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Column: Is 2020 Mike Gundy's last stand?

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Mike Gundy (left) and Lincoln Riley (right) talk before the Oklahoma vs. Oklahoma State football game on Saturday, Nov. 30, 2019 at Boone Pickens Stadium in Stillwater, OK.

When it was all said and done, the OAN T-shirt debacle appears to be behind us. With genuine efforts from both the players and the Oklahoma State football coach Mike Gundy, both parties appear to be better for it.

With the investigation all wrapped up and the incident in the rearview mirror, an old question resurfaces — if Gundy can’t win in 2020 with this roster, when will he?

Gundy has been teetering on the line of “good, not great” his entire career. While his unshaken consistency has been impressive, fans are growing frustrated.

Is it a fair critique? To answer that, we have to take a step back.

Plain and straight, Gundy took a program that struggled for a good chunk of time and made it into consistent force. A 129-63 (.668) record is impressive for almost anyone. But even more so when you consider Gundy has only coached one 5-star — and he didn’t even recruit that one.

For OSU fans, it’s a real hometown story.

Gundy played — and starred — under center for the Cowboys back in the 1980s. Then he came back in 2001 as the offensive coordinator before taking over as the head coach in 2005. After a 4-7 season his first year, he didn’t have another losing season.

And the “I’m a man, I’m 40” rant had parents infatuated with a coach who would stand up for their kid. The perfect formula.

I mean, how can you not fall in love with that?

I’ll tell you how: winning trumps all.

It’s true. In sports, winning is the ultimate trump card. If Gundy has one playoff appearance, this whole discussion goes away.

The truth is, despite his immense success, Gundy has won only one Big 12 championship and holds a 2-13 record against Oklahoma.

While I personally don’t think those numbers define him — defeating a powerhouse such as Oklahoma is no easy task — it is a concern.

But the ugly truth is, at the core of it all, winning is so important. But that level of winning is also an ever-changing carousel.

That’s just how it works. There’s no “set” level of winning that ensures job security.

Think about it.

No matter what sport it is, a coach who takes over a historically bad team, has a few years to make them a playoff contender. And that’s considered a huge success.

But once they get to that playoff status, if they keep losing in the first round for four years straight, that’s not good enough. If they go deep in the playoffs several years straight, but can’t win a Super Bowl, that’s not good enough.

For Oklahoma and Lincoln Riley, anything below a playoff berth is considered a failure. And the fact they can’t win a National Championship is a bit of a disappointment.

Which is really of crazy when you think about it.

It’s always relative, and Gundy’s relative scale has increased. Another 10-3 season just isn’t “good enough” anymore.

And it’s fair. An undervalued defense with all but one of its starters returning, a quarterback expected to take a step forward and superstar weapons Tylan Wallace and Chuba Hubbard all returning, that should be the expectation.

Fans want Gundy to “take that next step.” But that “next step” is often pointed to as something else.

So many people try to cite Gundy’s recruiting prowess as the issue for his “lack of success,” but stars are so flawed in college football.

It’s not to say the 4 and 5-stars aren’t up to par, but so many others aren’t correctly scouted. Think about how many players there are across the nation, with six different classes of competition. It’s not easy to make accurate predictions.

There’s a long list of 2-stars or lower that have turned into studs in the NFL — J.J. Watt, Von Miller, Tony Romo, Bobby Wagner, just to name a few.

I’m not trying to debunk the college football rating system. My point is, these coaches are smarter than the star system, that’s why they’re paid millions of dollars. I mean, just look at Gundy’s talent and tell me the stars actually matter.

They don’t.

What does matter is what Gundy ends up with at the end of Saturday — a win or a loss.

Like I said before, another 10-3 season isn’t enough. Gundy needs to push the needle and go further than that. Which likely entails a playoff berth.

Whether it’s “right” or “wrong” to levy such high expectations, Gundy needs to take a leap forward simply because that’s the natural order of things in sports. It circles back to the relative scale of success.

If you stand in one spot for too long, fans grow tired. It’s that simple.

sports.ed@ocolly.com