Dispatches From The Heartland: Oklahoma State

STILLWATER, Okla.—To borrow a phrase from Cameron Crowe, Stillwater runs deep for Josh Holliday.

Tucked in a hallway on the west side of Oklahoma State’s Gallagher-Iba Arena is Heritage Hall, a museum celebrating the university’s athletic tradition. One of the first display cases greeting visitors to the museum features three photographs from OSU baseball history. One depicts former coach Gary Ward. The second shows Ward’s long-time-assistant-turned-successor, Tom Holliday—Josh’s father. The third features Ward and the elder Holliday standing together behind a collection of Big 8 Conference championship trophies.

Coach Josh Holliday

Oklahoma State coach Josh Holliday

Ward and Holliday built Oklahoma State into a national juggernaut, leading the Cowboys to 10 College World Series trips between 1981 and ’95, including seven straight in the ’80s. When Ward retired, Holliday took over as head coach in 1997, and led OSU to Omaha again in 1999. His Cowboys went to four regionals in his first five years, but when they missed the postseason two years in a row, he was fired in the summer of 2003. After 26 great years in Stillwater, Holliday left town on bad terms.

Josh Holliday and his younger brother Matt—a big league all-star—starred at Stillwater High School, where Josh was co-valedictorian of his graduating class (and anyone who has ever spoken with Holliday shouldn’t be surprised to learn that, because he is one of the smartest, most thoughtful and personable coaches in college baseball). He played for his dad at Oklahoma State from 1996-99, and his name is peppered all over the school’s offensive record book.

So when Oklahoma State fired Frank Anderson (the man who replaced Tom Holliday), the Cowboys naturally set their sights on Josh Holliday, who had established himself as a premier recruiter during stints at Georgia Tech, Arizona State and Vanderbilt. That June, his Commodores were playing in a regional at North Carolina State, where Tom is the associate head coach. The day after the Wolfpack eliminated the ‘Dores, Josh Holliday got a call from Oklahoma State. He remembers the conversation when he told his dad about it.

“It was really awkward, to be honest with you,” Holliday said. “I think the way I can best describe our family’s full circle with Oklahoma State is, I think the only way my dad would ever feel good about Oklahoma State again is if I were here, because it’s kind of back in the family. My dad spent 25-some-odd years of his life here, was part of tremendous success, took the last College World Series team from Oklahoma State to Omaha. To leave was difficult. But for me to get a chance to come back reconnects all the ‘goods’ again. When I let him know (athletic director Mike) Holder had called me, I think he was very comfortable with me being my own man and deciding what was best for me at that point. Since then, I think he’s awfully proud to take all those good years here and feel really, really good about them again. Anyone that’s ever coached, been part of a university will tell you there’s an emotion that runs deep within you when you put that many years into one place.”

Josh Holliday said his parents have been back to Stillwater since, and his father has reconnected with former OSU players, including current pitching coach Rob Walton, who played for Tom Holliday in the ’80s.

Robin Ventura was a three-time All-American at Oklahoma State.

Robin Ventura was a three-time All-American at Oklahoma State.

“I think it is a lot of fun for him, and for my mom as well,” Josh Holliday said. “This is the greatest 25-year window of time for them too, where they raised my brother and I and have lifelong friends. So Stillwater’s kind of always been our home. Even when we weren’t here, it was still home.”

With that background in mind, it is crystal clear that Holliday is genuine when he talks passionately about how much this job means to him.

“It’s in my heart—I don’t know how else to put it,” he said. “At times it’s almost too much in my heart, because I care too much, and I’m maybe too aware of how much this place deserves to be great, because I watched it as a little kid, and I just got used to it being that way. I think now we step away and say that dynasties like the 1980s here don’t happen very often. This was my home, it was my upbringing, these players were like my brothers, the coaches were like extended family. So to coach here probably means more to me than I could even explain, and at times too much, but I’m also learning to temper that. It’s a unique story, to coach at a school where my dad coached, where I played, where I grew up. There’s just so much linkage there that every single day I wake up, I feel overdrive. To make this place a national championship contender again would be amazingly rewarding.”

Star-Studded Staff

When Holliday took over as head coach, he considered it vital to put together a coaching staff that shared his vision and his passion for making Oklahoma State a national power again. Walton was a natural fit, as an OSU alumnus, and it was a boon for Holliday to pry him away from Oral Roberts, where he led the Golden Eagles to regionals in each of his nine seasons as head coach.

Oklahoma State's coaching staff

Oklahoma State’s coaching staff

During Holliday’s tenure on Pat Murphy’s staff at Arizona State, he frequently crossed paths with Oregon State recruiting coordinator Marty Lees, and the two struck up a friendship. Lees helped put together two national championship teams at the other OSU, so he knew what it takes to win at a state university. Holliday convinced him to leave Corvallis and take on a new challenge in Stillwater.

“I admired how hard he worked at tournaments; he was always paying attention, scouting and working,” Holliday said. “I just saw him as a grinder, he always had a smile on his face, he was always nice to me. I just felt good being around him, I liked him. I found myself drawn toward him—he’s a friend. Anytime you get a chance to run your own program, you want to surround yourself with people you trust.”

Lees spearheads Oklahoma State’s recruiting efforts, but Walton spends summers on the road with him, and Holliday is active in the recruiting process too. The staff’s first recruiting class this fall ranked No. 4 in the nation, and two of its key pieces—lefthander Garrett Williams and righty Tyler Buffett—are in the weekend rotation as freshmen. Toolsy outfielder Ryan Sluder is an everyday player as a freshman, and junior-college transfer Tim Arakawa starts at second base. Next year’s class has a chance to be as good or better.

“It takes a whole staff and a whole program to be good at recruiting,” Holliday said. “Every person has to care about this program, its appearance on the outside, the way people are received and welcomed when they come visit our campus.”

After spending a day with the coaching staff in Stillwater, it’s easy to see why recruits want to play for the Cowboys. The coaches have real chemistry with each other. During lunch with the entire staff at Fuzzy’s Tacos on the Stillwater street known as The Strip, Walton goes to stake out a table, and Holliday places an order for him. Holliday turns to one of his assistants and says, “Go ask River what he wants for sides.”

When asked about that moniker for Walton, Lees explains that it’s short for “Old Man River.”

“He’s just very calm—I don’t think he even owns a watch,” Lees says of Walton.

Holliday later acknowledges that the other coaches like to “give the gray hair a hard time,” and that they have a lot of fun together. But Walton’s experience and unflappable, low-key demeanor are invaluable.

After lunch, Holliday enlists volunteer assistant Roland Fanning to take me on a tour of Oklahoma State’s “athletic village.” A former assistant at Division II Southeastern Oklahoma State, Fanning grew up in Coalgate, Okla., next door to Josh Holliday’s uncle Dave (who has worked as an OSU assistant and a scout with the Rockies and Braves). The family connection helped land Fanning his current gig, but so did his connections to junior-college baseball in North Texas and Oklahoma, making him another valuable recruiting resource.

As a tour guide, Fanning is top-notch—enthusiastic, knowledgeable and thorough. He seems to know every person we pass and says hello to all of them, including head football coach Mike Gundy (who proves to be very friendly in his own right). Just inside the basketball arena, we are greeted by a huge statue of Oklahoma State’s mascot, Pistol Pete.

Garrett Williams

Garrett Williams

“This man right here, he is the baddest mascot in college sports,” Fanning says. “Awesome. Awesome. Kids love him.”

The basketball arena and football stadium are adjoined—one set of luxury suites overlooks the basketball court on one side and the football field on the other. The massive structure houses Oklahoma State’s impressive academic support facilities. Fanning explains that Holliday places heavy emphasis on classroom achievement, believing that if players are in good shape academically, they’ll have clear minds on the field. Eight OSU players made the 2013 academic all-conference team.

Inside the state-of-the-art football and basketball locker rooms, Fanning points out how clean they are, and how good they smell—not at all like one might expect a locker room to smell. Throughout the facilities, no detail has been overlooked, no matter how small. Even the locker room shower heads are top-of-the-line; as Fanning tells it, oil baron and OSU alumnus T. Boone Pickens insisted upon the locker rooms having the same shower heads he uses at home when he made his $165 million donation to the athletics department.

“I always hear from recruits, you know, they think it’s a cow town, a country town,” Fanning says. “But once they get inside our walls, they’re sold.”

Toward the end of the tour, Fanning drives our golf cart to a gravel parking lot, where Oklahoma State plans to build a new baseball stadium in the not-so-distant future. The university hired the DLR Group—the same architecture firm that designed LSU’s Alex Box Stadium and Oregon’s PK Park, among others—to put together renderings and a plan for a new on-campus stadium in Stillwater. The project has a projected price tag of $37 million, and the fundraising campaign is just getting underway, but the DLR Group’s report is very thorough, and it’s clear that the university is serious about building a new ballpark.

Allie P. Reynolds Stadium

Allie P. Reynolds Stadium

And it needs one. Allie P. Reynolds Stadium opened in 1981 and has seen modest upgrades since. The playing surface is superb, and the clubhouse got upgraded in 2005, but the exterior looks very dated, and the best seats in the house are faded orange metal bleachers with arm rests between the seats. Behind them in the seating bowl are metal bleachers with no backs. All the metal seats are uncomfortably cold on a Tuesday night in mid-March.

While the Cowboys are taking batting practice before their midweek game against Missouri State, Holliday invites me to sit on a metal folding chair near the dugout.

“This is what we call a box seat at Reynolds Stadium,” he says. “Just chalk a box and grab a chair.”

The athletic village across the street presents a vision of what the future of Oklahoma State’s baseball facilities might look like, but Reynolds Stadium will have to do in the short term. The future is attractive, but the past means just as much at Oklahoma State.

As Holliday opens a door out of the clubhouse onto the grassy area that passes for a concourse, he points out two black marble plaques supported by granite plinths. One is a tribute to Robin Ventura, owner of a Division I record 58-game hitting streak and winner of the 1988 Golden Spikes Award. The other honors Pete Incaviglia, who hit an NCAA-record 100 home runs during his college career.

“My dad put those in about 15 years ago,” Holliday says. “As humble as the stadium is, we still have the two greatest hitters in the history of college baseball.”

And history matters in Stillwater.