Oklahoma State athletics has reached new heights in the last decade, but to appreciate the way things are today, Cowboys fans need to know where it all began.
In the fall of 1972, OSU’s first men’s golf coach, Labron Harris, prepared for his 25th and final season as coach.
Harris’s retirement left the men’s golf program in the hands of his understudy, Mike Holder. But before Harris signed off, he contributed to one of the greatest traditions in the history of OSU athletics.
The NCAA Championships were to be held in Stillwater for the first time in 1973. In an effort to raise money, Harris put on a Pro-Am tournament. The event brought in alumni golfers, as well as donors and supporters of the program. Money was raised and the tournament was a success.
The following season, Holder had a tough act to follow. With little resources, Holder and his team needed either to find a big miracle, or adopt smaller goals.
“The budget for golf was $27,000,” Holder said. “That included my salary, team travel, scholarships, memberships at Lakeside to play, the whole bit. You wouldn’t have to be a genius to figure out that if you wanted to be a team that could compete for the national title, that probably wasn’t enough money.”
Holder followed his mentor’s lead. Like Harris, he hosted a fundraising tournament, and the Cowboy Pro Am was born.
Jerry Walsh, a member of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity at OSU and a friend of Holder’s, attended the Cowboy Pro Am in ’73 and he invited two fraternity brothers to come along.
Their names were Sherman Smith and Boone Pickens.
That first Cowboy Pro Am brought in a little less than $10,000. But the relationships that grew from then on, as well as the generous donations, have transformed the golf program and the university.
“I think it’s one of the most significant things that’s ever happened on this campus,” Holder said.
Boone Pickens has given more than $500 million to OSU for athletics and academics, according to the T. Boone Pickens Foundation website. His $165 million contribution in 2005 was the largest gift for athletics in NCAA history and it brought the athletic program to a new level.
His friend and business partner, Sherman Smith, the second largest private donor in OSU history, recently gave $20 million for the construction of an athletic training facility which will bear his name.
The OSU athletic department reported $69.8 million in donations for the 2012 fiscal year, which ended in June.
The donors, Holder said, were originally attracted to the success of the golf program.
OSU men’s golf has won 53 conference titles and 10 national championships, but its most impressive statistic reflects the sustained success of the program. The team appeared in 65 consecutive national championships from 1947 to 2011, a feat unrivalled in all of sports.
In Harris’ era, the team won a national championship, 24 conference titles, and had a 273-54 record in dual competitions.
When Holder took over, he added eight national championships, including five individual champions, and 25 conference titles. In addition, his ability to establish a financial foundation made way for the construction of Karsten Creek, the home course of the OSU golf teams.
“When I retired as golf coach we had enough money to build Karsten Creek debt free and had $31 million dollars in the foundation to count for golf,” Holder said. “I always wanted to leave it better for the next coach than what I inherited.”
Mike McGraw took over when Holder became the athletic director in 2005, and like Holder, he had big shoes to fill.
In his first season, McGraw led his team to a national championship.
Now in his eighth season as Cowboy skipper, McGraw has earned four Big 12 Coach of the Year awards and has lead his teams to four conference titles.
But when asked how the team has seen so much success, McGraw points back to those tournaments in the early 70s.
“Our golf program could not be what it is without the Cowboy Pro Am,” McGraw said. “The Pro Am has been a life-blood for the golf program. But it has also permeated all through the university.”
“It changed our football program it changed our academics, it changed everything at OSU. The students are benefitting today because of that first Cowboy Pro Am. The relationships that Mike Holder built through that first Cowboy Pro Am have spread all throughout our university.”
Last Friday, McGraw and his team hosted the 40th annual Cowboy Pro Am. Boone Pickens was in attendance. He has been at every Cowboy Pro Am since ’73.
Holder knows the significance of small beginnings, and he knows how far reaching the impact can be.
“Everything we do is important,” Holder said. “You really don’t know how significant it might be in the future.”