Mike Gundy and Oklahoma State: Evolving Power Dynamics in College Football

After reading Oklahoma State athletic director Mike Holder’s recent comments about Mike Gundy, it would be hard to imagine a more bizarre working relationship in major college athletics.

The money passage from Holder’s interview with NewsOK.com columnist Berry Tramel:

In the past, Holder and OSU coach Mike Gundy have disagreed over scheduling. Gundy prefers a softer path before Big 12 play.

“My football coach doesn’t want to play anybody any good, definitely, but jiminy Christmas, we looked pretty good against Florida State,” Holder said of the 2014 season opener, which the Cowboys lost 37-31. “Until we beat OU, that was the highlight of our season.”

Not the most diplomatic way to put it. Yet, if it seems odd to hear an AD needle his hotshot head coach that way, you probably don’t know much about the state of affairs in Stillwater. It’s not exactly a secret that Gundy and Holder don’t get along. In true cowboy fashion, the two apparently prefer public showdowns to meetings of the minds behind closed doors.

Gundy is a great coach who is also adept at reminding the OSU community just how great he is. In the past, he has flirted with other job openings during the annual coaching shuffle as a way to not only boost his bank account, but to transfer some power over the football program from Holder’s office to his own. Gundy has acquired significant influence over OSU’s schedule as a result of his power plays.

In effect, even though Holder has the final word on scheduling, going against Gundy risks running off the best coach in school history. Apparently, that has reduced Holder to publicly shaming his head coach in an effort to get better non-conference games on the Cowboys’ slate. Think of it as a passive-aggressive hostage crisis.

The specifics of Gundy and Holder’s openly contentious working relationship may be unique. In the world of major college football, however, the underlying power dynamics are not.

The annual coaching search season illustrates the increasingly adversarial nature of the relationships between college coaches and their employers. It’s the same tired posturing every year: Big job opens up; agents put out clients’ names as candidates; clients stay put and come away with new contracts and more power. The opening in question doesn’t even have to be that “big” anymore, relatively speaking. Les Miles got a new deal from LSU after feigning interest in Arkansas two years ago. Georgia coach Mark Richt’s name was once brought up in connection with an opening at Colorado.

It’s a fancy extortion racket fueled by shameless intermediaries such as Jimmy Sexton and Neil Cornrich. It works because coaches are so rarely told no. The operating question in such negotiations is no longer how much a coach wants, but how much he can get from a school.

No one should begrudge coaches from taking what they can. We will inevitably reach a point where schools have no choice but to hit the brakes, though. It will be fascinating to see how coaching community reacts when more ADs like Holder finally have to say enough is enough.