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'I’m grateful and I’m sad': Gajewski emotional after hearing about Holder's departure

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Head Coach Kenny Gajewski before the No.14 Oklahoma State vs. Missouri State softball game on March 8, 2020 at Cowgirl Stadium in Stillwater, Oklahoma

The phone buzzed. And buzzed again. And again, and again.

Kenny Gajewski’s phone buzzed 15 times when he turned it on after emerging from the plane — all frenzied messages from tennis coach Chris Young.

The texts all said the same thing.

“Hey, change of plans. Coach Holder is going to pick you up.”

Gajewski had just landed in Oklahoma City. He was fresh off winning back-to-back NCAA softball championships as an assistant coach for the Florida Gators in 2014 and 2015.

He was flying into Oklahoma to interview for the OSU softball head coaching job. Gajewski was intent on making a good first impression with athletic director Mike Holder.

Gajewski talked with Young before his flight to plan out his wardrobe. They knew Holder was not always a suit-and-tie type of guy, but even though Holder had assured Gajewski to wear what he was comfortable with, the pair agreed a suit was the aspiring head coach’s best option.

Gajewski remembers his reaction to the texts from Young, who was supposed to pick him up from the airport before the change of plans.

“Oh, crap.”

The most important job interview of his life was starting one car ride earlier.

“I ran into the bathroom in the airport, put my tie on and brushed my teeth,” Gajewski said.

He remembered getting in Holder’s car, where he was greeted by his smiling, holey-jean sporting, vest and boot-wearing future boss who said, “I told you not to wear a suit.”

Wardrobe mix-up aside, the car ride started off great. The man in country attire ensured the Floridian softball coach in a suit was comfortable.

“We get into the car. He’s smiling, and I’m scared to death,” Gajewski said. “We’re on our way to Stillwater and we had some small talk. He got my trip off to the best start.”

Gajewski still had one concern.

“I stutter, and I’m focused on making the best impression I can. My stuttering doesn’t bother me, but I wanted him to know that I want to be out in front of this program. I know I’m going to have to speak a lot. And I want to. I love it.”

With the pressure on to be eloquent, Holder sparked up a to the-point-conversation.

“You know, I heard you stutter,” Holder said to his passenger.

“I do.”

“Doesn’t bother me,” Holder said.

The conversation was not long, and it may not have been especially profound. But it’s impact on Gajewski, and consequently the future of the OSU softball program, was huge.

“It loosened me to be so real from the start,” Gajewski said.

That conversation is a microcosm of Holder’s legacy as the athletic director of OSU. His style is unique, certainly. But his upfront manner has led to an incredibly impactful career.

Holder was also upfront about the only issue he could find with Gajewski’s past — a crimson red flag.

“I can only find thing one thing that I don’t know how to handle yet,” Holder said. “You’re a Sooner.”

“I just started laughing,” Gajewski said. “I said, you know what coach, I am… but I promise you this. If you hire me, I’ll be the best Cowboy you’ve ever had.”

They had been driving for less than 20 minutes but before the two had reached Edmond, Gajewski knew he wanted to work for Holder.

Amid the news that Holder’s role as athletic director was changing, discussing Holder’s impact on Gajewski’s life brought the veteran softball coach to tears.

“He gave me the shot of a lifetime to be here,” Gajewski said. “And he didn’t have to. When it’s more popular to hire a female, it’s more popular to do what the public sentiment wants you to do — he’s always done what’s best for OSU in his mind. I’m grateful and I’m sad.”

Holder’s fingerprints are all over the athletic department. As an athlete, a coach and AD, Gajewski summarized Holder’s legacy.

“From a walk-on athlete, to becoming an All-American, to creating, maintaining and taking the golf team to levels that nobody will go to,” Gajewski said. “To building Karsten Creek, to being the best fundraiser of all time.”

Gajewski has personally benefited from the talents of Holder. When hired, Gajewski’s softball budget was $27,000, and that included his salary. The softball program has since been transformed.

“It’s crazy what that guy has done, and I’m going to miss him and Robbie (Holder’s wife) both,” Gajewski said. “I hope it’s going to bring them to more softball games. He’s a closet softball fan. Don’t let him tell you any differently.”

OSU will be losing a massive figure within the university. The personal work ethic of Holder is renown, and even a little bit intimidating.

“When I walk in the weight room, and I see him there I want to leave,” Gajewski said. “Because he out-works us all. He’s 72 or 73 on the ground working out like kids. He’s like, ‘Hey, welcome back, where have you been.’ He talks trash all the time. There’s nothing that you can say to him. There’s no excuse.”

The character of Holder seems unchanging. His unique personality comes out when smack talking people half his age in the weight room or when discussing million-dollar payments in the board room.

His personality has led to some disagreements, but Holder’s stamp on those who remain is permanent.

“There’s been days here where I want to wring his neck,” Gajewski said. “He drives you nuts, but he’s constantly coaching you. That’s the greatest gift that he’s given me.”

His gift will keep on giving. Holder is staying on through the end of June, when Chad Weiberg will take on the athletic director role. Holder will have more time to play 18 holes at the golf course he raised, but Gajewski does not expect Holder to disappear.

“I’m excited that he’s going to stay around,” Gajewski said. “I feel sorry for all the people at Karsten Creek because that’s where he’ll probably wander off to. But I know that he’ll be there for Chad, for all of us. We’ll have him forever. I fully anticipate him helping me raise money here, along with Chad, to build us a Mini O’Brate right over here.”

sports.ed@ocolly.com