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I received an email from Aaron the other day that was pitch perfect:
I was an OSU student from 2000-2004. I lived the heyday of expanded GIA with Tony Allen and John Lucas and Joey Graham. The thing about OSU basketball then was the arena was just as loud when Fredrik Jonzen posterized the center for Cincinnati in a season opener as it was when John Lucas threw a breakaway, over-the-shoulder alley-oop to Joey Graham as time expired to beat Texas and seal the regular season Big 12 title. It was insanity. Couldn’t hear my roommate standing next me yelling in my ear. Both times. All the time.
How far it’s fallen. I take my kids back to games now and feel like the old guy trying to explain what the atmosphere was like ‘back in my day.’ My oldest is a freshman this year. Started in January. Has no interest in buying tickets or going to the game, no matter how much I encourage her. She’d rather go to the gym and workout than go scream her lungs out and jump around at the arena Eddie built. Probably because her friends aren’t screaming their lungs out at the arena either.
So my question to you: how do we get it back? Do we resign ourselves to the fact that Oklahoma is a professional basketball state and it will never be the same? That the energy in Boone Pickens on fall Saturdays has replaced the energy that used to be in GIA in the winter? Winning obviously helps and they aren’t doing much of that right now, nor does it look like there’s any hope in the future. Does the program need a shake-up? Fire Mike Boynton who is a fantastic person and ambassador but has to be questioned as a basketball coach at Oklahoma State given it’s his seventh year and no real progress?
The best feedback from readers is the kind that makes me think. It’s what I try to do for you guys when I write. Aaron made me think. Line by line.
Aaron picked a great time to attend OSU from a basketball standpoint. The best time.
His first season was also the first for the expanded Gallagher-Iba Arena. Average attendance doubled – from 5,907 to 12,044 – because the building doubled. OSU fans loved Eddie Sutton and basketball unequivocally.
That didn’t change over Aaron’s four years. The Cowboys were ranked in the top 10 at stages of the 01-02 and 02-03 seasons, then went 31-4 and came within a 2-point loss to Georgia Tech of playing for the ‘04 national championship.
Sutton ran off course in ‘06 and so did his program befallen by missteps in his personal life and the struggles of his son, Sean, as a successor. OSU missed the NCAA Tournament from 06-08.
But check this out: according to NCAA attendance records, the Cowboys played to their biggest crowds ever in ‘07 and ‘08, topping out with a 13,008 average over the 06-07 season.
OSU went 6-10 in the Big 12 Conference that year. OSU went 17-16 in 07-08 and still drew an average of 12,504 fans.
When folks say OSU used to be a “basketball school,” that data is exactly what they mean. Students stood in line for hours for seats. I’m guessing had Aaron’s daughter been a freshman in the 2000s, she would have done the same.
Now students stand in line for football games. Now OSU is a “football school.” That’s due to a combination of Mike Gundy’s work over nearly 20 years, the increasing influence of football TV money on college sports over the same period, and the Thunder planting a stake in Oklahoma basketball fans’ interest, and spending accounts, along the way.
Travis Ford coached against that changing tide eventually. Brad Underwood did it for a year. Now Boynton does. This much was/is out of their control.
Now to the obvious controllable, winning, and the difference it makes…
OSU averaged 10,447 fans over the 2013-14 season. That’s the team that had Marcus Smart, Markel Brown, Le’Bryan Nash and Phil Forte in the lineup. They underachieved with a losing Big 12 record and early March Madness exit, but not before topping out at No. 5 in the AP poll.
That isn’t quite Peak Sutton in terms of program/GIA energy, but it’s not bad either.
OSU averaged 8,436 fans over the 2016-17 season, the year Underwood won 20 games. Ford lost 20 the previous season and GIA wasn’t half full (average attendance: 5,857).
That isn’t even Peak Ford, but at least it represents an uptick in interest.
The latest uptick occurred in 2021-22, the year after Cade Cunningham led OSU to its first NCAA appearance since Underwood’s cameo. Cunningham brought back some buzz in 20-21, it’s just a shame he couldn’t bring back fans during COVID. The Cowboys did get a bounce in 21-22, when fans could return safely, and averaged 8,437.
Two conclusions here:
1. OSU basketball is not a lost cause. We just have to use relative terms moving forward. As in “relative to Sutton’s heyday, when college basketball was king at OSU, the Cowboys could be Final Four-caliber, the football stadium next door looked like it might fall down, the Thunder was still the Seattle SuperSonics, and Gallagher-Iba Arena was rebuilt to reflect the times.”
If that means an average attendance of 8,500 in a building that seats 13,000 is a positive development, well welcome to our new reality. Put another way: If OSU wanted to renovate Gallagher-Iba again right now, they’d be better off shrinking capacity to 10,000.
2. The Cowboys can draw 8,500… heck they can draw 10,500 since 2014 isn’t that long ago… but fans need an excuse to make it happen. This isn’t 2006-08 anymore. The Thunder is around. Gundy’s got it going. Besides, why fight winter weather and commutes and ticket/concession/parking prices when you can stay warm and full of food/drink in the comforts of your recliner?
The only excuse to make it happen is to win, because that’s the only thing that generates OSU basketball buzz any longer. Ford found that out. So did Underwood. Now that’s on Boynton.
Does the program need a coaching shakeup? That’s for Chad Weiberg to decide. He has considerations none of us can conceive.
But since Aaron asked… What I think OSU basketball needs more than anything is a time machine set to when he was in school there.