In the modest ballroom of the Ponca City Country Club, as dinner service concludes and the static clanging of forks to plates and glasses to glasses subsides, the floor opens to questions.
A man raises his hand to direct a comment toward Mike Boynton, the Brooklyn native who once believed places like Ponca City — and, for that matter, Stillwater — existed only in the Wizard of Oz. Now, Boynton finds himself in charge of the Oklahoma State basketball program.
And the man begins his soliloquy with a harsh tone.
“I want to go to Coach Mike and I want to share with you the day I heard you were hired. I didn’t have a napkin, I had something else. I threw it.”
(He throws his balled-up napkin onto the table in front of him.)
“I asked, ‘What are we doing?!’ Shook my head a little bit and said, OK, give him a chance. I watched some of your YouTube videos, your interviews. The more I watched, the more I liked.”
(His voice softens.)
“I think the day Jeffrey Carroll decided that he’d come back because he felt like he had somebody that could teach him one more year …”
“I appreciate that,” Boynton says, taking it in stride.
Twelve months ago, when Athletic Director Mike Holder introduced a teary-eyed Boynton as the 20th head coach in school history, most fans — even die-hards —reacted just like the man at the Ponca City Cowboy Caravan stop: Who?
It was not the first time that Boynton, then less than three months on the job, heard people question his abilities. At every stage of his life, as both a basketball player and a coach, moments of doubt put Boynton in the cockpit to decide what happens next.
Every time someone gives Boynton a chance, he succeeds.
His peers and mentors praise his work ethic, resolve and “quiet confidence” -- three attributes that have Boynton, at 36 years old, on the cusp of the improbable in his first season as Oklahoma State’s head coach.
Five months ago, most wondered if Boynton would even make it through the season with a job after the FBI’s investigation into bribery and corruption in college basketball ensnared his top assistant, Lamont Evans, and led to Evans’ arrest and firing. When the Big 12’s coaches picked Oklahoma State to finish last in the league, it came as no surprise.
Boynton didn’t even have a Wikipedia page when he landed the job. Now he was tasked with coaching a team without future pros in the most difficult league in college basketball? This was supposed to be ugly.
Yet Boynton, one of the youngest coaches in the nation, remained accessible to the media. He adhered to the “let’s work” mantra he bestowed upon his players, jetting from road trips to recruiting trips. In December, after a loss to Wichita State, he grasped a microphone and told the fans that if they did their part, the Cowboys would, too. Now, Oklahoma State (18-13, 8-10 Big 12) enters Wednesday’s Big 12 tournament game against Oklahoma as one of ESPN’s “last four out” of the NCAA Tournament, meaning it’s closer than anyone -- other than Boynton -- envisioned. The Cowboys own two wins over Kansas, another at West Virginia, others versus Texas Tech and OU.
And the Oklahoma State community, which sulked and smashed its fingers on keyboards to voice its displeasure a year ago, has turned 180 degrees.
“He’s quietly confident but certainly not openly bombastic,” said Dave Odom, Boynton’s coach from 2001-04 at South Carolina. “He’s not one that’s going to stand in front of a crowd and beat his chest and tell everybody how great he is. Rather, he’s one who will earn their trust. I go back to that word because I think it’s a big word. He will earn their trust day by day by day.”
II. Work ethic
Fifteen years ago, Mike Boynton reached a crossroads in his career.
He came off a junior season that was utterly ordinary. He started 11 games, played 17.5 minutes per game and averaged 2.8 points on a mediocre team that lost 16 games.
In the offseason between his junior and senior year, Odom told him South Carolina was bringing in a freshman point guard named Tre Kelley. Kelley would be the starter.
Boynton was not the quickest. He certainly wasn’t the most athletic — by everyone’s recollection, he was not a dunker. For three-quarters of his career, he was primarily a backup.
Wanting to finish his career — and perhaps plant the seeds for a professional one — with a strong senior season, Boynton took the news and went to work. He got with strength coach Darby Rich before and after practices.
He won the job. He started all but one game.
The reason for the one? He walked in graduation on Dec. 15, 2003, the same day South Carolina played at Temple. He made it to Philadelphia in time to come off the bench.
“Coming in and having to back up a guy, you’re like, man, who is this? I should be starting,” said Kelley, who still plays professionally in Turkey. “... But I had no problem with coming off the bench behind this guy.
“From the inside, I’m like, ‘Man, this guy is remarkable.’ It was easy to be led by a guy like that.”
That leader now patrols the OSU sideline, but occasionally, the dogged competitor emerges. At one point in Oklahoma State’s comeback from a 12-point deficit against Texas in January, Boynton squatted and slapped the floor, twice, as if he could transmit energy to his team via vibrations through Gallagher-Iba Arena’s white maple floorboards.
“I’m trying as hard as I can to get these guys to be me out there,” he said after the game. “I tell them all the time. I was a below-average player. I had no business playing in the SEC, except I had a big heart and I competed every day. And every night, I played against guys who were more talented, had more athletic ability.”
In Boynton’s senior year, South Carolina entered the SEC tournament at 21-9 overall, but just 8-8 in conference play — a situation not too different from the one his OSU team faces this week.
In the tournament, Boynton took over.
He scored a career-high 32 points in an opening-round win over Arkansas and helped them to a 21-point win over LSU in the next round, locking up his first NCAA Tournament appearance.
“He really told us during a meeting: ‘Guys, just get on my back for this one,’” Kelley said. “And we did. I’ve never seen anything like it. He put us on his back. He was even hitting shots and kind of pointing to his back like it was a backpack. Telling everyone to get on.”
South Carolina made the tournament as a 10-seed, losing to a John Calipari-coached Memphis team in the opening round. But it may have settled for the NIT without Boynton’s leadership.
“Coach Odom was an impeccable coach,” Kelley said, “but for me that season, Michael Boynton did it.”
Boynton’s tirelessness drives his life in Stillwater. On Saturday, Boynton walked out of his postgame news conference following the win over Kansas and went straight to the coaches’ locker room to change. He had about 15 minutes to get to the OSU softball stadium to throw out a ceremonial first pitch.
When the coach wears shorts to practice, the players groan. It means he is going to get physically involved in practice.
For Boynton, it can mean showing his players he will make the same sacrifices he asks them to in games. Last week, he entered a drill on defense and planned to try and take a charge.
Point guard Kendall Smith tried to dunk on him.
After his playing career ended, Boynton entered coaching immediately. He spent one season at Furman as a graduate manager under Larry Davis, now an assistant at Cincinnati. But at 23 years old, he hungered to recruit and work as a full-time assistant.
The drive from Greenville, South Carolina, where Boynton lived, to Knoxville, Tennessee, was about three hours one way. That’s where Buzz Peterson lived.
Peterson, who had just been fired as Tennessee’s coach, would soon become coach at Coastal Carolina. Boynton heard the rumors, cold-called him and declared his interest in working for him — no matter the money.
“He said at some point later this week, I’d love to revisit this conversation and maybe see if you can meet me somewhere for an interview,” Boynton said. “Literally, the next day, I got in the car and I drove from Greenville to Knoxville to hand him my resume. Which didn’t have anything on it.”
Boynton showed up at Peterson’s door unannounced. He planned to hand him his resume — which only included his graduate assistant job and his experience as a player at South Carolina — and leave.
“So you drove all the way from Greenville, South Carolina, up here?” Peterson asked him.
“Yeah, I just wanted to make sure you got this,” Boynton replied.
“Since you did that, you might as well come in the house,” Peterson said.
Peterson’s basement was full of partially packed boxes as the family prepared to move. It’s where the two coaches got to know each other.
A week later, Peterson offered him the job at Coastal Carolina.
“That was the first time and the only time somebody has really done that,” said Peterson, now the Charlotte Hornets’ assistant general manager. “I’ve had some guys walk up to a press conference, something like that, but nobody knock on my front door, find out where I lived and everything when you hadn’t talked to them or anything. It doesn’t bother me one bit. I was kind of intrigued how eager he was to get into coaching. That’s what sold me on him right there, that he would take time to do that.”
Boynton spent two years at Coastal Carolina. The first recruit he brought to the school came from Brooklyn.
Three years after the basement conversation, with a one-year stop at Wofford in between, Boynton was taking a job at his alma mater, South Carolina, on Darrin Horn’s staff.
“I could tell early on he was going to be a one-and-done with me,” said Mike Young, Wofford’s coach. “The good ones so many times find their way to bigger programs, better leagues and there was an opportunity for him to go back to his alma mater. But he had it. I’m not sure how to define it. But he had it. And he still has it today.”
The media surrounded Boynton in the northwest corner of the floor inside Gallagher-Iba Arena on the afternoon of Oct. 5, nine days after the revelations from an FBI investigation replaced any conversations about actual basketball around the country.
It was Boynton’s first preseason meeting with the press, but there was hardly any talk of ball. Two university officials flanked Boynton, leaning so they could hear every word. They were there to stop him from answering any questions he shouldn’t.
He handled the session, which lasted 12 minutes or so, with poise and patience. Late in the scrum, someone asked if the developments — the arrest and firing of Evans, the coach he proclaimed his co-coach at his introductory news conference — doubled the pressure he already felt as Brad Underwood’s replacement.
“This isn’t pressure,” Boynton asserted. “What I do every day – this is pure joy for me. I get to coach college basketball and make a living doing so and taking care of my family. Pressure was having a pregnant wife and no job. That was pressure back in 2012.”
At the time, the line felt like a throwaway. Let’s be real: We’re talking about the FBI.
But the more one gets to know Boynton, the more one understands this is how he approaches the game. So long as his job remains secure, which means his family is, too, he puts on an indefatigable face. After wins, after losses or when he’s forced to fire a close assistant while his bosses hire an outside firm to conduct an internal review of the program.
“A lesser person, a lesser coach can panic,” said Young, the Wofford coach. “And kids see that, kids sense that. But I know him. I know every meeting, every practice, every walkthrough, every film session, there was the right stuff going on. He was teaching and there was a positive energy which he exudes from the moment he walks on your campus.”
Boynton’s life in 2012 was different. The stakes were higher.
When South Carolina fired Horn and his staff, including Boynton, after four seasons, family concerns came first and foremost.
“You never want to get fired and have a child on the way and not feel like you’re contributing your fair share to your family,” Boynton said.
Jenny Boynton worked as a dietician in the South Carolina athletic department. It’s where the couple met over a frowned-upon plate of bacon. (“Hey, Coach, I don’t know if that’s going to help you in practice,” Jenny remembers telling him, now the first line of a love story.)
Her job was good, so they had a tough decision to make. When South Carolina hired Frank Martin, he met Boynton but didn’t have an assistant position available.
Boynton took an administrative role as director of student-athlete development. For significantly less money than he made as an assistant, he helped current student-athletes on their resumes and transitions into the working world.
He lost his access to a car paid for by the school, leaving the family with one. He and Jenny shared it and drove to work together every morning.
It was far from easy. For the first time in basically his entire life, Boynton was not on the court.
He came home from work and told Jenny: “Please don’t ask if anybody called me today. I’ll let you know. I can’t keep hearing that and not having anything to say to you.”
“We both know that there’s going to be something that comes along,” Jenny said. “It’s just the timing of everything just absolutely, I think, weighed more on him as the responsibility of, I’m going to be in a new job and married and kind of wanted to prove to me that he could be a good provider and different things like that. I think it probably weighed on him more so than what he ever let on to me. But I think that was a time, too, where we really solidified on each other that whatever comes our way we’re going to make it through together. It may or may not be ideal, or what we envisioned it to be, but we’re going to make it work.”
For as difficult as the year was, the Boyntons look back on it now and see silver linings.
Their first child, Ace, was born on Jan. 15, 2013.
Had Boynton been on South Carolina’s staff, he would have been traveling for a game the next day.
Had Boynton found another job that offseason, rather than remain at South Carolina administratively, he wouldn’t have met Underwood. Underwood would not have taken a chance on Boynton by offering him a job on his Stephen F. Austin staff a year later.
Had Boynton not been fired by his alma mater, he probably — no, definitely —wouldn’t be coaching Oklahoma State today.
IV. Quiet confidence
Jenny Boynton always believed it would be a matter of time until her husband became a head coach.
Over the years, when they watched games at home, she liked to play “what-if” games, quizzing Boynton on various situations and scenarios in real time.
“What would you say to this team?”
“What would you say at halftime?”
“What’s the play call when there’s 2.5 seconds left, you need a 3-pointer, your guy fouled out?”
“What if you had four pros on your team — would you still have fun? Would you call play calls or just see what it would be like?”
Both thought his chance would come a year ago, at Stephen F. Austin. But the school hired Kyle Keller, who is (ironically) an OSU alumnus.
After they digested the news when Underwood left for Illinois last March — and began thinking about a potential move for the second year in a row — they also began to believe Boynton could do the job in Stillwater.
When Boynton came home and told her Holder wanted to interview him and the other OSU assistants for the vacancy, she jumped on board.
“The guys respect you, respond to you,” she told him. “We can totally make this happen. Why not? You better get your stuff together and your mind right and go into these interviews with a good sense of direction with the program, all the philosophies that we’ve been talking about for the past years and all my kind of what-if question games. Let’s give this a good shot.”
As has been the story of his life, all Boynton needed was a chance to make an impression. Holder and the OSU Board of Regents quickly named Boynton their man — he interviewed on a Thursday and was announced on a Friday.
The announcement was met with the reaction Boynton referenced at his news conference Saturday, after the monumental win over Kansas: “Who?”
But Boynton exuded a quiet confidence, both in front of fans and media and with his players internally.
“In a weird, weird way because everything has been new, he’s sort of just rolled with the punches and whatever was thrown his way,” said John Cooper, the OSU assistant who was on South Carolina’s staff when Boynton was a freshman in 2000-01. “Let’s face it: When he was hired, there were people that quite frankly didn’t think it was a good hire, for whatever reason. There were people who wanted Coach Holder to go out and get a big name or whatever. So this is a guy that, not only does he become a first-year head coach, he’s dealing with a lot of different things going on surrounding the program. But he’s probably not the people’s choice.
“He’s just sort of sitting on a stool in the corner, the bell rings, he comes out and he punches. And he fights. And that’s what he knows is, if you bloody my nose, I’m going to keep fighting until you knock me out. It’s just really the core of who he is.”
Under Boynton, two veterans, in particular — Mitchell Solomon and Tavarius Shine — have had career years.
Solomon completed his development from foul-prone liability into the team MVP, directing traffic on defense while showing more aggression on offense.
But it is when he has struggled that the Boynton effect becomes clear.
In an overtime win over Iowa State in January, Solomon made a couple of critical mistakes down the stretch in the second half.
He might have been bracing for admonishment in the ensuing timeout.
Instead, Boynton brought him to the side of the huddle and told him, “Look, you’re good. You’re a good player.”
“I think he’s the coach that I’ve had the most that operates out of respect,” Solomon said. “Every coach has their way of motivating players and some are better than others for different players, so there’s never one right answer. But for me, as a guy that is always going to work hard, always going to do the little things, someone that operates out of respect and constructive criticism instead of just yelling and telling me what I’m doing wrong all the time is really helpful.”
For Shine, who returned from a back injury that cost him nearly all of last season to average 10 points per game, it’s Boynton’s openness that has made this a successful season.
When Shine returned to OSU for summer workouts with the rest of the team, his status for 2017-18 was an unknown.
On his first day back on campus, Boynton “laid it all down on the table,” he said. He gave Shine the rundown of the depth chart and set his expectations.
It wasn’t a one-off meeting.
“He has an open-door policy,” Shine said. “You can come in, talk to him whenever you want to, no matter what’s on your mind. He likes to talk to you other than just about basketball. He knows this isn’t life and death. Basketball isn’t your life and he understands that.”
A loss to Oklahoma on Wednesday could keep Oklahoma State from reaching the NCAA Tournament. But either way, Boynton has succeeded in Year 1 in reversing the tone of a fan base that appeared ready to bail on basketball last March.
From Ponca City to Pryor, fans have spent the past 12 months warming to the idea of Boynton and the stability he could provide a program that has not won an NCAA Tournament game in nine years.
And the Boyntons, who already have purchased two homes in Stillwater — they moved into another home that could better accommodate team gatherings after Boynton became head coach — seem to have found a family fit, too.
“If you were to ask, OK, what’s the fit for Stillwater, I don’t know if anyone would say a kid from Brooklyn, New York, Bishop Loughlin High School, would be what they would pick out of the air,” Cooper said.
“But in many ways he’s been the right fit. And he’s just sort of had to go about his business and prove it, because no one foreshadowed or saw. I think everyone thought we would lose probably 15-16 games in conference play. And we’ve gone through some tough times, but we just kept plugging at it and plugging at it. I don’t think he’s changed one time.”