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Bill Haisten: After 29 seasons, is Mike Gundy contending with burnout?

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At 51, Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy has been a college football coach for 29 seasons. IAN MAULE/Tulsa World

For any college football coach, the National Signing Day news conference should be an energy platform from which all messages are positive.

We love our recruits. We love the direction of the program. We’re excited about our bowl game.

The Mike Gundy platform seemed to be the antithesis of energy. Oklahoma State’s coach seemed fatigued and deflated.

By the end of a season, and as the recruiting process crests with the December signing day, all coaches are worn down.

The trick is not to seem worn down.

During a lengthy session with media members and their cameras Wednesday, Gundy seemed really worn down.

Consider his longevity in a demanding business: Gundy is 51. He has been a college football coach for 29 seasons. He probably would deny it, but is it possible he is contending with the effects of burnout?

It can happen to anyone — even to a coach who is paid $5 million a year.

After OSU’s mostly miserable 2014 season, there was this Tulsa World headline in April 2015: “After 10 seasons, OSU’s Mike Gundy says he is ready for 10 more.”

“I’m just as energized now as when I started,” Gundy said at the time. “I hit a wall and I kind of fell off, but I’ve broken through now.”

With Mason Rudolph and James Washington, Gundy’s Cowboys bounced back with a 30-9 record in 2015-17.

The 2018 season, during which Gundy’s team was good against strong opponents and played badly in losses to Kansas State, Baylor and TCU, has to have been the most frustrating of his 14 as the OSU head man.

These Cowboys are better than 6-6, and yet they are 6-6 in advance of their Dec. 31 Liberty Bowl clash with Missouri.

Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops retired at 56. Ohio State’s Urban Meyer, citing health considerations, resigned at 54.

“Eventually, I’ll check it in,” Gundy said two weeks ago. “I still have kids in the (Stillwater) school system here. Plus, I’m pretty high-energy. I’d be bored to death. (But) these are different times, you know.

“There are parts of what (head coaches) do that aren’t fun. If it ever gets to the point where one outweighs the other … (and) if I ever start to feel that way, I’ll just walk over to (athletic director Mike Holder) and say, ‘I don’t want this anymore. Let me sign out of my contract. I’m done.’ I’ll probably tell him before I tell anybody.”

Wide receiver Jalen McCleskey left OSU in September. Running back J.D. King also decided to transfer. Junior running back Justice Hill, getting a jump on his preparation for the 2019 NFL draft, announced he won’t play in the Liberty Bowl against Missouri. Junior defensive end Jordan Brailford, also with a plan to play in the NFL, won’t be back after the bowl game.

Matched with former Big Eight/Big 12 rival Missouri, the Cowboys are eight-point underdogs in the Liberty Bowl. An OSU loss would end the program’s streak of 12 consecutive winning seasons.

“To be honest, I like it when I’m backed into a corner,” Gundy said. “I want to make sure these guys are prepared and go play a damn good bowl game against a good (Missouri) team. That’s all I’m worried about. To me, that justifies what we do.”

Meanwhile, there is recruiting.

In June, Holder stoked the flames of scrutiny with this gut-punch comment: “I would approach recruiting a little differently than (Gundy) does. I’d want to finish up higher in those recruiting rankings than we consistently do.”

Unveiled on Wednesday, Oklahoma State’s recruiting class is rated by 247 Sports as being No. 44 nationally. OU’s class is rated No. 7. Texas is No. 9.

247 Sports also ranks the TCU and Baylor classes ahead of OSU’s.

Holder’s summer criticism was dusted off and recycled.

It was impossible to discern whether Gundy was referring specifically to quarterbacks or to all recruits, but this Wednesday comment felt like a response to Holder: “We go after every six-star, eight-star, four-star and every star in the world … and they all go to other schools at this point. So we go get whatever else is out there.”

Oklahoma State is known for signing three-star athletes and attempting to develop them into four-star winners.

OU is known for signing four-star athletes — along with two five-star guys Wednesday — and for winning Big 12 titles and advancing to the College Football Playoff.

Bedlam is every day for Gundy. He has a 2-12 record in the actual Bedlam games and then has to watch the Sooners pull in a nationally celebrated recruiting class.

While Gundy has accomplished more than any previous Cowboys coach, he still has to endure the never-ending comparisons to OU and its advantages in funding and tradition.

Beyond this season, how will Gundy’s program be outfitted at the all-important quarterback position? With Brandon Weeden and Rudolph as starting QBs, Gundy was 53-12. If OSU becomes consistently, relatively average at quarterback, then 6-6 might become a consistent outcome.

This hasn’t been a fun year for Gundy. Bundling the transfers, a No. 44 recruiting class and a disappointing season with the grind of a 29-year run in college football, it’s not far-fetched to believe that Gundy occasionally considers retirement.

On Wednesday, it was impossible to hide the effects of stress.

Bill Haisten


Twitter: @billhaisten

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Sports Columnist

I joined the Tulsa World in 1990. Prior to becoming a sports columnist in 2016, I was the only sports writer in Tulsa World history to have covered OU, OSU, the University of Tulsa and Oral Roberts sports on an everyday basis. Phone: 918-581-8397

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