Mike Gundy gets a lot of credit for redefining what Oklahoma State football looks like, and rightfully so.
So does Les Miles, who preceded Gundy and elevated the program by standing nose to-nose and refusing to yield to Oklahoma.
But OSU’s Prometheus — the man who captured Miles’ fire and inspired generations of Cowboy supporters to abandon decades of mediocrity and dream big — was Boone Pickens.
Pickens, OSU’s wealthiest and perhaps most passionate fan, died in Dallas on Wednesday at the age of 91, but not before reshaping the entire Stillwater campus with an unbridled and unfiltered passion.
Pickens, born and raised in Holdenville and educated at Oklahoma A&M, took his geology degree to Texas and rode America’s energy resources — oil and gas, wind, even water — to tycoon status.
He became known in the business world as a ruthless corporate raider, but later in life almost single-handedly remodeled Oklahoma State from a baseball/wrestling/golf school that tolerated bad football to a mountainous athletic department that in the fall puts on America’s biggest homecoming and has set the stage for one of college football’s most vibrant tailgate scenes.
Inspired by Miles’ 2001 and 2002 takedowns of the Sooners — two unlikely, even impossible victories at the very height of Bob Stoops’ turnaround in Norman — Pickens in 2002 sat in a quail blind with then-golf coach Mike Holder wondering how good the program could be with state-of-the-art facilities.
“I said, ‘We’ve got to get competitive,” Pickens said in 2006.
Pickens gave his alma mater $70 million in 2003, which kick-started the reconstruction of Lewis Field and transformed an ancient, rusted erector set into the early vestiges of Boone Pickens Stadium.
But Pickens’ passion for better football burned even hotter when he saw what Eddie Sutton did with a new basketball arena. OSU doubled the size of Gallagher-Iba Arena in 1999 and Sutton guided the Cowboys to the Final Four in 2004.
Pickens foresaw similar fortunes for the football team.
In January 2006, at the age of 77 — and four months after Holder was named athletic director — Pickens handed OSU $165 million in cash. That gift was the largest ever given to a public university and jump started a period of unprecedented donations at OSU.
Thanks to those early pledges and Pickens’ additional gifts that brought his philanthropic efforts to OSU athletics to more than $300 million, O-State now houses one of college football’s poshest facilities — not just a new stadium, but a palace for players, coaches and support staff.
At the 2006 press conference announcing his gift, Pickens described his vision.
“Our facilities,” he said, “are gonna be as good as anybody’s, and better than most, when we get through. … I want it to happen, and we’re gonna have it happen.”
Holder said in 2006 the school had spent a grand total of $11.7 million on facilities in two decades from 1967 to 1987, “and most of that was probably borrowed money.” Holder said from 1987 to 1999, OSU spent roughly zero dollars on facilities outside of Karsten Creek Golf Course, which opened in 1994.
“Basically,” Holder said, “we just stayed dead in the water from 1967 to 1999. … This gives us an opportunity to get in the ballgame with everybody else.”
Money, it turns out, can buy happiness. Before Pickens’ gifts, OSU football had just three 10-win seasons in its first 105 years. But in the nine years since 2009, when the stadium was completed, Gundy and the Cowboys have posted six 10-win seasons, including the program’s first outright conference championship (2011) in 63 years — three years before Pickens became an OSU graduate.
Meanwhile, upgrades and new construction for athletic facilities and stadiums has continued for nearly two decades. It doesn’t even resemble the same patch of Payne County.
That, and the OSU School of Geology that bears his name, will be Pickens’ legacy in Oklahoma.
Then-president David Schmidly said in 2006 that Pickens’ original gift in 2003 “started Oklahoma State on a path to the next level,” and that his $165 million “is the next level and beyond.”
Pickens described his base motivation in 2006: a homecoming loss to Kansas.
“I felt so bad that I thought, ‘I’m never coming back here for homecoming,’ ” he said. “I did. Why would I come back to a place that makes me feel so bad? So I dropped out for two or three years. But I came back because this is where I hang my hat.
“I want to get more people back. … And the way you do that is you win.”
Like Prometheus, the wily Pickens took someone else’s fire, made it his own and then shared it with everyone. Like Prometheus, Boone Pickens transformed his own world and left it a better place for posterity.
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “The Franchise Drive” every weeknight from 6-8 on The Franchise in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, and appears throughout the day on other shows on The Franchise. Listen at fm107.7 in OKC, fm107.9/am1270 in Tulsa, on The Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page. Hoover also covers the Big 12 for Sporting News and Lindy’s magazine and is a feature writer for Sooner Spectator magazine. Visit his personal page at johnehoover.com.