Stillwater, Okla. — If the national championship game were played today, it would be Les Miles’ current team against the one he helped put on the path to the BCS.
Miles has already taken LSU to one national championship, and he’s leading the pack on the way to another after beating Alabama last week. The team that is right behind his top-ranked Tigers in the BCS standings is none other than Oklahoma State.
Miles spent four seasons at OSU, pulling off two big upsets in the Bedlam rivalry against Oklahoma and starting some upward momentum. He also brought current coach Mike Gundy back into the fold as his offensive coordinator.
If both keep winning, the former colleagues will face off in the BCS title game in January.
“If he’s there,” Gundy said, “I sure hope I get the chance.”
Neither coach is all that comfortable at this point talking about the possibilities of meeting two months from now at the Superdome for all the marbles. Each still has three regular-season games left, the last against a top 10 opponent, and the Tigers would also have to get through the SEC championship game.
The ties between Miles and Gundy date to 1995, when Miles came to Oklahoma State as Bob Simmons’ offensive coordinator and had Gundy — who was on the previous staff and spent the year before as offensive coordinator — as his quarterbacks coach.
They were reunited in 2001 when Miles, then a Dallas Cowboys assistant, was brought back to replace Simmons as head coach. He hired Gundy as his offensive coordinator, and soon the program was on its way out of a deep valley that followed Barry Sanders’ 1988 Heisman Trophy season and a run through NCAA probation.
Miles won just four games his first season, but capped it with a 16-13 upset at No. 4 Oklahoma that provided momentum in recruiting. The Cowboys won eight games the following season — beating a third-ranked Sooners team and finishing with a winning record for just the second time in 14 years.
“I think it generated some excitement again, and then it started to get some people on board: OK, we’re kind of getting that way,” said Todd Monken, Gundy’s current offensive coordinator and a former Miles assistant at OSU and LSU. “Can we take the next step?”
Miles went on to lead the Cowboys to three straight bowl games for only the second time ever, then left following a blowout loss in the Alamo Bowl to join LSU. Perhaps the most important result of Miles’ success was that it gave billionaire Boone Pickens something to believe in, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars in donations that have transformed the football stadium and training areas.
Some in the Oklahoma State community are still bitter about Miles’ departure, even though he went to a place where he won a national title three years later and handed the program to Gundy with a firm foundation in place.
Gundy wouldn’t let Miles come back and tell the team goodbye, a decision he now doubts had any impact.
“It does not surprise me the success that he’s having,” Gundy said. “He kind of got the ball rolling here, and I was fortunate enough to take his place and then able to keep it going from that point on. Everybody needs to be thankful for what he did here now.”
Looking back, Gundy said Miles had the right approach at the right time for Oklahoma State.
“He was smart enough to realize that’s some of the guys that we had here may not be as good as what we think we need, but if we are tougher than them, we can pound this thing out, win enough games and kind of get it rolling,” Gundy said.
Miles molded the Cowboys into a smashmouth running team with long practices, running counter and power plays “until nobody could stand up any more,” Gundy said.
Gundy employs a far different approach now, using fast-paced practices that are much shorter and aimed at keeping players fresh for game days. The former quarterback’s offense throws the ball on about 60 percent of its plays and is one of only two that averages more than 50 points per game.
“My philosophy on offense is different than his, but the basic principles of what I believe in are the same as him. This is who we are, this is how we’re going to do it, and don’t look back no matter what,” Gundy said.