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Building O'Brate: Once only a vision, OSU's new stadium finally ready to shine

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Josh Holliday reclined in a chair in his Stillwater living room, watching a little TV with his wife Jenny on a December evening in 2016..

Suddenly, the sounds from the TV were overpowered by the ringtone blaring from Josh’s cell phone. He answered the call from athletic director Mike Holder, and what he heard from his boss would change everything.

“Mr. O’Brate is in. He’s gonna build us that baseball stadium.”

Josh recalled chuckling out of utter disbelief. With some prodding from Holder, Cecil O’Brate committed to donate $30 million toward OSU baseball’s dream home.

There’s not really a way to prepare yourself for that, but something that had been just a concept for so long – a much-needed stadium upgrade to match the Cowboys’ rich tradition – now trended toward reality.

The Cowboys were getting that stadium, and the donor’s name was destined to be written all over it.

Selling Cecil

In his 92 years on earth, Cecil O’Brate has done two things masterfully:

1. Become an influential CEO in the oil and gas industry and a wealthy philanthropist.

2. Keep the first thing so far off the radar that hardly anybody knew of him. Not even Mike Holder, who makes it his business to know anyone who may qualify as an OSU athletics donor.

“That’s just who I am,” O’Brate said.

If there’s one thing Holder prides himself on, it’s managing money and fundraising. So when a friend made a comment about a wealthy “farmer” in Kansas who had ties to OSU, Holder decided to reach out.

On a whim, Holder called O’Brate and proposed meeting in person.

“You went to Oklahoma State and we’ve never met,” Holder told O’Brate in that initial conversation. “We need to do something about that.”

A month later, in April 2015, they did just that. Holder made the trip to O’Brate’s hidden oasis: Garden City, Kansas. When he arrived one thing was evident: this was no easy task at hand, confirmed by the Kansas State license plate on the front of O’Brate’s car. Though he attended OSU from 1946-48, O’Brate left to pursue business opportunities. Also his grandchildren attended K-State, explaining the license plate.

“If we don’t accomplish anything else here,” Holder told O’Brate, “you’re going to acknowledge the fact that you went to OSU and be proud of that.”

A year after their first meeting, in April 2016, Holder casually asked Cecil the $20 million dollar question. He approached it in a good news-bad news type of way.

“The good news is you’ve been very successful in your life and made a lot of money,” Holder began. “You’ve made a difference in Garden City for a lot of people. And the bad news is that puts you on a short list of people that have some connection to OSU and have enough money to make a donation big enough for us to build this new stadium.”

Holder anticipated the new stadium would cost $40 million. He asked O’Brate if he would donate half that amount. It was a shot in the dark. Holder was hopeful but definitely not optimistic that Cecil would entertain it in any way.

He even thought maybe the answer would be, “It’s been nice knowing you, see ya later.’”

“I’ve been turned down lots of times for money,” Holder said. “Boone Pickens told me no so many times I can’t count. I’m used to rejection, it was part of being a coach and being told no by recruits.”

But to Holder’s surprise, there wasn’t rejection this time. At least not quite.

'I'll think about it...'

It was much better than Holder was expecting, and the vaguely promising response was followed by another surprise. Cecil O’Brate wanted to visit Stillwater.

Up until that point, O’Brate and his wife, Frances, rarely came to town. They occasionally visited for football games, but those trips were in and out, not involving much socializing. This time would be different, Holder was sure of that.

“I wanted him to come and look at how much has changed and take a stroll down memory lane,” Holder said.

A few months later, in August 2016, the O’Brates visited Stillwater and got exactly that. They also had a special presentation waiting at Karsten Creek.

Stadium architect Jim Hasslebeck provided some concept illustrations of the potential stadium. The O’Brate family was shown the visuals, and Holder watched out of the corner of his eye for their reactions to one picture in particular:

“O’Brate Stadium.”

That’s when Holder noticed Cecil’s son, Steve, whispering something to his friend and laughing.

“There’s one of two things he said to that guy,” Holder said. “One, ‘If they think they’re gonna get enough money out of my dad to put his name on the stadium, they’re barking up the wrong tree.’ Or, ‘Anybody that would give that amount of money to get their name on this is crazy.”

The recruitment of Cecil O’Brate came to a spearpoint in December 2016 when Holder decided it was time to “pop the question” during another trip to Garden City. When Holder stepped off the plane and got to his rental car, he was surprised by what was waiting there for him.

The vehicle: an orange Jeep. Cecil, by special request, made sure that was the car waiting for Holder.

A sign of things to come

The two, in that orange Jeep, were driving to Cecil’s office when Holder finally got his answer.

“We’re driving along, then all of a sudden (Cecil) looked at me and he said, ‘I’m going to give you 30 million for that baseball stadium,’” Holder said, taking note of the number.

“You mean he’s gonna give me more?”

Yes he is.

Holder said he was completely blown away. After receiving such good news, he had to call Holliday and tell him. He also had another phone call to make.

It was to T. Boone Pickens.

“I wanted him to know that he was the reason we got that 30 million,” Holder said. “Cecil O’Brate said Boone Pickens is what had really inspired him to even think about making a gift that size. He was just following his lead.”

It was settled. Cecil O’Brate would soon have a dazzling new stadium with his name on it.

“They said that’s what they were going to do,” O’Brate said, “so I didn’t argue with them.”

It took more than a year of convincing, but Holder and OSU had found their guy and now it was a matter of designing the stadium exactly how they wanted it.

Careful planning

Holliday had long been developing a stadium wish list, a compilation of his own ideas, as well as features taken from other premium facilities he admired while on the road as an assistant at Georgia Tech, Arizona State and Vanderbilt, and also as head coach at OSU.

A practice field at Arizona State stood out. So did the SEC baseball atmosphere, especially at Mississippi State.

“We’d be in the outfield stretching, and they’re handing guys hot dogs over the fences and it just felt like a place where you definitely know the game mattered,” Holliday said.

Holliday and Holder had a vision for this new stadium, mostly a facility that turned heads on the college baseball landscape. There was only one issue getting in the way of the “extras.”

Money.

Estimates had the project going over budget by at least $12 million, from $40 million to $53-55 Million. Cuts were discussed, before Holder ultimately dismissed that idea.

“Every time you cut something it becomes less grand,” Holder said. “I want Cecil to be proud of what we put his name on.”

Cecil helped, too, adding an additional $5 million to his donation, bumping his gift to $35 million.

In the end, the final price tag on O’Brate Stadium approached $70 million. There were no regrets, instead a realization of the cost of building something truly special.

“It’s an arms race,” said Jim Traber, a former Cowboy baseball great who’s now a radio personality in Oklahoma City. “It’s just what it is.”

Saying goodbye

OSU’s beloved Allie P. Reynolds Stadium opened in 1981, and in its tenure fielded 12 College World Series teams, over 800 total wins, an all-time home run leader and one of the best college baseball players ever among a long list of future pros.

When Allie P. opened, it was one-of-a-kind.

“It was gorgeous,” Traber said. “For back then, it was just unbelievable.”

“Historic” is an appropriate word to describe Allie P., although time has not been kind to the previously state-of-the-art stadium. It was once considered a top facility nationally, but Allie P. deteriorated over time, falling behind every stadium in the Big 12. After 39 seasons, it was time to say farewell to Allie P.

It was not a quick goodbye, though, as delays postponed Opening Day at O’Brate, keeping the Cowboys in Allie P. to start the 2020 season. Then the pandemic hit, ending the season before the team ever made its debut in the new digs.

“It got a long goodbye, that’s for sure,” said Cowboys senior outfielder Cade Cabbiness.

The long-awaited hello

March 20, 2020, was supposed to be the day OSU officially called O’Brate Stadium home.

COVID-19 had other plans.

TCU was coming to town, the game was sold out and George W. Bush was scheduled to throw out the first pitch. Unfortunately, the celebration won’t be quite the same when the Cowboys finally play an O’Brate opener Tuesday against Little Rock.

“You can’t replicate that now with COVID,” Holder said.

“We had a mini grand opening for Cecil and Frances and the team back in August, and we’re going to have some game this year where we have a smaller version of a grand opening just for all the fans that are at the game to say thank you to Cecil.”

Those already enjoying O’Brate Stadium are regularly giving thanks for a home that has surpassed expectations.

“It’s better, so much better,” Cabbiness said.

From the outdoor and indoor practice facilities, elite batting cages and amenities that include a massive training room, a 7,400-square-foot locker room and player lounge equipped with a nutrition center, hot and cold tubs and a sports medicine area.

What more could you want?

“We have everything we need in here to be equipped to take on a season,” senior infielder Max Hewitt said, “now it’s just a little bit shinier.”

“I think it’s just a smaller version of a major league park,” said Matt Holliday, Josh’s brother, a former MLB star and OSU’s hitting coach, “it’s just one that holds 8,500 compared to 50,000.

“We are lucky to have a major league caliber stadium here at Oklahoma State now.”

Forever home

OSU has only been to Omaha once since 1999, but O’Brate stadium may help create more frequent trips to the College World Series.

Facilities play such a major role in recruiting and the Cowboys now can promise a palace to rival any in the college game.

The rest of the Big 12 is taking notice, too.

“I really foresee that new stadium giving them an opportunity to attract the best players in the nation now,” West Virginia coach Randy Mazey said. “I look forward to Oklahoma State being a top-10, perennial power program moving forward like they were when I was coming out of high school.”

The Cowboys hope Mazey is right; that O’Brate Stadium changes everything.

“It has such a different first impression now,” Josh Holliday said.

Josh and the coaching staff don’t have to sell recruits on the people and the university as reasons to come to OSU now. The facilities are a major attraction, too.

“We’re back in the mix with everybody else,” said Robin Ventura, an OSU all-time great who returned from Major League Baseball to serve as a volunteer coach.

Cecil O’Brate’s masterpiece has been awaiting Cowboy nation for nearly a year now, and even though it won’t be a sell-out crowd as originally planned, it’s finally time for the inaugural game, which is only days away.

“That first game is going to be electric,” Cabbiness said. “It’ll be fun, the energy will be high and we just hope it carries out throughout the whole year.”

And for years and years to come, a “forever home,” Holder calls it, thanks to Cecil O’Brate.

“You don’t have that stadium without him,” Holder said. “You just have an idea.”

sports.ed@ocolly.com