSU official said. 

After researching what happened, an Oklahoma State official told Yahoo Sports last week that the return of the players to campus in early June meant the return of the stipend they had been initially told would be pulled. (They received the one in May, according to the internal texts.)

In an environment where coaches around the country constantly communicated with players, listened to their needs and pushed administrations to maximize access to money, the OSU players heard Gundy be more proactive about protecting his own salary.

“If anything, you don’t want it to go down, you want it to go up,” said an Oklahoma State player of the financial support from the school. “The resources are going down, but you see the [coaches and administrators] above you and nothing is changing. Of course there’s going to be tension.”

Oklahoma State officials added that the school has plans for cutting the salaries of coaches and administrators. The school decided to wait to determine the severity of those cuts until the season is scheduled to start and the fiscal picture of the athletic department budget became clearer. By late September, the school should have a sense of whether football will be played and can determine the extent of the cuts more precisely. 

Some of Oklahoma State waiting on cuts comes from the lack of force majeure clauses in contracts, an “act of God” clause which essentially allows the contract to be altered when circumstances like a pandemic emerge.

Any momentum for voluntary cuts at OSU was undercut by Gundy’s public resistance, as Oklahoma State didn’t want to endure the awkwardness of announcing cuts without Gundy participating.

Running back Chuba Hubbard has maintained that change is necessary under Mike Gundy's watch at Oklahoma State. (Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Running back Chuba Hubbard has maintained that change is necessary under Mike Gundy's watch at Oklahoma State. (Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

How Chuba Hubbard may have saved Mike Gundy’s job

When the tension boiled over last week, Hubbard and his teammates likely could have cast Gundy into coaching oblivion. If they’d aired all their grievances and threatened mass transfer, the school would have been faced with a difficult decision.

Gundy is owed more than $16 million if he’s fired without cause, as 75 percent of his contract is guaranteed through 2024. Somewhat remarkably, the school has an unusual clause in the contract that would pay Gundy more than $2 million to fire him for insubordination toward his athletic director. (Those in the contract business consider this clause a departure from typical termination language and say it speaks to the unique nature of Gundy’s relationship with OSU athletic director Mike Holder.)

Gundy has been tied to two ugly racial incidents in the past 10 days. First, his affiliation with OAN forced him to apologize for the network’s views on BLM that he now calls “disgusting.” (An OAN reporter used Oklahoma State as a political prop in the buildup to President Trump’s rally in Tulsa on Saturday by wearing an OSU T-shirt to troll Gundy.)

Later in the week, allegations re-surfaced from Gundy’s playing days at Oklahoma State. Two Colorado players claimed Gundy persistently used a racial slur in a game against Colorado in 1989. Alfred Williams, one of the players, reiterated them publicly last week.

Amid the ugliness, an opportunity arose for Hubbard and his teammates to clear house and dictate the program’s future. (They also could have gutted the program through transfer, as the NCAA would have been forced to give all the Cowboys immediate eligibility because of Gundy’s insensitivity.)

A dismissal would have essentially ended Gundy’s head coaching career in college football, as his baggage has long exceeded any other athletic director’s tolerance limit, even before these latest incidents.

That’s what makes Hubbard’s quote about his coach one of the most unique in the history of college football – “I’m going to do my best to educate him.” Has there ever been a player who has so publicly confronted a coach’s issues and essentially volunteered to save a coach from himself?

Hubbard has yet to fully articulate his reasons for publicly castigating Gundy, although he’s been vocal about promising change at Oklahoma State and keeping his “[foot] still on the gas” toward change.

Ogbongbemiga added that there's a focus among the players on handling things internally. "We’re trying to make this place a better place moving forward," Ogbongbemiga told Yahoo Sports. "We’re doing what we can do to make this place overall a better place.” 

Perhaps saving this season was part of Hubbard’s motivation, as too many players had put in too much work for their coach to be checked out. On paper, this is a team that should contend for the Big 12 title, as the Cowboys return 19 starters. Stars like Hubbard and wide receiver Tylan Wallace resisted NFL draft overtures to return to Stillwater.

It’s remarkable to consider this type of transformative leadership came from a 21-year-old redshirt junior rather than an athletic department or university administration filled with highly compensated adults. That the players needed to rely on media pressure to demand accountability and respect from Gundy speaks to how cognizant they were of the school leadership’s inability to do so.

Burns Hargis, who is napping in the twilight of his presidency, has long been afraid to publicly confront and mentor Gundy in the way Hubbard did. (Hargis did not return a call seeking comment.)

Holder is the former golf coach who got promoted to athletic director on the qualification that he was chummy with super booster T. Boone Pickens. Holder and Gundy have feuded for years, prompting Holder to mostly leave Gundy alone in a silo.

Other than two statements that amounted to nothing but a bland word gumbo – and never mentioning Gundy by name – the duo in charge of Gundy have practiced the silent complicity that enabled his behavior.

And it left Hubbard and his teammates at one of the most unique crossroads in modern college sports. If they wanted to save Mike Gundy and their season, they needed to lead the way themselves.

“Hearing how the players felt was a great learning experience for me,” Gundy said. “It was the kind of thing that will bring us closer. What Chuba did is awesome for me and gives us a chance to get better.”

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