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Being Mike Gundy: On mullets, rattlesnakes and winning football games at Oklahoma State

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Being Mike Gundy: On mullets, rattlesnakes and winning football games at Oklahoma State,

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The college football season doesn’t start until the fall but it’s never too early to start looking ahead. USA TODAY Sports

STILLWATER, Okla. — A few days back, the most famous hair in college football got a trim. Mike Gundy’s hairstyle had grown so gloriously long — and for so gloriously long, more than a year — that a front man in a 1980s metal band would have been proud.

But several significant snips later, Gundy’s mane now falls just above the shoulders. It’s still a mullet, maybe, but no longer The Mullet.

If you’re disappointed, understand this: Like most other things with the Oklahoma State coach, this wasn’t a spontaneous decision. He carefully considered the implications. Even last spring, he already was thinking ahead to the day when it would be time to end the show.

“My concern for it now,” he said then, “is that it becomes a bigger deal than our team. That’s what I don’t want. There’s some dilemma of actually what to do. But once we get closer to August, I don’t want to take away from our team.”

Halfway through July, as Big 12 coaches and players gather this week for their annual preseason media days, most eyes will be focused on the new guys at Texas and Oklahoma, and whether the Red River rivals can lift the league’s fortunes. But the guy whose hairstyle became a brand might be at least as important.

With the sudden retirement of rival Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops last month, Gundy, in his 13th season and armed with a new five-year contract that pays him $4.2 million this year, is the third-longest tenured coach in the Big 12. And in building a consistent winner — Gundy is both Oklahoma State’s longest-tenured and winningest coach — the hair isn’t the only thing that’s grown.

We’re coming up on the 10th anniversary of what, for many, remains Gundy’s defining moment.

Yeah, the man is about to turn 50 (on Aug. 12).

His postgame rant in September 2007 — “I’m a man! I’m 40!” — is forever only a click away on YouTube. For a large portion of the college football public, Gundy remains somewhat of a caricature, accentuated now by the mullet and a rattlesnake hunt.

But that only obscures what he’s built at Oklahoma State, and the purpose behind most of his antics. They’re occasionally cartoonish? They’re also calculated to help in the building process.

“I don’t want Mike Gundy to be bigger than our team,” he said. “But I also have to do what I do in order to win at Oklahoma State.”

Quick, the topic is Oklahoma State football — what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Maybe it’s multiple uniform combinations or fantastic facilities or a routinely super-explosive passing game or a sustained period of success unmatched in the school’s history.

Oklahoma State has played in 11 consecutive bowls, the longest streak in school history. In 2011, the Cowboys just missed the BCS championship game after being upset by Iowa State. (Alabama and LSU played in that all-SEC rematch. But in Stillwater they’re sure Oklahoma State should have played for it all, and that they’d have won it all if they had — and they just might be right.)

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Behind quarterback Mason Rudolph, receiver James Washington and a bevy of other offensive playmakers, Oklahoma State projects as a Big 12 title contender this season — and if the defense is solid, perhaps more.

But winning big at Oklahoma State remains an uphill battle. The program is overshadowed in its own state by a rival that is one of college football’s all-time powers, and these days a lot of people wear wacky uniforms and play fast and throw the ball around a bunch.

Which is why for many, the attention-getter is Gundy. As long as we’re listing antics, here’s the recent rundown:

► Growing the mullet began as a joke with his sons — and became a way for Gundy to annoy and embarrass them. We first noticed it a year ago at Big 12 media days; Gundy called it the “Arkansas Waterfall,” but it was only just getting started. Eventually, notable mullets like Barry Melrose and Billy Ray Cyrus weighed in, and Oklahoma State sold merchandise with mullet silhouette, and as it kept growing — the hair, but also the phenomenon — the whole thing was glorious.

In the end, the haircut was an attempt to “just get it to normal,” he said — though it’s apparent Gundy’s definition might differ from most everybody else.

► Oklahoma State’s 2016 bowl rings were inscribed with the record “11-2” — never mind that the Cowboys finished 10-3. Gundy has decided to forever dispute a controversial ending in a loss to Central Michigan.

► In February Gundy wore a wresting singlet in a promotional video to hype a wrestling dual between No. 1 Oklahoma State and No. 2 Penn State. Sitting at his desk — with a coffee mug labeled “BIG DADDY” in the foreground — he encouraged people to buy tickets.

Gundy said he wanted to help his friend John Smith, the longtime Oklahoma State wrestling coach get a full house at Gallagher-Iba Arena, and knew pumping the video out to his 83,000-plus Twitter followers would do the trick.

After seeing his dad in a singlet, one of Gundy’s sons texted his mother: “Does nothing embarrass my dad?” Her response: “No, he doesn’t care.”

► Gundy insists the rattlesnake thing was not preplanned — his sons had asked him, more than a year earlier, to take them on a snake hunt — but when he saw the photo, well, he knew it had to be published.

The tweet last March was simple: “Rattlesnake hunt in Okeene, OK with Todd and Wild Bill.” But the accompanying photo of Gundy holding an angry rattler with snake tongs — well, that was Internet gold.

That Gundy was wearing jeans (tucked into boots), a long-sleeved Oklahoma State T-shirt, a black ball cap with sunglasses stashed above the bill — and with that mullet flying, too — well, it all only added to the effect.

“It turned out to be a really good deal for us,” Gundy said. “We put it out there, and it blew up.”

Planned event or fortuitous circumstance, Gundy’s focus is on marketing the program. Not so much to the fans, although they seem to enjoy the coach’s antics, but to impressionable teenage boys who are good at football.

“The people I’m targeting, 17-, 18-year-olds, that gets their attention,” Gundy said. “They put me on as a (Twitter) follower. … And if I can get him in here on a visit, you never know. That’s the reason I do that stuff. Notre Dame can walk into a school and they have the ‘ND’ on their shirt and they get instant marketing. Well, I haven’t gotten to that point. So we have to really think about and work on what we do.

“The question is, once we get started, I don’t want myself to be bigger than our team. We have to find some happy medium there.”

No, Oklahoma State isn’t Notre Dame, but the program’s profile has never been higher. Which is why the weirdest thing about all of this, at least to outsiders, is how Gundy hasn’t always seemed all that happy at his alma mater — rocking a mullet when it wasn’t unusual, he ended his career as a four-year starter from 1986-89 as the Big Eight’s all-time leading passer — and how Oklahoma State’s most important power brokers haven’t seemed happy with the coach who’s given them more success than any other.

Gundy has called Oklahoma State his “New York Yankees job,” but he has also flirted with other opportunities. His relationship with athletic director Mike Holder — and more important, with Boone Pickens, the Cowboys’ billionaire uber-booster — has been at best uneven and occasionally downright frosty. During a visit in his office at Boone Pickens Stadium last spring, the coach pointed out the window at Gallagher-Iba Arena, which houses the athletic department’s administrative offices.

“People get mad at me about something all the time,” he said. “The people in this building right over there? Hell, they stay mad at me 24/7. They’ll eventually run me off. They’ll get tired of me and run me off. But it is what it is.”

That prospect seems much less likely after that contract extension and raise last month, and what appears to be a thawing in those key relationships. Oklahoma State fans should hope it lasts, because Gundy’s methods might often be unorthodox, but they’ve also been routinely successful.

“I don’t think about being outlandish,” he said. “I just kind of do what comes natural to me. And if it’s something people think is outlandish? I don’t care.”

As the man nears 50, a glorious new normal has grown at Oklahoma State. There’s no sign it will be cut short.

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