How Mike Gundy’s staff stability guided OSU through rough September

How Mike Gundy’s staff stability guided OSU through rough September

Berry Tramel: Five Gundy assistant coaches have been on the job at least nine years. That kind of staff staying power and longevity pays off in myriad ways.

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

| Oct 27, 2023, 10:22pm CDT

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

Oct 27, 2023, 10:22pm CDT

STILLWATER — Tim Duffie had a lot on his mind when he regrouped with his cornerbacks in the day or two after OSU’s debilitating, 33-7 loss to South Alabama on September 16.

Schemes. Structure. Personnel. Physicality. A thousand other things that tilt a football game one way or the other. That tilt a season one way or another.

But atop Duffie’s list was body language. Duffie had a mission for himself with his mostly-young corners. Stay calm. Stay cool. Don’t let ’em see you sweat. Project an image of assurance. Let D.J. McKinney and Cam Smith and Kale Smith and Dylan Smith know that everything was going to be all right.

“The sooner you can convey that to the kids, the easier it is to keep the process and the poise of the kid, and the stability of the kid, the same,” Duffie said. “Because what they see, that’s what they do. It’s not what you say.”

Mike Gundy’s coaching staff works in relative obscurity. Coordinators Kasey Dunn and Bryan Nardo talk to the media after games, but otherwise, Gundy’s staff does not do regular interviews. Lots of college football coaches use that policy.

But never doubt, those coaches are at the center of OSU’s football success. Or failures. They recruit the players. They counsel the players. They coach the players. They build relationships that largely determine the attitudes and mindsets and futures of the guys in shoulder pads.

“When you face a little bit of adversity, the first people kids are going to look to is the coaches,” said OSU linebackers coach Joe Bob Clements. “If they see you changing a bunch of things, that’s going to make them feel uneasy. When you start making drastic changes, that can create some panic.”

Panic. That’s the word. When things turn rotten, fans panic, media panics, some administrators panic, and if you don’t believe the latter, look at the rash of September and October head-coach firings in recent years.

But panic is no plan. Consistency is a plan.

And few programs are as consistent as OSU football. Gundy is in his 19th season as the head coach. Strength and conditioning coordinator Rob Glass has been with Gundy the entire time. 

Five Gundy assistant coaches have been on the job at least nine years: Dunn has been in Stillwater for 13 seasons, Clements and Duffie 11 years each, safeties coach Dan Hammerschmidt and tight ends/fullbacks coach Jason McEndoo nine years each.

That kind of staff staying power and longevity pays off in myriad ways. None moreso than when off have come the wheels.

Forty-two days ago, OSU football looked lost. South Alabama beat the Cowboys 33-7 — not Alabama, South Alabama! — and a hard-built, proud program was floundering.

OSU had lost six of its last nine games dating back to last season, a bunch of talent had taken the last train for Clarksville and the Cowboys were not just losing, but losing big. Deficits of 48 points to Kansas State, 21 to Kansas, 15 to OU and finally 26 to South Alabama.

The bow of the vessel had been badly crushed. OSU football seemed to be going the way of the Bismarck.

“It was awful,” Gundy admitted.

But Gundy righted the ship. He got the blame for the awful start — which included a dis-spiriting 23-16 victory over Central Arkansas and a 27-15 win at Arizona State —  so he gets the credit for the revival.

Yet Gundy was not alone. His lieutenants have sailed these waters before. They know what to expect. They know what to do. They know not to panic. 

Said Gundy, “They know it’s going to be OK.”

Fix-it Shop

The Cowboy improvement — three straight victories, all over upper-division Big 12 teams, have OSU back in the conference championship game chase — was not all attitude. 

The Cowboys made some personnel changes. Alan Bowman became the full-time quarterback. More importantly, Ollie Gordon became the full-time tailback. 

Coaches simplified the offense, with fewer run-pass options and more Gordon hitting the hole north/south. Coaches emphasized tackling on defense.

But the changes were not presented as wholesale.

“Just wrinkles here and there,” Clements said. “Eventually everything kind of rights itself. A lot of it is being open and honest with the kids. ‘This is what we’re doing well currently, not doing well currently.’

“It’s easy to panic and make knee-jerk reactions. But the problems, they are fixable, just gotta work to fix ‘em.”

Tackling, for example. Gundy long ago adopted the philosophy of less hitting in practice. Losing quality players to injury in the spring and August eventually made no sense to him. But there is a limit to how soft you can go.

So the Cowboys have been more physical in practice.

But the wider theme has been stay the course. All those veteran coaches who were part of making OSU the Big 12’s second-most successful program of the last 14 years — yes, more successful than Texas — had a message. We’ve been around a long time, we’ve been winning a long time. Just don’t panic.

The whole process felt similar to 2018, when Gundy made one of his few staff firings — letting go of defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer and hiring away Jim Knowles from Duke. The adjustment took time as Knowles implemented a new defense. By 2021, the Cowboys had one of the nation’s best defenses, but there were growing pains.

Gundy hired away Nardo from Gannon University last winter to implement the Iowa State 3-3-5 defense. More growing pains.

“It felt similar to Knowles,” Hammerschmidt said. “Wasn’t sure it was going to turn, but there’s only one way we know to do it. See if we can’t get a few players playing better.

“Change the offense or defense? Fire a couple of players? Blaming the culture? We don’t do that. We just keep grinding, and it works.”

Staff camaraderie

Hammerschmidt has journeyed this road before. He’s a 38-year coaching veteran, and his longest stretch was 12 years (1996-2007) at his alma mater, Colorado State, coaching for the iconic Sonny Lubick. He knows the value of a tenured, together staff.

“When things go wrong, you just keep coaching,” Hammerschmidt said. “You know how to act. Gotta coach your way through issues.

“Lot of times, like the coordinator’s situation that happened with Knowles — if you remember, he was trying to adjust to the Big 12, trying to get his defense geared up — we all jumped in, including Coach Gundy, figured it out.”

Hammerschmidt reflected on that 2018 season. A bunch of young players. Malcolm Rodriguez, Devin Harper, Jarrick Bernard-Converse, Kolby Harvell-Peel. They would form the core of the 2021 defense, but 2018 was a rocky season in which the Cowboys finished 7-6.

All young dudes, and we were scrambling,” Hammerschmidt said. “As it went, you saw some traction.”

Hammerschmidt credits Gundy. Says Gundy has a simple philosophy. Watch the tape, get the player to improve. Just get better every day.

Sure, it’s a cliche. But it’s also the hallmark of developmental programs. And yes, developmental programs are under siege these days with the transfer portal, but development doesn’t have to be a year-to-year phenomenon. Development can occur within a season.

So when South Alabama seemed to be an iceberg, cooler heads prevailed.

“Poise,” Duffie calls it. “No matter whether it’s a win or a loss, just being consistent with who you are. The kids have to understand and you as a coach have to understand, it’s the same process that you need to use, regardless of the result.

“Because you can play great, and you can go through the same process weekly, and still receive outcomes that you don’t want to swallow. But at the same time, without doing that process, you have no chance to get that result.”

The coaches lean on each other. They know the Cowboys were awful in September. They know how that South Alabama game looked to the fan base. They know how that South Alabama game felt to each other.

But when you’ve got colleagues who have been together so long — more than half the staff goes back to the 2014 season, Mason Rudolph’s freshman year — there is comfort in commiseration.

“The staff gets along,” Hammerschmnidt said. “We go out and have a beer every now and then. Some places, everybody’s looking for a better gig. ‘The grass is always greener.’ The grass is not greener, I can tell you that.”

Working for Gundy

Duffie, 46, came to Stillwater in 2015. He hopes to stay in Stillwater the rest of his career.

“No interest,” Duffie said of leaving. “I’m not looking for anything, because I think it’s really hard to find what I have. I get to coach at a very competitive level in a Power Five conference, for a guy who lets me be a dad.”

Before OSU, Duffie was coaching at Wake Forest for Jim Grobe, a beloved figure in football. Gundy interviewed Duffie for an OSU job, but Duffie was reluctant to take it. Told Gundy he just had too much freedom to remain a family man and not sacrifice time with his kids, while still getting the job done.

Gundy told Duffie that if that was the only reason to stay in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, he should pack his bags right then. He would get the same culture in Stillwater.

And Gundy has lived up to that promise.

“I’m an easy guy to work for,” Gundy said.

His coaches say that’s true. From not requiring midnight oil to time for their kids’ ballgames to a great deal of freedom to the short commute no matter where they live, Gundy assistants find their OSU experience quite enjoyable.

Clements came from Kansas State, where he played and worked for the great but demanding Bill Snyder. Clements thrice has been passed over for promotion to defensive coordinator, including last winter, when Gundy instead hired a 37-year-old Division II coach. But Clements still hails the Stillwater experience.

“Eleven years in this profession (at one place) is kind of unheard of,” Clements said. “My family loves it in Stillwater, I love it in Stillwater. Great place to work, great support, strong fan base. Lot of benefits of being here.

“People are passionate about football, which makes what you’re doing important. It’s been a great fit, personally, professionally.”

Gundy admitted that such a stable coaching staff can have its drawbacks. Coaches can get complacent. Ideas can stagnate. That’s why he every once in awhile has shaken up things, especially defensively.

But the pluses of a long-standing staff far outweigh the minuses.

“Everybody knows what I expect, so I don’t have to stay on people,” Gundy said. “We don’t work over too long, and I let guys do their jobs. They all know what I want. I don’t have to waste a lot of time in staff meetings and such, because they know what I’m trying to get accomplished each week.

“We’re in a pressure-packed profession, where people can be critical. If the staff has concerns with that, they let that affect their preparation and their coaching and their thought process, then it can become an issue. With me, they don’t worry about any of that.”

The coaches know there’s stability, they know there’s commitment and they know Gundy is going to maintain a front of calm, even in the face of disaster, much to the dismay of some Cowboy fans, who remember a young Gundy with so much passion but who now displays a countenance of detachment.

Even indifference.

Gundy’s nonchalance has its drawbacks, but it produces a steady ship, and his coaches very much appreciate it.

“The consistency of what he wants and what he does and how he reacts has been pretty consistent with us, over the time, which kind of allows you not to panic as a coach,” Duffie said.

And so on Sept. 16, when the Cowboys came up 26 points shy of a Sun Belt Conference team, Gundy’s coaches relied on their experience.

“We never changed,” Duffie said. “You can’t fake loving the game of football, loving the process of practicing.

“We lost a lot of guys (last off-season). Lot of different dudes (were) leaving our football program for their own personal reasons, but we’ve got a group of guys that want to be on our football team, want to be in Stillwater. They rallied.”

Hammerschmidt said the veterans told Nardo, there will be times when things are rotten. But it always works out. Stay the course. Get better every day. Don’t panic.

They know there’s stability, and they kind of know what I’m looking for, and they know when things aren’t going good, like after the South Alabama game, I’ll handle that part,” Gundy said. “They can handle the coaching. I’ll handle the team, I’ll handle the attitudes, I’ll handle all that. You guys just do your job. That’s an advantage.”

So the Cowboys have righted the ship. They don’t have a championship-caliber team like 2011 or 2013 or 2021. But they’ve got a fighting-spirit squad that can and has made waves in this Big 12 race.

Courtesy of coaches who didn’t panic and like working for Mike Gundy.

“I just hope he keeps going for another 20 years,” Duffie said. “I gotta keep working. I’m not ready for him to shut it down.”

Share with your crowd
Berry Tramel is a 45-year veteran of Oklahoma journalism, having spent 13 years at the Norman Transcript and 32 years at The Oklahoman. He has been named Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sports Media Association. Born and raised in Norman, Tramel grew up reading four newspapers a day and began his career at age 17. His first assignment was the Lexington-Elmore City high school football game, and he’s enjoyed the journey ever since, having covered NBA Finals and Rose Bowls and everything in between. Tramel and his wife, Tricia, were married in 1980 and live in Norman near their daughter, son-in-law and three granddaughters. Tramel can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at [email protected].

The latest from Sellout Crowd

  • Nov 19, 2022; Norman, Oklahoma, USA; Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy and Oklahoma head coach Brent Venables speak before a game at Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Sarah Phipps-USA TODAY Sports

    How Brent Venables and Mike Gundy play the portal game | Mind Games with Guerin Emig

  • Jan 4, 2023; Orlando, Florida, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder center Mike Muscala (33) shoots a three point basket against Orlando Magic center Wendell Carter Jr. (34) during the second quarter at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports

    Why the Thunder is bringing back sharp-shooting center Mike Muscala

  • What the woman behind the big donation to Love’s Field believes makes it special

  • Oklahoma State guard Javon Small (12) shoots a 3-pointer over Oklahoma forward Sam Godwin (10) in the second half during an NCAA basketball game between Oklahoma and Oklahoma State in Stillwater, Okla., on Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024.

    How Bedlam football’s demise can be Bedlam basketball’s gain

  • Oklahoma State Cowboys tight end Josiah Johnson (16) is brought down by Oklahoma Sooners linebacker Kip Lewis (10) during a Bedlam college football game between the Oklahoma State University Cowboys (OSU) and the University of Oklahoma Sooners (OU) at Boone Pickens Stadium in Stillwater, Okla., Saturday, Nov. 4, 2023. Oklahoma State won 27-24.

    What 2024 college football betting odds say about OU and OSU prospects

The latest from Sellout Crowd

  • Nov 19, 2022; Norman, Oklahoma, USA; Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy and Oklahoma head coach Brent Venables speak before a game at Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Sarah Phipps-USA TODAY Sports

    How Brent Venables and Mike Gundy play the portal game | Mind Games with Guerin Emig

  • Jan 4, 2023; Orlando, Florida, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder center Mike Muscala (33) shoots a three point basket against Orlando Magic center Wendell Carter Jr. (34) during the second quarter at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports

    Why the Thunder is bringing back sharp-shooting center Mike Muscala

  • What the woman behind the big donation to Love’s Field believes makes it special

  • Oklahoma State guard Javon Small (12) shoots a 3-pointer over Oklahoma forward Sam Godwin (10) in the second half during an NCAA basketball game between Oklahoma and Oklahoma State in Stillwater, Okla., on Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024.

    How Bedlam football’s demise can be Bedlam basketball’s gain

  • Oklahoma State Cowboys tight end Josiah Johnson (16) is brought down by Oklahoma Sooners linebacker Kip Lewis (10) during a Bedlam college football game between the Oklahoma State University Cowboys (OSU) and the University of Oklahoma Sooners (OU) at Boone Pickens Stadium in Stillwater, Okla., Saturday, Nov. 4, 2023. Oklahoma State won 27-24.

    What 2024 college football betting odds say about OU and OSU prospects