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OSU coaches navigate, balance recruiting and teaching athletes in their family

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Josh Holliday

OSU coach Josh Holliday said the Big 12's depth is 'underrated, poorly portrayed.'

Josh Holliday wasn’t encouraged to play at OSU.

For Holliday, going to OSU was different than just playing baseball. Holliday is the son of Tom Holliday, who served as the coach from 1997-03 and was an assistant when Josh committed to play for the Cowboys.

Gary Ward, a former OSU coach, never said Josh didn’t have the talent to play, but wondered whether Josh could handle the pressure of being the “coach’s kid.” Josh said he remembers the emotions he felt at times when he played under his dad.

“As proud as I was to be Tom Holliday’s son, and as proud as I still am today, it also carried with it, a difficult thing to put into words,” Holliday said. “The coach’s son has to hear everything being said on the team about their father. You have to deal with the group that’s good with what’s going on with the team and the group that’s not. Just trying to be one of the guys and be normal is not something you’re able to do.”

While it might have been challenging for Josh, Tom said it was equally difficult for him. Tom said coaching a son is a challenge because if he isn’t a good athlete, it can create controversy about playing time. Tom said he got lucky with Josh.

“The reference, ‘He only plays because he’s the son,’ that’s not a comfortable thing,” Tom said. “I’ve seen it happen to coaches; I’ve seen it happen to guys that try to coach their kids. It’s unfair, but it’s real.

“I enjoyed mine (experience), because my kid was a good player. He was a leader, and I didn’t have to coach him a whole lot, I just had to guide him. Maybe just a stroke of luck.”

In Stillwater, for some athletes, it is almost inevitable. Stillwater High School has become a direct pipeline to OSU not only for prospective college students, but for high school athletes looking to advance their athletic careers.

Stillwater High’s Ethan Holliday is the No. 1 recruit in the Class of 2025, according to Perfect Game, and is committed to OSU. The Baltimore Orioles drafted Jackson Holliday, Ethan's older brother, with the first pick in the 2022 MLB Draft out of Stillwater High. Jackson signed to play for the Cowboys but chose to forgo college for the big leagues.

For Josh, not only does he have to navigate NCAA recruiting rules when recruiting his nephews, but he has to prepare for the potential they might never play for him. Josh said it is not quite the same when recruiting family compared to a regular athlete, but in the end, he wants what is best for any athlete.

“Yeah, there are differences,” Josh said. “We tried with one of them, but he got too good too fast. Try on another one maybe, it’s case by case, it really is. I want every kid to have that peace to be joyful and not have to, when they walk in one section of the area, not to feel like they have to turn and walk away. Being a teammate and being part of a team is one of the most amazingly important pieces of the college sport experience you’ll ever have. You want that to be as pure as it can be for each kid.”

Some athletes in Stillwater have always been known as the “coach’s kid,” even though their father never coached them because their fathers are busy coaching college sports.

For OSU football coach Mike Gundy, he said it wasn’t a task getting his son Gunnar Gundy to play for the Cowboys, maybe because he had an advantage.

“Well, first off, I sleep with Gunnar’s mom, so that gives me a fighting chance, sometimes, if I’m allowed,” Mike said. “Gunnar was different. Gunnar from day one, said he wanted to come to Oklahoma State. He grew up here, wanted to be here, so there really wasn’t that much recruiting involved.”

Considering Gunnar plays quarterback, the same position his father played, the spotlight is even brighter on one of Stillwater’s most prominent names. In 2022, Gunnar faced adversity as he had criticism about his readiness after playing in four games, throwing three touchdowns and four interceptions. Mike said seeing his son fail is a vital part of his and Gunnar's growth.

“The difficulty of parenting is letting your kids fail,” Mike said. “And letting them grow from failure, which makes them better in the long run, but that’s not easy to do. I would say it’s the same thing here so far with Gunnar is, I stay out of it. I let him fail and then fix it and coach (Tim) Rattay helps him.”

The passive approach Mike uses with his son in college was one that Cowboys wrestling coach John Smith used with his son Sam Smith. Sam signed to wrestle for the Cowboys in December 2022 and will be on a team his dad coaches for the first time. Sam said his dad has always done a good job of coaching from afar.

“I mean, it’s cool, but he knows when to be my dad and when to be my coach,” Sam said. “But he tries not to overtake my high school coaches. He helps me on the side after practice and stuff like that. It’s been fun, but you know to me, it’s not much different than any other dad.”

John has experience coaching a lot of family members. He coached his brother Pat Smith, who became the first four-time NCAA champion. John also coached his oldest son, Joe, who became a three-time NCAA All-American. John said that through his experience, there are differences to coaching his sons and brothers.

“I think coaching your brothers is way easier than coaching your son,” John said. “You grow up beating each other up and playing tough and running rough. It’s just different when it’s your brother and you don’t care about his feelings as much.

“When it’s the son, you gotta watch momma. You say something bad, you know you’re gonna get it from her. Anyway, it’s not easy coaching your son. Not easy, I think in anything. But we’ve had a good experience with Joe and I, and I’m sure that Sam’s going to have a good experience too.”