Almost everything about Stillwater, Oklahoma, is simple. Small college town. The lonely stretch of State Highway 55 that runs East into the hamlet of 50,000 from I-35 might as well be a sign of what’s ahead.
“I have a cigar bar and a sushi place. That’s about it,” Oklahoma State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles says describing his ideal night out.
The lack of distractions is probably a good thing this week of the Big 12 Championship Game. If the Cowboys haven’t carved out a piece of the national consciousness by now, well, that fits the simplicity of it all.
The town and the team are easy to overlook.
Oklahoma is the storied national program 77 miles to the South. But this week, OU is in upheaval without a coach following Oklahoma State’s 37-33 win last Saturday. It was the Cowboys who advanced to the Big 12 title game against No. 9 Baylor.
Win and No. 5 Oklahoma State is not automatically in the College Football Playoff, but it’s safe to say the program will be near the peak of coach Mike Gundy’s 18 seasons with a legitimate chance to play for the national championship.
Before the campaign began, few expected bright lights to shine down on a program led by a generational defense. That’s the biggest surprise that’s come from Oklahoma State challenging for a CFP berth.
You shouldn’t have to be told they don’t normally play defense in the Big 12.
The statement is beyond a stereotype. The league has made its reputation on running up scores. The problem was opponents frequently did the same against Big 12 defenses. Ten times since 2011, the Big 12 has produced a top six scoring offense. Only four times over a full season since that year has a Big 12 defense finished in the top 20.
Knowles, an Ivy-educated former Cornell coach, came from being Duke’s defensive coordinator four years ago to test himself.
“I wanted to get out of my comfort zone,” Knowles told CBS Sports. “I really thought, ‘Well, [it’s] the Big 12. It’s a special form of insanity. OK, let me see how I can hold up.'”
The 56-year-old Philadelphia native has held up well to the point he finds himself in demand. New Florida coach Billy Napier is reportedly interested his services. Knowles’
Oklahoma State defense is Georgia-level good. You just probably haven’t heard. The Cowboys are No. 1 nationally in sacks, tackles for loss and third-down conversions. They are fifth in scoring defense (16.4 points) and third in total defense behind only Georgia and Wisconsin.
No one saw it coming at a place where 16 of the program’s 19 consensus All-Americans have been offensive players. That list includes a Heisman Trophy winner (Barry Sanders) and three others who finished in the top 10 in Heisman voting (Terry Miller, Thurman Thomas, Justin Blackmon).
“For me as a coach going into my 18th year, this has been a 360 for me on how I approach game day and decisions I make during the game,” said Gundy, who was Sanders’ quarterback in that magical 1988 season. “Just letting them play and [to think] sometimes it’s OK to punt and play field position.”
Knowles has meticulously assembled a veteran unit where each starter is in his fourth season — at least. Linebacker Devin Harper and cornerback Christian Holmes are in their sixth, while linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez is in his fifth.
They were part of the group that stifled Oklahoma in Bedlam. Oklahoma State has played in the shadow of big brother for decades. That all melted away in a heartbeat when the Cowboys — already having clinched that championship game berth — beat the sooners for only the third time in Gundy’s tenure. Oklahoma State is now a different heartbeat away from something bigger, the CFP.
The narrow OU win could not have been achieved without it being kept from scoring an offensive touchdown in the second half. Oklahoma State handed Texas Tech a shut out for the first time since 1997. Its eight sacks against West Virginia tied a Power Five high this season. The Cowboys have held their opponents to a cumulative 184.3 points below their scoring average.
Knowles is proud of doing it without five- or even four-star recruits.
The 2020 unit was a tease, leading the Big 12 with the lowest opponent third-down conversion rate. OSU went 8-3.
“I could sense the tide was turning,” Knowles said. “That’s what I’ve been trying to convince them of since I’ve been here, that we could win games on defense. We did it last year. I thought we had a chance to be really good. But we’ve reached into like being great, and that’s like rarified air.”
Credit wrestling. Gundy loves the sport having wrestled up until halfway through high school. He wears wrestling’s badges of honor, a cauliflower ear. It’s still impossible to unsee this Cowboys wrestling promo from 2017. In his decade or so dedicated to the sport, Gundy figured out wrestling skills translate to football. Both are physical sports about getting the opponent to the ground.
Rodriguez and defensive end Brock Martin are each former state wrestling champions. Rodriguez is a Butkus Award semifinalist for nation’s best linebacker. Martin leads the defensive line with 34 tackles.
“Anytime we hear about guys who have a wrestling background, we’re very interested in recruiting them,” Gundy said. “Very few people know about wrestling because they don’t pay attention to it. It’s not on TV, ever. It’s not a premium sport.”
Gundy is known for hiring out of the box. Former offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich (2013-18) came from Division II Shippensburg State and spent six seasons with Oklahoma State. He’s now at Penn State. There was a relationship between the two when Gundy became interested in Knowles after Duke in 2017 finished third in ACC scoring defense and returned four pick sixes.
Knowles’ 4-2-5 scheme might be the most common in the game. It emphasizes the ability to run and tackle in space over making the big hit. Sort of like wrestling.
“Mike recognized that we were able to do that [at Duke] without the big-time recruits,” Knowles said. “He called me up. I flew out with a laptop. He picked me up, put me in a room with the whole staff — offense and defense. I went to town, four hours non-stop. I closed up my laptop, left and never saw anything. Then he called and offered me the job.”
Knowles has become a local legend in his 33rd year of coaching. He spent one year on Wall Street fresh out of Cornell.
“Then I found myself peering into fences — I’d probably get arrested today — staring at high school practices,” he said. “The smell of the grass. I grew up in the inner city, North Philly. There wasn’t any grass. When I first started playing football, I didn’t even know where the park was. When I got to the park, there was that smell of grass.”
He was hooked, making stops at his alma mater (Cornell), Western Michigan, Ole Miss and Duke. His players are comfortable enough with him to refer to him as an “evil genius” or “cartoon character”. They may have gone too far with the nickname “Goob,” short for “Goober.”
“They won’t call me that to my face,” Knowles said.
Stillwater has become that simple place for a guy with simple tastes. How many bald, cigar-smoking, vegan marathoners are there anywhere?
“I’m healthy, and I take care of myself, but I really don’t,” Knowles said. “I’m a coach. When you put it that way, it makes me think, ‘What the hell am I doing?'”
Ruining a Big 12 stereotype, for one thing. Perhaps advancing his team into the College Football Playoff, too. That would be a big thing.