Mike Gundy’s Season a Masterclass in Playing to Your Strengths

Despite what you might think, or what it might seem like at times, Mike Gundy actually knows what he’s doing.

After a hard-fought win in Austin, Oklahoma State’s winningest head coach has his team off to its best start in six years and might be looking at his best chance at a Big 12 title since his last one in 2011. And he’s doing it in a way that he’s never done it before — without scoring points in bunches.

The willingness to change is not only the sign of a good coach, it’s the sign of any good leader. Last week, Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian lauded Gundy for just that.

“One thing I appreciate about him is they’ve kind of reinvented themselves in Stillwater,” Sarkisian said of Gundy. “They were a pass-happy, outscore-you team to now they’re a defensive football team, a veteran team — play tough, play physical. They run the ball. They’ve kind of reinvented themselves a different identity, and that’s a sign of a really good coach that you play to the strengths of your team.”

Looking back, that’s more premonition than polite praise. It’s a concise recap of what the Cowboys did to his Longhorns in Austin on Saturday.

The Cowboys didn’t score an offensive touchdown against Texas until the fourth quarter and didn’t hold a lead until completing their comeback with a field goal with less than five minutes on the clock. Yet Oklahoma State took down the team with the No. 5 scoring offense in the country coming in by holding it to 20 points below its average. This is the new norm. This is not the OSU you’re used to rooting for.

Gundy has started at least 6-0 four times before this season, with the most recent hot start coming in 2015 when the Cowboys rattled off 10-straight out of the gate.

Here’s a look at those teams’ scoring averages through their first six games.

Gundy’s 6-0 Starts PPG
2008 48.5
2010 43.8
2011 49.2
2015 37.3
2021 26.5

Each of those other Cowboy teams got to that point by imitating Wyatt Earp and his gang filling the town of Tombstone full of holes. Shoot-first, ask questions later. True Cardiac Cowboys. But these current Pokes seem more like Clint Eastwood’s William Munny in Unforgiven. They don’t even pick up a weapon until the end, and only when it’s absolutely necessary to get out alive.

Equally aggravating for fans, but equally effective through the first half of the season.

After their 32-24 win over Texas, the Cowboys are averaging a paltry 26.5 points per game, on pace not only for Gundy’s lowest scoring hot-starting team, but his lowest scoring team… ever.

That’s right. The hapless 2014 Cowboys that finished 7-6 averaged 27.6 points and the 2009 Pokes finished scoring 28.4. That’s the list of Gundy-coached teams to come in under 30 points per game in a give year, and this one would be doing good to keep itself off of that list with half of its schedule in the books.

Gundy has been doing this a long time and at some point over the last year-plus, he looked at his team and saw something different. Maybe it’s not a team that can threaten to run you off the field, but maybe it doesn’t need to be.

Credit where it’s due. Jim Knowles should get a rollover deal like Gundy’s, like tomorrow. But further credit where it’s also due, Gundy sought out Knowles from Duke when few tabbed him as a “hot” name in coaching. He saw something in him and his defenses that he knew might translate to the Big 12. I’d love to see notes on Knowles’ defense in one of Gundy’s steno pads.

That’s not to say he always gets it right. We’ve seen some head-scratching time clock decisions made at the end of halves, including one on Saturday. Gundy comes off a bit shy at times when fans would like him to be more ambitious. But he’s got a system, a set of values, a culture. And, over time, following his system has led to more good outcomes than bad.

Football is a game of inches and calculated risks, and that’s not just coach speak.

At the end on Saturday, Gundy knew Texas might elect let them score to get the ball back down 8 and save its timeouts. That might lead some to overthink it. He could have tried to beat the ‘Horns at their own game and run more clock but, again, Gundy knows his team’s strengths (and weaknesses) and used that knowledge to form a calculated response in a split second.

“Things went the right way,” said Gundy. “They chose to let us score, which at that time we had a thought that they were gonna do it, but you gotta score. They could’ve used their timeouts and forced us to kick a field goal, so now you’re only up by 4. People say, ‘Well, yeah, take a knee on the 1 and run it in.’ With the two timeouts and all that, that’s great if you run it in. If you don’t run it in, it’s not good.

“Then we have to have faith in our defense. Our defense has proven to us that we should have faith in them.”

It did, and he should. And similarly, OSU fans have to have faith in their head coach. He’s proven that. Following the Baylor win, Kyle Boone called this season Gundy’s best coaching job ever, and the Texas game did little to disprove that.

It goes both ways. If we are to lay every loss at a coach’s feet, he should get all the more benefit for creating and nurturing an environment in which a team fights like this one does, and finds ways to win like this one. And if the Cowboys lay an egg in Ames, and finish the season 3-3, Gundy will certainly get his fair share of credit for that too.

Can the Cowboys run through the rest of their Big 12 schedule unscathed scoring 32 points? I have serious doubts about that, but I have no doubt that Gundy and his staff are going to put the Pokes in the best situation to be successful. Now, here I go with the coach speak.

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