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Work Wins: Boynton’s vision for Cowboy Basketball coming to life

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Boynton yelling

Coach Mike Boynton yells with excitement during Oklahoma State's game against Texas Tech in Gallagher-Iba Arena on Feb. 22, 2021. Photo courtesy: TC Brewster/OSU Athletics

Mike Boynton picked up the same microphone he held in his hands three years earlier.

His program in a completely different place, and his reputation flourishing.

After Oklahoma State’s second victory in a row over rival Oklahoma to complete a Bedlam sweep, Boynton’s voice boomed through Gallagher-Iba Arena.

“I remember taking this microphone for the first time my first year when we lost to Wichita State,” Boynton said. “I told you guys that if you keep doing what you’re doing, we’ll build a program you can be proud of. I sure as hell hope everybody’s proud about what we got out here today.”

Boynton has addressed the crowd postgame a handful of times over his four-year tenure as head basketball coach, both after critical victories and disheartening losses. He loves to connect with the fanbase that gives his program life.

When a pandemic isn’t ravaging the country, Boynton shows up on campus, speaks to clubs and in classes and shows up to support other OSU sports. He doesn’t mind picking up trash in GIA.

He takes pride in being a regular, decent person.

On the sideline, he gets as amped up as any player, regularly yelling in excitement, pumping his fist and occasionally crouching down into a defensive stance and slapping the hardwood beneath him.

His character quickly gained him popularity on campus, and he has never been more popular than now, with his team set to appear in the NCAA Tournament for the first time under his leadership.

The job isn’t a popularity contest, though.

Boynton knows better than anyone, it’s a results-based business.

His rookie season, OSU (21-15) realistically should have made the big dance but settled for an NIT appearance, a promising start to his young coaching career.

The next year was Boynton’s worst. He dismissed several players from the program, which resulted in playing essentially a six-man rotation for a large chunk of Big 12 play. The team (12-20) was even forced to hold open tryouts just to have enough bodies to practice.

In 2019, a great start was derailed by Isaac Likekele’s extended absence due to mononucleosis, sending the Cowboys (18-14) spiraling. Still, they rebounded to make a strong push at the end of the year before their season was abruptly cut short by COVID-19 after a victory in the Big 12 Tournament.

Not terrible results for someone with no previous head coaching experience, but not good enough.

Boynton knew all along it would take time for the program to take shape the way he envisioned, but this was a big year for him. He needed to prove he could win.

“Over time, if we don’t win, I won’t be able to have this job,” Boynton said. “I get that. But I doubt it. Because I believe work wins.

“And over time, we’ve just continued to work at this thing. And we’ve met every circumstance, whether self-inflicted or not … and we haven’t let it deter us from showing up and doing the jobs to the best of our ability.”

Enter the reinforcements.

Leading them, Cade Cunningham – the No. 1 recruit in the country, potential top pick in next year’s NBA draft and budding superstar. Almost impossibly, he has met all those expectations.

“I became a better coach the day he walked on campus,” Boynton joked.

Cunningham chose to stay at OSU even after sanctions banning it from the postseason, largely because of his relationship with Boynton that started at 14 years old.

He believed in what Boynton was building.

“Last year wasn’t a year they were proud of, but I know it's a bunch of guys that wanted to win and we’re gonna do everything that it took to win,” Cunningham said. “Having a group of guys like that, with the coaching staff, that’s what I wanted to surround myself with.”

Joining Cunningham on the Cowboys were four-star freshmen Rondel Walker and Matthew-Alexander Moncrieffe who both played key roles immediately.

For the first time, Boynton’s roster was constructed solely of players he personally recruited. He knew them and their stories, and he handpicked guys who would fit his mold: ultra-competitive, extremely tough and having no quit.

“(Quitting) is not an option in our program,” Boynton said. “Now that means not everybody’s gonna fit ... As long as I’m the coach here, that’s not changing. If somebody above me wants to try to do this a different way, they’ll have to find another coach to do it because I don’t believe it can be done any other way.”

In addition to having high-level talent that just seems to keep getting better, up and down the roster there are a bunch of junkyard dogs who will do whatever it takes to win, from Likekele to Avery Anderson to Bryce Williams. Even Cunningham is laying out to save balls inbounds in low-profile games.

Likekele has caught himself a couple times saying ‘luckily’ in interviews before quickly correcting himself with ‘not luckily – due to our work.’ That mindset is ingrained in who these guys are.

And because they were Boynton’s recruits, they know their coach believes in them.

Boynton recruited this incoming class not once, but twice after NCAA sanctions were handed out, allowing any player to transfer without penalty.

There’s a different level of trust there. Boynton can tell every one of his guys in the huddle, “We recruited you here for this moment.”

He demands a lot from his players, but he oozes confidence into them.

Still, this young roster needed time to learn and gain some experience. The Cowboys still make too many mistakes, but after OSU’s loss at Kansas, everything clicked.

They became the hottest team in the country.

“The most important accomplishment by OSU this year is being able to win with young players in as demanding a league as there is in college basketball,” ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla said. “It's not often for a team that young, albeit talented, could have the success they did without the way coach Boynton nurtured that talent with his coaching and his belief.”

Cunningham’s 40-point performance in Norman. A win against West Virginia in Morgantown, without Cunningham. A statement game against No. 1-seeded Baylor in the Big 12 Tournament. And a large portion of the run where the Cowboys won 8 of their last 10 games was without Likekele.

The young team is playing with elite confidence. They believe they can beat anyone no matter who was in or out of the lineup. And for the most part, they have proven that.

“Guys were able to see it through without the people that weren’t playing,” Likekele said. “And the whole entire time everyone was able to stick together and keep our eyes on the goal.”

The Cowboys’ run fell short of a Big 12 Championship, losing to Texas in the title game, yet their season isn’t done.

The NCAA didn’t didn’t rule on OSU’s sanction appeal, so the Cowboys will be in the big dance. They are slotted as a No. 4 seed, set to play Liberty on Friday.

Boynton’s Cowboys have come a long way since some people called for the coach’s job after late-game collapses against TCU and West Virginia earlier this year.

He himself has come a long way since most people didn’t know who he was when he was hired.

“(The difference was) the persistent effort behind coach Boynton’s great plan,” Fraschilla said. “He was hired as someone who had, from the outside looking in, very little experience. But he knew exactly what he wanted to accomplish in terms of what he wanted the team to look like, act like and play like.”

Boynton still has more work to do.

He wants to keep the program consistently relevant on the national level, and maintain that even when Cunningham is soon gone to the NBA. He can’t let up, not in the Big 12.

“I’m at a place where everybody in our league is a national championship level, borderline Hall of Fame-type coach,” Boynton said. “So I can’t take anything for granted and that’s why I work so hard. I have pride. I want to show I can go toe-to-toe.”

Although it’s not currently on his radar, Boynton is in line for a big payday.

A rising star in the coaching ranks, OSU will lose him to another school if it hesitates to open up its wallet. He is the 65th highest-paid coach in the country and the lowest paid in the Big 12, which isn’t nearly what he’s worth now. Boynton has earned a big raise with the job he’s done this year.

But he won’t take the credit.

“I just get to sit over there and call timeouts,” Boynton said. “And every now and then I get up and talk to an official and I ask Cade if he wants to come out.”

“These kids work so hard, they care about each other, they want to win and they take pride in representing Oklahoma State basketball. And that’s a big deal.”

sports.ed@ocolly.com