STILLWATER — Steve Buzzard took the phone call from a Boise, Idaho, television reporter. Then Buzzard gulped.
A day earlier, on November 30, 2000, the OSU sports information director had been told by athletic director Terry Don Phillips to schedule a press conference. Cowboy football had found its man.
Then-Boise State coach Dirk Koetter had agreed to replace Bob Simmons. The Koetter news leaked out, and Oklahomans awoke on that Friday morning, December 1, to read “IT’S KOETTER” as The Daily Oklahoman’s banner headline.
Then came that phone call to Buzzard.
“The guy said, ‘You all are having a press conference to announce Dirk Koetter?’” Buzzard recalled reporter asked. “‘You might want to do some double-checking. He’s telling us he’s not coming.’”
Surely, Buzzard thought, his boss knew about this. But no. Buzzard walked down to Phillips’ office and dropped the bombshell.
Phillips started scrambling, and at 7 p.m. that night, he got the call from Koetter. Koetter had decided instead to take the Arizona State job. The next day, the Sun Devils staged their own Koetter press conference.
Oklahoma State and Arizona State, who meet Saturday night in Tempe, Arizona, have traveled divergent paths in the 21st century.
When Koetter made that phone call, ASU had suffered five losing seasons in the previous 47 years. The Sun Devils had made two Rose Bowls since joining the Pac-12 in 1978. Arizona State was a solid program with tremendous upside. Bruce Snyder had just been fired after going 58-45 in nine years.
Meanwhile, OSU had one winning season the previous 12 years. The Cowboys had made nine bowls in 42 years, none of them major. Since Barry Sanders’ Heisman Trophy season of 1988, OSU’s conference record was 23-58-3.
You could question Koetter’s integrity, for reneging on a job he had in good faith accepted. You could not question Koetter’s judgment. By any measure, Arizona State was a better job.
But the Cowboys got the last laugh. Their consolation prize was Les Miles, who quickly built a solid foundation that Mike Gundy has turned into a national brand.
Koetter was fired after six Sun Devils, with a 40-34 record.
It’s mostly a happy ending. OSU went on to its greatest days, sans Koetter. Koetter landed in the National Football League and for three years was the Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach. Arizona State, well, the Sun Devils have been mostly mediocre in the 21st century — a winning percentage of .541, a Pac-12 record of 92-96.
If Koetter had stayed true to OSU, would history have changed? In some ways, in some ways no. But this much is true: Said Koetter, “I regret the way it happened.”
This headline from The Daily Oklahoman Sports section had a “Dewey Defeats Truman” feel. By the time it landed in driveways, it was no longer true. (Newspapers.com)
Koetter grew up in Pocatello, Idaho, the son of a high school coach, then stayed in his hometown for college, at Idaho State. He was the backup quarterback on Idaho State’s 1981 NCAA Division I-AA national championship team.
Koetter went into coaching, and by 1986 he was the 27-year-old offensive coordinator at Texas-El Paso. Koetter followed his UTEP head coach Bob Stull to Missouri, where in 1990 and 1992 he and the Tigers played in Stillwater, Koetter’s only exposure to OSU before 2000.
Boise State hired Koetter as head coach in 1998, replacing Houston Nutt, who had gotten the Arkansas job. Boise State was just beginning its third year in Division I-A. The Broncos had a proud history — national titles in junior college in 1958 and Division I-AA in 1980 — but were struggling in the highest classification, going a combined 6-17 their first two years.
Koetter changed that. Boise State won Big West Conference championships in both 1999 and 2000, and suddenly Koetter was a hot candidate.
When Bob Stoops was hired as the OU head coach in December 1998, he talked to Koetter about becoming the Sooner offensive coordinator.
Stoops said Koetter decided to stay in Boise, believing it would be a quicker springboard to a major job.
Koetter was right.
A majestic coaching carousel
Then as now, coaching changes after the 2000 regular season dripped with intrigue. In retrospect, the 2000-01 coaching carousel might have been the most robust ever, counting both quality and quantity.
Ohio State, Alabama, Southern Cal, Miami and Georgia all came open. Koetter wasn’t likely to fill any of those jobs, but whoever those superpowers hired would create a downstream effect on other decisions.
In the Big 12, OSU and Missouri came open. In the Pac-12, Arizona State and Arizona. In the Atlantic Coast Conference, North Carolina, Maryland, Virginia and Wake Forest. In the Big East, West Virginia and Rutgers. In the Southeastern Conference, Kentucky. Plus Brigham Young and Texas Christian.
Koetter recalls a Boise State game late in the season when he spotted a stranger on the Bronco sideline and had someone find out the identity of the infidel. Turns out it was a Wake Forest representative, come to scout Koetter as a potential replacement for Jim Caldwell.
But Koetter was eyeing bigger prizes than Wake Forest.
Missouri was a possibility, with his experience there. Arizona State was definitely in the mix. And OSU quickly identified Koetter as its No. 1 candidate.
Mike Holder then was OSU’s iconic golf coach but already was heavily involved in university decision-making. Holder did not become the Cowboy athletic director until September 2005, but his relationship with billionaire Boone Pickens already had formed, and OSU administration was realizing that Pickens might be the financial ticket to replacing the antiquated Lewis Field. An $80 million renovation project already was in place.
In November, an OSU contingent of Phillips, Holder, Pickens and a couple of regents, including Ed Keller, holed up in the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport for a series of interviews.
Among the candidates were Les Miles, then a 37-year-old tight ends coach for the Dallas Cowboys, who had been Simmons’ OSU offensive coordinator from 1995-97; Gary Darnell, a 52-year-old OSU graduate who was in his fourth season as Western Michigan’s head coach; Gundy, then a 33-year-old quarterback coach, late of Maryland, who had been an OSU quarterback star and already spent seven seasons as an assistant coach at his alma mater; and Koetter.
Dirk Koetter went back to the sidelines last season after Boise State fired its offensive coordinator. (Brian Losness-USA TODAY Sports)
Koetter impressed the search committee most of all. And OSU impressed Koetter.
“I liked the people,” Koetter said. “I liked the vision.” The Cowboys were weeks away from completing the renovated Gallagher-Iba Arena and had grand plans for a new football stadium, which Pickens provided a few years later with a $160 million donation.
But Koetter didn’t like the geography. He considered himself a western coach and thought he would recruit better out West.
“He was really worried about the recruiting,” said Holder, who would go on to become OSU’s athletic director from 2005 to 2021.
Koetter actually withdrew from consideration two weeks before taking the job, but Phillips and Holder talked him into reconsidering. They flew to Boise, along with OSU president James Halligan and regent Keller, and persuaded Koetter to visit Stillwater.
So Koetter and his wife visited OSU’s campus, incognito, the weekend of Nov. 25. To keep rumors at bay, the Koetters eschewed a hotel and stayed with the Holders. The Koetters attended the famous 2000 Bedlam game — in Simmons’ final game, OSU nearly torpedoed OU’s national championship hopes, before the Sooners prevailed 12-7 — but sat in an unfinished suite above the east end zone. The Gallagher-Iba Arena reconstruction project was not complete; the Cowboy basketball would debut the new GIA 3 ½ weeks later, but the suites that serviced both football and basketball were not yet open.
Yet that’s where the Koetters perched that Saturday in Stillwater.
OSU in 2000 was an athletic department of huge personalities.
Phillips was a superb athletic director who brought innovation to the job; his vision resulted in the expansion of Gallagher-Iba, and his push to unite Cowboy fans around the color orange remains not just a game-day tradition, but a massive university marketing campaign to this day.
But Holder’s influence already was established, as a remarkable fundraiser and an OSU loyalist. The Cowboy graduate already was 27 years on the job as OSU’s golf coach.
And Eddie Sutton held tremendous sway. His return to his alma mater as basketball coach, and tremendous success, had financially revived the athletic department. Everyone respected Sutton.
In that 2000 football coaching search, Holder increasingly pushed for Gundy. That’s ironic, considering their future squabbles as AD and head coach, but Gundy was a cult hero in Stillwater at an early age and clearly an up-and-coming football coach.
“Gundy was on everybody’s radar,” Buzzard said. “It was just a matter of when. He was destined to be the head coach here, because of all the connections. That was going to happen.”
But others, including Sutton, didn’t believe Gundy was quite ready.
“I was kind of a backseat guy,” Gundy said. “They were basically doing me a favor, being nice to me. They weren’t really putting me in position to hire me, which they shouldn’t have.”
Phillips increasingly focused on Koetter. And others were supportive, too.
Koetter was waiting on Arizona State. He admits it. It made sense. OSU was dangling slightly better contract terms; a six-year deal, compared to ASU’s five-year offer, both at $700,000. But the Sun Devils could offer the Pac-12 post Koetter considered important to his background.
Still, Arizona State was chasing TCU’s Dennis Franchione. So was Alabama.
It was a different time. Alabama had been down for several years. From 1995-2000, the Crimson Tide’s Southeastern Conference record was 27-21. When it appeared that Arizona State was going to be successful in luring Franchione to the desert instead of Tuscaloosa, Koetter called Phillips and accepted the OSU job.
“Terry Don was thrilled,” said Buzzard, now retired from OSU. “Once Terry Don had narrowed in on him, this was who he wanted. Obviously, Terry Don saw the big picture in a lot of things. He knew what kind of talent Dirk had. What he would mean to this program.”
Koetter accepted the job on a Thursday night. But the next day, the state of Oklahoma media contingent would mostly be in Kansas City, where the Sooners would play Kansas State in the Big 12 Championship Game.
OSU officials decided to schedule a press conference for Monday, December 4. If OSU had dispatched a plane to get Koetter to Stillwater for a Friday press conference, would things have been different?
Who knows? Instead, Koetter was in Boise that Friday. When Franchione made the decision to go to Alabama, Arizona State inquired if Koetter might still be available. Turns out, in Koetter’s mind, he was.
Koetter, now retired and living in Boise, said it was an easy decision but a hard phone call.
“A man has to do what’s best for his family,” Koetter said. “All my recruiting contacts were out West.”
Koetter made that phone call about 7 p.m. Friday, and Phillips by then knew it was coming.
“I felt it was important to call them myself,” Koetter said.
How did the Cowboys feel? Angry? Disappointed? Alarmed?
All of the above.
“You never want to hear that somebody likes somebody else better than you,” Holder said.
The Cowboy decision-makers re-huddled over the weekend. By Tuesday, they had their man. Miles, who might have been a conciliatory selection but was quite willing to take the job.
“Be a big boy,” Holder said of his advice for Miles. “Getting the job is the most important thing.”
Dirk Koetter, shown here during his days as the head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, jilted OSU for Arizona State in 2000. Things turned out well for all parties involved, with the exception of Arizona State, who the Cowboys play Saturday night in Tempe. (Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports)
Koetter’s reversal turned out great for three of the four parties.
The Cowboys golden era has come under Gundy, who came with Miles as offensive coordinator. When Miles took the Louisiana State job after the 2004 season, Gundy’s hiring was a quick and easy ascension.
His Cowboys went 28-21 over his four years, at a school with one winning season over the previous 12 years. At LSU, Miles won a national championship.
Koetter? Check. Arizona State went 40-34 in Koetter’s six seasons, with no double-digit win seasons or major bowl games, and he was fired. Dennis Erickson replaced Koetter and went 10-3 in 2007, a year Koetter says he was pointing to as a breakout season for the Sun Devils.
Koetter landed in the National Football League as a coordinator, which led to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers naming him head coach in 2016. Not many football coaches are handed an NFL team. Koetter was, though he went 19-29 over three years and was fired.
Arizona State? Uh, no.
The Sun Devils have mostly struggled in the years since they went head-to-head with Alabama over a coach and stole OSU’s coach with a simple phone call.
“It’s interesting to think how things might have been,” Buzzard said. “It is fascinating to think what OSU football might have been with Koetter. He was and is a heck of a football coach.”
But everything mostly turned out the way it was supposed to.
Said Holder, “It usually does.”