Birdwell's Passion Will Be Missed

Harry Birdwell shed a few tears as he stood at the podium Tuesday afternoon in front of microphones, television and still cameras, members of the media, and members of the OSU athletic department staff. Birdwell shed tears several times during his brief explanation of why he was resigning as athletic director, and will end his tenure on or before Dec. 31. The tears were appropriate for Birdwell and the athletic department.

Birdwell has always been a Cowboy. He went to school at Oklahoma State and was a student leader, even a Rhodes Scholar candidate in 1971. He always stayed close to his alma mater and then returned for 16 years of service as a vice president of the university and then the past three years as athletic director. Those tears were real and that's the other reason for sadness. Birdwell brought a loyalty and passion to that position that has been rarely seen at Oklahoma State. He was and will remain a huge fan.

In the process he brought keen business acumen and a solid sense of judging people to the position that helped propel the Cowboys even farther in the college athletics spectrum. During Birdwell's tenure as AD there were 16 conference championships along with national championships in wrestling (three times) and equestrian (twice). Football went to three bowl games in a row, including the 2004 Cotton Bowl. Basketball was in the NCAA Tournament every season and made the 2004 Final Four and the Sweet 16 this past season. Men's and women's golf were finalists in their respective NCAA Tournaments. Men's tennis cracked the "Sweet 16" and the women also had tremendous success. Off the field and court OSU athletes had unparalleled success in the classroom. The OSU student athletes had an overall grade point average of 3.0 this past school year and the athlete's graduation rate is higher than that of the general student body.

Birdwell made several coaching hires including baseball coach Frank Anderson, who guided the Cowboys to the Big 12 Tournament title and an NCAA berth in his first season. Other hires included Sean Sutton as head coach designate in basketball, a move that swept away rumors and helped Cowboys basketball have its best recruiting class ever, ranked number one in the nation. Popular Mike Gundy was hired as the new football coach the day after Les Miles announced he was leaving for LSU. Gundy has hired a top flight staff and is prepared to take OSU football to even greater heights. Kurt Budke has been hired to coach women's basketball. Budke left one of the best job's in women's college basketball at powerhouse Louisiana Tech to come to Stillwater. Birdwell is very proud of the hire of Rene Sepulveda as the women's track coach where he has woke up a sport that was asleep.

It is important to say that Birdwell's last move in the OSU coaching family before announcing his resignation was to secure a new contract with longtime men's tennis coach James Wadley. Wadley, in his 33rd year at the school, is the dean of OSU coaches. He was being pursued by other schools, but it is appropriate that Wadley, who's had three of his best squads in his tenure the past seasons, finish his coaching career as a Cowboy. Wadley is hoping that OSU will soon have a first class tennis facility to match the accomplishments of the men's and women's program. Wadley said he was encouraged by the new contract, and is hopeful that Oklahoma State's administration will do the things that will make the athletic department the strongest it can be.

Athletic department fundraising under Birdwell has been unmatched in school history. In the past three years Oklahoma State has raised more money than in all the previous years of the school's athletic department combined. Now a major portion of that came from Oklahoma State alumnus Boone Pickens, and that brings us to why Birdwell is resigning.

It has been a rugged year for Birdwell. He struggled with a prolonged bout with the flu throughout January, February, and into March. The job is a 24-7 deal that many times keeps him out on the road spending an average of one night at home a week. Then just two weeks ago Birdwell and the football staff and team attended the funeral of 21-year-old Cowboy cornerback Vernon Grant. Birdwell delivered a powerful message speaking at Grant's funeral. It was obvious Tuesday as he spoke to the gathered media that Grant's sudden passing in a auto accident struck him.

"The situation with Vernon Grant, (long pause and tears) taught me how short life can be," said Birdwell as he talked about wanting and needing to spend more time with his wife Cindy and family. "Family is very important."

That is a contributing factor to Birdwell's resignation. The other factor is his relationship with Boone Pickens. The powerful Pickens and Birdwell have had a personality clash, according to several sources in the athletic department. Just as OSU athletics needed Birdwell's passion, enthusiasm and leadership, it also needed Picken's generous financial contributions. For some reason the two were unable to go hand in hand, but instead created friction. Pickens is a very intelligent and resourceful businessman who demands to know how his contributions are being used and wants them put to the best possible use. Sources said at times there was a communication gap between the two parties.

Birdwell repeatedly denied when asked following the news conference, as he walked through Heritage Hall, that Picken's was in any way responsible for his decision. He was steadfast in saying the decision was his and that of his wife Cindy. That was the response of a loyal leader.

Birdwell's tenure will be remembered as one of the best in the school's athletic history. However, it has to be a building block as there is still much more ladder for Oklahoma State to climb. Birdwell will have to watch that progression as a fan following the next year -- six more months as athletic director and then six months as a paid consultant (likely part of a settlement).

The torch now is at least being kept lit by Pickens. OSU System CEO and President David Schmidly said there is no rush to fill the position.

"We are in no hurry and no immediate action is necessary because of the considerate way in which Harry has let us know of his desires," said Schmidly. He said the university would evaluate its needs and determine its next steps for hiring a new athletic director at the appropriate time.

There is no doubt the point man for that selection will be Boone Pickens. Pickens' support is the primary fuel for the Cowboys' climb. In addition to the major gift that led to the renaming of the football stadium in his honor, Pickens has made several other contributions to football as well as other sports. There are rumors that Pickens has even further plans to give to the university and the athletic department. The new leader of athletics will have to be an individual that understands Pickens' motives and interest in OSU athletics and can facilitate his involvement.

The logical selection would be assistant athletic director for golf and men's head golf coach Mike Holder. Holder, an ultra successful coach and businessman, is a close friend of Pickens and helped encourage his interest in OSU athletics. Holder took over a successful golf program and made it a juggernaut. The business title comes from his building his dream, Karsten Creek, the top collegiate golf course and one of the best courses in the nation. Holder may not want the job. His passion is for all of Oklahoma State athletics, but his greatest love is golf and that may be too big a price to give up.

Dave Martin, longtime senior associate athletic director, is another possibility. Martin is popular with the coaches. He has been the daily overseer of the department for many years and served as interim athletic director on a couple of occasions. Martin was also interim commissioner of the Big 12 Conference and has been active in the NCAA as head of the wrestling committee. That political experience on the conference and national level is very helpful. Martin is also popular with Holder which could lead to a vital stamp of approval.

There are others in the athletic department such as associate athletic director for development Joe Muller and associate athletics director Marty Sargeant, who has served as point man on all of the major facilities improvement projects.

There is always the possibility that the search could go regional or national. There are a lot of candidates out there with experience in building and finishing major facilities and the fundraising it takes to accomplish those tasks. Again, it will have to be somebody that values the contributions and understands the passion for Oklahoma State of Pickens.

The unfortunate part of this story is that Birdwell's passion couldn't coexist with Pickens' passion -- maybe between them they had too much passion to make a relationship work.

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