STILLWATER — Inertia isn’t a concept normally talked about in college football.
In physics class?
It’s central to the study of that science, the whole idea that an object will continue its current path unless something forces it to change course. Sir Isaac Newton thought inertia so important that he made it his first law of motion.
Frankly, it should rank highly for college football coaches, too, because if you want to make a turnaround from a bad season, you have to fight inertia. You have to be able to break the current trajectory.
No program has been able to do that any better in recent history than Oklahoma State.
In 18 seasons under Mike Gundy, OSU has not allowed one bad season to become two or three or four of them. The Cowboys have stopped that trajectory before it gets embedded. They have fought the inertia of mediocrity, and they have won.
As the Cowboys prepare to open this season, beating inertia again will be paramount.
Last season wasn’t what OSU hoped. After a 6-1 start that included a win over Texas, OSU stumbled to a 7-6 finish. Now, the Cowboys managed to extend their bowl streak to 17 seasons, but for the last half of the season they played like one of the worst teams in the Big 12.
So, how do the Cowboys avoid letting last season bleed into this season?
How do they stop that snowball before it starts down the mountain?
I asked Gundy how his OSU teams have avoided it in the past, and while he acknowledged the talent on the roster and the schemes on the field are important, he believes consistency is the secret sauce.
“We don’t change a lot,” he said. “We don’t get out of our box. We don’t panic. We don’t change. We just kind of believe in what we do, and the players feel comfortable and buy into that.”
Don’t misunderstand: the program isn’t the same as it was when Gundy took over as head coach in 2005. The Cowboys are running different schemes; just this season, they’re changing to a 3-3-5 defense and talking about having the quarterback go under center occasionally (gasp!) on offense.
And Gundy has always tried to be on the cutting edge of innovation. From massive boards used to signal plays from the sidelines to devices that monitor players’ sleep patterns in an attempt to optimize performance, OSU football hasn’t been averse to change.
But when it comes to how Gundy runs the program, oversees coaches and manages players, that is where the consistency comes in.
Kasey Dunn has seen it play out in various ways. The OSU offensive coordinator is Gundy’s longest-serving assistant and he’s been part of a few so-so seasons.
Dunn says Gundy leans into consistency after those disappointing years. He will often come up with a matra or a catchphrase in January that he uses regularly during the spring, summer and even into fall camp.
“He’s very consistent in the message that he has in a situation like that,” Dunn said.
“All the (negativity) that comes down, he doesn’t send that back on us as coaches or players. I don’t know if he internalizes it … but what comes out of his mouth in the staff room or in the locker room or when we’re out here on the field is all positive.”
That kind of consistency resonates with players and coaches.
“I’ve been here 13 years for a reason,” Dunn said. “If you don’t like it, you leave, and there have been opportunities to go. But love this place, love Coach Gundy, what we do with this program, how he treats the kids, how he treats his coaches.”
Still, after a disappointing season, it would be easy to want to make big changes. Figure out a fix. Do something different.
There are factions of every fan base that would go that route.
But Gundy has chosen to stay the course.
“It’s life, right?” he said. “It’s what we do. I mean, life is just a marathon and … we just keep going. It’s with your marriage. It’s with raising kids. If one thing happens and everybody walks away and quits, it’s not gonna last long.
“It’s the same thing with football.”
It doesn’t mean OSU never has a disappointing season.
In 2005, the Cowboys were 4-7 in Gundy’s first year.
In 2014, they went 7-6 after J.W. Walsh got hurt.
In 2018, OSU was 7-6 in its first season after Mason Rudolph left.
But after each of those years, OSU rallied. The records got better, sometimes substantially, and the Cowboys showed that the disappointing years were the outliers.
That doesn’t always happen. There are examples all around college football of teams that let one bad season become a bad habit — Nebraska, Colorado, Virginia Tech — but here’s a good one: Stanford.
OSU and Stanford played in the Fiesta Bowl at the end of the 2011 season. That was the third of 10 consecutive winning seasons for the Cardinal, and six of those seasons ended with double-digit wins.
Stanford had become a legitimate force in college football.
But in 2019, the Cardinal went 4-8. Then after a COVID-shortened 2020 season, it went 3-9 in both 2021 and 2022.
Now, Stanford is a school without a conference. The Pac-12 has fallen apart in this latest round of conference realignment, and Stanford is one of four schools that has yet to find a soft landing spot.
Keep an eye on the ACC, but if Stanford football was riding as high as it was in the mid 2010s, there’s no way the Cardinal would be seeking refuge. But one bad season became three or four, and now, Stanford finds itself in a tough spot.
OSU, by comparison, will be one of the leaders in the expanded Big 12, and that is largely due to the Cowboys’ football success.
For his part, Gundy doesn’t seem all that impressed by what his program has done. Yes, he’s a believer in what they do, but to hear him tell it, the consistency that is bedrock and the message that is preached aren’t quantum physics.
“We try to sell and instill in our players that your role is to do the very best you can based on the talent that you’ve been given,” Gundy said. “Don’t try to do any more because you can’t do more, but make sure you don’t do less.”
The formula has been a winner for the Cowboys, a force against the inertia of mediocrity in college football.