Mike Gundy has embraced ‘serenity now’

Mike Gundy has embraced ‘serenity now’

Something has transformed the once-volatile Gundy into the poster child for tranquility. Oklahoma State's winningest head coach employs a stoic sideline demeanor that's quite different from his cocky personality of yesteryear.

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

| Dec 1, 2023, 6:00am CST

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

Dec 1, 2023, 6:00am CST

ARLINGTON, Texas — The Big 12 football Coach of the Year is not on medication.

Mike Gundy swears.

He stands on the OSU sideline, play after play, game after game, with all the emotion of Bud Grant, and watches some crazy football.

Wild comebacks. Alarming defeats. Epic victories.

All of which have landed the Cowboys in the Big 12 Championship Game against Texas, 11 a.m. Saturday at AT&T Stadium.

And Gundy will stand there like the Marlboro Man on the JerryWorld sideline. Like he’s watching a Friday threesome at the Greater Greensboro Open.

Something has transformed the once-volatile Gundy into the poster child for tranquility. Has Gundy been reciting the serenity prayer? Gundy seems to accept the things he cannot change, seems to have found the courage to change the things he can and, well, he’s a coach, the wisdom to know the difference comes and goes with the bounce of a fumble or the trajectory of a kick.

“I’m not on medication,” Gundy said with a serious answer to a silly question.

So what is it? Long gone is the cocky quarterback at Midwest City High School when the world was young, the fireball OSU QB who exchanged spit wars with Brian Bosworth, the Cowboy offensive coordinator full of piss and vinegar, the head coach who as recently as 2018 exchanged on-field barbs with Longhorn coach Tom Herman and raised his arms to get the OSU throng even more vocally involved.

Must we round up the other usual suspects?

Is it old age? That cocky Bomber quarterback now is 56.

Is it lack of energy? Haven’t seen Gundy with a Red Bull in awhile.

Experience, knowing that yelling doesn’t work anymore and maybe never did?

“Part of it is just maturing and understanding that you got a better chance of people working with you, trying to work with ‘em,” Gundy said. “Kind of a bipartisan thought. You can go in there and argue about everything and not get anywhere. Or you can sit down and say, let’s talk about it.”

Gundy says that’s with referees, with players, with assistant coaches. Heck, media, too. It’s hard to imagine Gundy replicating his famous rant of 16 years ago.

Gundy’s press conferences remain the best in college football. He’s likely to say anything. His filter has fled with his fire. But Gundy’s delivery is passive. Stoic. Matter of fact. He doesn’t even yell at his dogs, when they go cuckoo during a press conference and he barely pauses as he answers a question.

“Talking about being low key, he does a great job of keeping composure on the sidelines,” said Cowboy guard Preston Wilson.

Gundy rarely even raises his voice to a game official. That kind of docile behavior can get you kicked out of the coaches union, but Gundy swears by it.

“Even with the officials, if they make a mistake, they usually know they make a mistake,” Gundy said. “If you yell at ‘em, and embarrass ‘em, then it just makes them mad at you.”

Gundy instead has reverted to charm, of which he has an ample supply when he wants to use it.

”Are you sure he made that catch?” Gundy said he will ask a striped shirt. “They might say, ‘Well, I’m not really sure.’”

And Gundy will respond, “Well, I’m good. I’m not either. I kind of felt the same way.”

So Gundy chalks up his transformation to “really just maturity and experience, figure out a way to get along with everybody.”

Gundy is complicated. His charisma and connection with people goes back to those Midwest City days. Those of us around back in the mid-1980s remember well Gundy’s magnetic personality.

But perhaps it was a facade. Gundy for several years now has been telling us that he’s an introvert, a loner even, with few friends — and that’s fine with him. That’s not the Gundy we figured we were seeing all those years. But now it’s making some sense.

“I think he’s changed,” said Cale Gundy, four years younger but who followed his brother as the Midwest City quarterback and a longtime coach himself (at OU). “I think you kind of go through life, and everybody tends to change a little bit as they see what’s going on in their surroundings. Maybe start to understand there’s a different way to do some things.”

Cale Gundy said perhaps some advice from their late mother, Judy, about being kinder and gentler, has resonated with Mike, who himself has referenced their mother’s late-in-life influence.

 

Cale Gundy said his brother indeed long has been the introvert in the family, but being young, a star quarterback and then a prodigy coach could have masked his true personality to the public.

“Being in a pretty good position and having the success he had and probably a little more testosterone in him, you’re all kind of like that,” Cale Gundy said.

Cale’s theory: An assistant coach has about a quarter of the fans watching, a coordinator about half and a head coach everyone.

“Everybody’s staring at you,” Cale Gundy said. “Just a transition of different times in his life. What he was going through.”

Among the things Mike Gundy has gone through is the 2020 blowup, when Cowboy players took issue with their coach’s promotion of a right-wing news operation and star tailback Chuba Hubbard went public with the frustration, and OSU investigated Gundy’s relationship with his players.

The findings suggested not that Gundy had a bad relationship with his players, but that Gundy had little relationship with his players.

Gundy apologized, vowed to be better and by all accounts has been better. The 2021 Cowboys had a fabulous season, finishing No. 7 in The Associated Press poll and beating Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl.

The Cowboys — at least the Cowboys made available to the media — speak glowingly about Gundy these days.

OSU receiver Brennan Presley said Gundy hasn’t so much changed as he has adapted during Presley’s four seasons in Stillwater.

“I don’t think that’s the same thing as changing,” Presley said. “Especially with the portal and stuff, you got new kids every single year. I think he’s just adapted to the way the college system has worked now.

“Because every year’s a different team. That’s the best thing that he does is adapting to people and knowing what to say to certain people in situations. Then getting everybody to play on one accord. Nowadays, it can be super hard to get 140 players from different backgrounds to play on the same level and give it up for each other. But he does it year in and year out.”

Indeed, Gundy’s current roster seemed wiped out by the transfer portal, with the loss of eight marquee players and no apparently equitable infusion of talent. But Gundy and staff have taken the holdovers and the newcomers and fashioned a team that, despite some massive crashes, went 7-2 in the Big 12.

Gundy long has been a winner. His career head-coaching record now is 165-78. He’s third in victories as a Big 12 coach, trailing only Bill Snyder (215) and Bob Stoops (191).

But Gundy seems to be hitting his stride in this 19th year as a head coach.

“I enjoy the games much more now,” Gundy said. “I just watch the game. Of course, I have to make decisions and communicate with the defense and the offense and give suggestions, and things like that.”

But serenity-now seems to be having a positive effect.

Gundy’s calmness, serenity, detachment, whatever you want to call it, extends to the practice field.

The head coach who once was his own offensive coordinator and famously sat on a stool to talk with his offense, with his back to the field during a big game, now spends most of practice high above the Sherman E. Smith Training Center, on an elevated watch tower.

“You know when he’s mad, you know when he’s happy, because he shows it,” Presley said. “As long as he’s staying up at the top, taking notes and not coming down the stairs, we’re all good with it. If he’s coming down the stairs, you know he’s talking to somebody, and you’re hoping it’s not you.”

Linebacker Xavier Benson said Gundy can be demonstrative in practice, but he’s more instructive.

“We do get to see other sides of Coach Gundy that maybe they don’t see on the sidelines,” Wilson said.

And Gundy is big on life lessons. He likes talking to the Cowboys about life after football.

“He’s helped me grow as a person, as a football player, as a man,” said Presley. “It’s not necessarily more about football, it’s more about the things that he instills with you.

“He tells us all the time, you’ll take that the rest of your life. Not the football stuff. The discipline, like your kids, your family, all that stuff. That’s the stuff that will carry you a lifetime, and that will be with you as a man. So the way you play and how you compete and how you prepare, that stuff will carry way longer than the Biletnikoff (Award) and all the accolades.”

When OSU’s double-overtime victory over Brigham Young was secured last Saturday night, and the Cowboys indeed were bound for JerryWorld, Presley jumped into Gundy’s arms.

“I’m surprised he didn’t push me off,” Presley said. “He was as shocked as everybody else. I was just happy. I didn’t know he could hold me up that long.”

There was a time when Gundy did the jumping. And the celebrating. And the carousing.

But no more. These days, Gundy watches from above at practice and stands silently at games, taking in a football program that he has transformed, while transforming himself.

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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].

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