Thursday, December 29, 2011

Trial & Error

The more time I spend on a college campus, the more I realize that true education comes from not only gaining theoretical experience through classroom lectures and assignments, but from gaining practical experience in that desired field.

Whether it be from internship opportunities to interviewing professionals, getting your hands dirty by experiencing it yourself is the truest form of development.

That same development applies to coaching as well - most coaches ply their trade at the side of a valued mentor who can help provide a blueprint for success, where others are able to cut their teeth by stepping in and coaching their own program at a very early age.

Oklahoma State football coach Mike Gundy got the opportunity to be thrown into the fire right away when he was hired seven years ago at the age of 37, which would be the equivalent of coaching adolescence. Ivan Maisel of ESPN writes of the baptism under fire of Gundy, who has learned from those experiences to coach one of the premier college football teams in the nation.

"I look back," Gundy said, "and never would have hired me, knowing what I know now."

The arc of Gundy's success at his alma mater has yet to bend toward earth. He has won as many or more games in each season than the previous one, from four wins in 2005 to 11 and counting as No. 3 Oklahoma State prepares to play No. 4 Stanford in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl on Monday.

When Gundy looks back, he sees a young head coach who tried to do things the way that head coaches are supposed to do them. In his first three seasons, Gundy went 18-19 (.486) and became best known for a rant at a news conference.

The more he has trusted his gut, the more that he refused to heed the Coaching 101 textbook of conventional wisdom, the more games the Cowboys have won. Beginning in 2008, Gundy has gone 40-11 (.784). Over that same time, the coach on the other side of the Bedlam rivalry is 41-12 (.774).

That's right, Mike Gundy is toe-to-toe with Bob Stoops. Actually, Gundy got in the last good lick. That 44-10 defeat of the Sooners to finish the regular season earned Oklahoma State its first Big 12 championship.

"There's so much growing that goes on that can only happen during experience," Gundy said. "... [There's] the evolution but also the mistakes, making mistakes, and sitting in my office and thinking, 'OK, how can I eliminate that, and what's the solution for the next time?' It was patience and making mistakes."

Coaches don't have a lot of time to sit in their office and think. When Gundy took the job, someone told him to keep a fire extinguisher on his desk, because that's what a head coach does.

"You just put fires out all day and then you get home," Gundy said. "And you continue to do it. And I thought, that doesn't sound right. That doesn't sound like much fun. That is exactly the way it is, for the most part."

Gundy remembered what T. Boone Pickens, the billionaire godfather of Oklahoma State athletics, told him when he got hired: (1) take risks, and (2) be unpredictable. So he began to ask questions. Why did Oklahoma State get to the end of the season with more players in the training room than on the field? Why did certain coaching hires click and others not? Gundy asked questions, and he didn't go to the Coaching 101 textbook for his answers.

I really associate with Gundy - I got my first head coaching job at Iona College at age 24, and where I have blessed since then with the opportunity to learn at the side of two coaching lessons in Fred Schmalz (University of Evansville) and John Rennie (Duke University), I still draw from some of those lessons learned at Iona to this day. My father used to always say 'A-B-C: Adversity Builds Character'. What i've learned from those experiences of making decisions under fire as a head coach is that adversity often reveals character as much as it builds character, and you learn a lot from how you respond in those situations - it's much more different when you are the head coach opposed to being the assistant. Someone told me once that 'as an assistant, you can take all of the credit, and none of the the head coach, there's nowhere to hide!' There are some lessons that you can only learn from being the head coach yourself.

Mizel wrote about the valuable lesson that the Oklahoma State coach learned along the way. When Gundy struggled as a young head coach, he stopped doing what he thought a head coach is supposed to do. He trusted his gut. The results can be seen from Stillwater clear to Glendale, Ariz. For the first time, Oklahoma State is in the BCS. I don't follow any one college football team in particular, but i'm definitely going to be curiously be following Gundy and his Oklahoma State team in the BCS games this coming week.

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