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Column: Pickens' donations helped elevate OSU to unimaginable heights

OSU Georgia Football

Boone Pickens is hugged by OSU president Burns Hargis as OSU head football coach Mike Gundy looks on during a dedication ceremony for Boone Pickens Stadium, Saturday, Sept. 5, 2009. STEPHEN HOLMAN/Tulsa World

T. Boone Pickens was larger than life in a lot of ways.

His fortune was monstrous, his personality was bold and the stadium bearing his name is a behemoth of a structure that towers over the rest of Oklahoma State University and the little town of Stillwater, Oklahoma.

Pickens, who died Wednesday at the age of 91, famously donated $165 million to OSU athletics in January 2006, which is the largest single donation in NCAA history, and forever attached his name to the program. Pickens gained his fortune by working his way up in the oil and gas industries and became world-renowned for his investment ventures and political involvement.

In Stillwater, Pickens is beloved like a rockstar. He graduated from OSU (then Oklahoma A&M) in 1951 with a degree in Geology, and he'll forever be celebrated in the OSU community as one of the most influential Cowboys of all time and one of the most famous and generous individual donors in the history of college athletics.

To Oklahoma State fans, the quiet struggle for power and credit between Pickens and football coach Mike Gundy was no secret.

With the success that Pickens' donations brought forth, which opened doors for OSU athletics that at once seemed unimaginable, it also brought with it higher expectations. Tensions fluctuated between OSU's top donor and football coach over the years as Pickens expressed his irritation with Gundy entertaining job offers from elsewhere around the country. Pickens also criticized Gundy on multiple occasions for his poor record against in-state rival Oklahoma.

The two stayed out of communication for a number of years, with OSU Athletic Director Mike Holder playing the middle ground and keeping the program on pace until he forced a reconciliation between the two.

"The OSU people deserve for us to get along," Gundy said in 2015.

Pickens showcased his support for Gundy and his excitement for the future of the program following OSU's 62-52 defeat at the hands of the Sooners in 2017, and expressed his continued commitment to Gundy and his excitement for the program in his annual preseason letter to Oklahoma State fans just two weeks ago, declaring that he's "in it to win it," and that the "window is closing for me."

Pickens and Gundy are both known for having strong personalities and liking to do things their way.

In many ways, their success stories can be paralleled.

Gundy rose up the collegiate coaching ranks before eventually landing a gig as the head coach at his alma mater, with a strong endorsement for his hiring from Mr. Pickens, before eventually leading the program to new heights. Gundy is a celebrity in Stillwater, and he demands and rightfully receives a tremendous amount of credit for OSU's success.

Pickens grew up in a poor Great Depression-era family and relentlessly worked his way up to eventually becoming a millionaire, and later a billionaire. In his final letter to OSU fans, he estimated that he donated $652 million in total to the university, both in athletics and academics, and funded renovations within the athletic department that boosted OSU to new heights. He, too, demanded and rightfully receives a tremendous amount of credit for OSU's success.

Their personalities and opinions might've clashed, but Pickens and Gundy were the architects for what can be seen today on the landscape of OSU athletics.

Gundy will receive direct credit for his success, as that's how coaching in the sports world works. You receive credit for winning, and if you do so at your alma mater, you'll probably spend an entire career there. He'll go down as the greatest coach in school history with a win percentage that'll blow his predecessors out of the water.

Pickens, though, had just as much to do with laying the groundwork for OSU's success as Gundy did, but he won't have his name attached to any 10-win seasons or bowl trophies.

Since Pickens' initial donation prior to the 2003 season, OSU has posted a record of 139-68, and 119-52 since his second hefty donation in 2006. Prior to Pickens' initial donation, the Cowboys held an all-time record of 422-447-41.

Before his donation, OSU had only notched three double-digit win seasons in school history. Since, the Cowboys have reached a double digit win total six times.

In 2011, the Cowboys posted their best season in school history and secured the program's first Big 12 title. Pickens, who was 83 at the time, celebrated with the team in the locker room following the win and said the moment felt better for him than any big money deal he's ever closed on.

A sculpture of Pickens will eventually stand in front of the west entrance to his stadium and his remains will be laid to rest at his childhood home, which was recently moved to OSU's Karsten Creek golf club.

Though he tried put a number on it ($652 million), Pickens' donations to OSU are immeasurable. They can be quantified into numbers, but the impact his kindness has had, not only on the athletic department, but on the university as a whole, will live on forever.

Pickens is probably the most important figure in the history of Oklahoma State athletics. He helped OSU get on the national radar, and his legacy in Stillwater will forever be more than just a name on the side of the brick palace next to Gallagher-Iba Arena on Hall of Fame Ave.

sports.ed@ocolly.com