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CBSSports.com Senior College Football Columnist

The Cowboy way: Less practice, more thinking, more fun


Whatever label or catchphrase you want to use -- burnout, fatigue -- Mike Gundy was ready to embrace it with both of his weary arms. The game that he loved had made him one of the most accomplished players in Oklahoma State history.

It also made him want to end the affair cold turkey.

"I'd had enough," said the Cowboys' 44-year old coach. "It wasn't anybody's fault. I'd been playing all my life. The lifting, the running, the practicing. If I was tired, there's half of our team that doesn't like to play the game as much as I do.

"And I was a noncontact guy."

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Actually, a quarterback -- a darn good one by the time he left in 1988. But think how the linemen who blocked for him felt, all of them tired of the repetition, the pounding, the routine. At 5-feet-11¾, with a shredded knee, Gundy had his future mapped out for him.

Coaching. Twenty-three years later he still sees the grind in his players.

"College football wears these guys out," Gundy said. "By the fourth year of playing college football, they've had it. I want them to be excited in their senior year."

There will be 18 Oklahoma State seniors who take the field Saturday at Missouri. They are part of this pinnacle in the program's existence. Little old Oklahoma State is No. 4 in the BCS standings. If it keeps winning, it is all but assured of a BCS title-game berth.

True, we're only halfway through the season. There's a long way to go. But 35 years since it shared the 1976 Big Eight title, and still in pursuit of a BCS bowl, a program can dream, can't it?

"We understand," said quarterback Brandon Weeden, one of those seniors, "we control our destiny."

All that T. Boone Pickens money has finally synced up and more than paid off. The 83-year-old oil and natural gas baron has donated hundreds of millions to his alma mater. But an octogenarian cannot snap it, throw it or catch it.

Lately, the talent has been lured by the opulence and coached up by a dedicated staff. Consistent winning is all that's left.

"We have a chance to win every Saturday," Gundy said. "We've taken a giant step in my opinion."

So giant that Oklahoma's other program is suddenly nearing the same level as the state's Crimson and Cream flagship. Oklahoma is No. 3 in the BCS (No. 1 in the coaches poll). If form holds those Sooners will travel to Stillwater on Dec. 3 for what projects to be a de facto national semifinal game that also decides the Big 12.

Win that and there wouldn't be enough Eskimo Joe's cheese fries to last through the celebration.

"Our approach here at Oklahoma State is we can't worry about what Oklahoma is doing," Gundy said. "They're sitting there on 100 years of tradition. In order for us to win the Big 12 championship, history tells you, you have to go through Austin and Norman.

"That's not going to sidetrack us."

The Cowboys haven't beaten the Sooners since 2002. The conquest of Austin is complete, or at least ongoing. Oklahoma State's 38-26 win last week made it two in a row at Texas. The biggest surprise of the first week of the BCS is upon us. A program that was gutted by NCAA probation shortly after Gundy left as a player is 6-0 this season after coming off a school record for wins last season (11-2).

For the moment, it is among the national elite with the nation's No. 2 scoring offense, led by a 28-year old quarterback (Brandon Weeden) and a defense that is, well, don't laugh.

This one has its flaws. It is 95th in pass defense, but Auburn won the national championship with a unit that was ranked 108th. How hard can this national title chase thing be?

"It's been a little bit of an issue," Gundy said. "My word to them was, 'You guys are going to have a really good football team. You've got a chance to do things that have never been accomplished here. ... People are going to tell you you're good. You're going to see it in social networking.' We are somewhat in uncharted waters here."

Gundy freely calls his a "Moneyball" approach, doing more with less. Less than Oklahoma. Less than Texas. That has translated to less practice and more thinking. The coach was sitting in his car a couple of years ago and it came to him: If football had been such a drag for him at the end, what had changed?

"There's got to be an easier way," Gundy said. "I've had jobs I've thought early in the morning, 'This stinks.' I wonder if a player thought that way about us?"

The coach who became infamous for his "I'm a man," rant has evolved into one of the best young coaches in America in his seven seasons. Only 24 schools have occupied the top four spots in the first week of the BCS standings since the system debuted in 1998. Gundy's program is one of seven on that list never to win a championship.

His system is both simple and Zen-like. It revolves around keeping players fresh, saving their legs for the stretch run. There isn't a practice that lasts more than 1 hour, 40 minutes. The players actually taper their workouts -- running less as the season moves on -- much like a marathoner as he nears a race.

Gundy offered an example of a passing drill that lasted 30 minutes in August. Four lines of four receivers each, 16 in all. Four quarterbacks chucking them balls. Heading into Week 8, that drill is now down to 19 minutes.

"Our offense is based on throwing and catching," the coach said. "I want football to be fun at Oklahoma State."

Since giving up play-calling duties a few years ago, Gundy has become more relaxed, studious and introspective. Ask him for a record of his novel philosophy, he says "most of it is in my brain."

Actually, coaches do chart reps and hits to make sure no one gets overworked. No one will say it out loud but the Cowboys want to be leanest and meanest by the time Oklahoma comes to town.

"The amount of pressure on the players and coaches is greater now than it has ever been," Gundy said. "It started three or four years ago. It's based on coaches' contracts and BCS money and how much money can be brought in. Because of that players across the country would tighten up.

"In my opinion, the team that just goes out and cuts it loose is going to succeed."

There might not be a more carefree player in the nation at the moment than the Cowboys' quarterback. Two months older than Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, Weeden is married, has a business degree and suddenly has an NFL future. His only academic commitments are two classes -- golf and first aid.

"I'm going the Matt Leinart route," Weeden said of the Southern California quarterback's famed ballroom dancing elective.

"I worked my tail off to graduate early so I'd have my degree so I can, you know, focus on football," he continued. "I wake up, work out a couple of days a week and watch some film. I've become a film rat."

Weeden also has become incredibly accurate (73 percent) while getting some Heisman run. Mostly, he is way beyond that knucklehead stage that might doom younger college players faced with stardom.

He drinks in the adulation, but he doesn't overindulge on his celebrity status.

"I realize I can't go to Eskimo Joe's and buy 10 or 15 beers, and everybody is staring at me," Weeden said. "[But] I'll go out and mingle. I'll look back in 20 years and if I didn't do that stuff I'd probably regret it."

There is an occasional reminder why he is in Stillwater. Arm problems forced him out of baseball after five years in minor-league ball with the Yankees, Dodgers and Royals. As a quarterback, Weeden is a gunslinger -- only four quarterbacks have thrown for more yards this season. As a former pitcher, he pays for it. The day after playing catch with his brother, Weeden said, "The next day is usually pretty miserable."

Don't freak, Pokes. Same guy, different arm motions.

Weeden is part of a clear delineation between the stars and what Gundy calls "program" guys. Coaches know it. Players find out. No one gets their feelings hurt.

Gundy uses the example of Dez Bryant, a former star receiver now with the Dallas Cowboys. In the coach's mind, Bryant had to be as fresh at the end of the game as DeMarcus Connor, a former backup receiver. Connor's specialty was mashing opposing defensive backs with his blocking ability.

In Gundy's system, both had equal value. That hasn't changed in 2011. There are 132 players on the roster, the coach said, 50 of them are walk-ons.

Who knows who is going to make the play that gets the Cowboys past Missouri, gets them to Dec. 3 and perhaps beyond? As long as they arrive at that happy place, well, happy.

"They only have a certain amount of hits in them," Gundy said.

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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