The answer is a resounding yes! Not because the Cowboys are 20-12 and in Indianapolis for the NCAA Midwest Regional, but instead, because Brad Underwood has stirred the sleeping giant that was and is Cowboy basketball.
All season long before the Cowboys have been introduced they’ve run out of the locker room after a video that has Underwood describing the history and tradition of Oklahoma State basketball. Throughout the video, he calls Oklahoma State one of the most tradition rich programs in the country. It is not a program that just elevated to an elite program, but one that has been elite for a long time. Underwood doesn’t say it, but insinuates that OSU basketball is an elite program that simply lost its’ way. It was that sleeping giant looking to wake up.
One of my favorite quotes from World War II was the quote credited to Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who in the movie Toro, Toro, Toro as the Japanese Imperial Naval Fleet is steaming away from near Hawaii and toward Japan following the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, is said to have summed up the military action this way. There is no proof
“I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.”
There is no proof that Yamamoto actually uttered that line, but it fits, not a way, but a return of Oklahoma State basketball. In the last few years under Travis Ford, Cowboy basketball had become a non-factor. The excitement was not there and it was hard to give away tickets to games. The team seemed to play uninspired, but Underwood came in starting with his opening news conference acting like he had just been hired for his “New York Yankees job.”
He is said to have told his attorney to not haggle over the contract terms, he wanted the job and he wanted to get started as soon as possible. Looking over his team, you got the immediate feeling that he felt there was enough there to get the program going. He instilled hard work and a toughness in his players.
The season started out strong with a 10-2 non-conference record including wins over UConn and Georgetown, name teams that proved to be fool’s gold this season. A win on the road over a real deal team in Wichita State and the two losses were to NCAA top seed North Carolina and sixth-seed Maryland.
The real measuring stick wasn’t on the court or in the standings, it was in the stands of Gallagher-Iba Arena. The Big 12 Conference opener was at home with West Virginia against Underwood’s old boss and a mentor in Bob Huggins, who his SFA team had beaten in the NCAA Tournament the season before. The schools manufactured a sell-out crowd for the game despite the Cowboys football team being on the road the night before in San Antonio beating Colorado in the Alamo Bowl.
That sell-out was a fluke. Then the 0-6 start in Big 12 play threatened to keep the cloud of apathy hanging over the hoops program. What gave him a chance through all of that was his personality. Underwood thinks like a Cowboy. I know he went to Kansas State and played for former Iba player Jack Hartman and he is from McPherson, Kansas, but two other former Oklahoma State coaches immensely popular with the Cowboy and Cowgirl fans are from Kansas. Eddie Sutton is from tiny Buckland, Kansas, and Kurt Budke is from Salina.
The late Kurt Budke is a great study in that he came to Stillwater and despite his first team not winning a single conference game, he could have run for mayor and won in a landslide after that season. Budke never turned down a chance to speak to, smile at, shake hands with, or just engage with OSU fans. Underwood was the same way. It gave him a chance and then when a defensive switch, a slight one, gave way to a pair of five-game winning streaks and a 10-4 record the rest of the way the fans were ready to fill the arena up legitimately. There were 13,611 there for the Big 12-SEC Challenge win over Arkansas. There were 13,611 for the Bedlam win over Oklahoma. There were 13,611 for the home and regular season finale against Kansas.
“I dream big,” Underwood said after the Cowboys got their NCAA Tournament bid on Sunday. “The thing I’ve talked about from the beginning with this team was that there would be ups and downs and that losing wasn’t an option. We would continue to fight. This team has grown and the best part of this is when we were 0-6 (Big 12) they could have flipped the switch and said, ‘no more’. I think it speaks to the high character we have.”
I think that goes for fans too. Sure, the team improved, but as they did with the coach’s personality coming through from day one, the fans were ready to respond.
This has been a good season, another trip to the NCAA, and a general good feeling, and the most important score was the four times at the ticket office where the score was 13,611. That means Cowboy basketball is waking up.