History shows that OSU’s Mike Boynton might survive

History shows that OSU’s Mike Boynton might survive

It’s not for sure that Boynton is in his final season. Money matters. Boynton is beloved. And circumstances not of his making have worked against him.

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

| Feb 13, 2024, 12:38pm CST

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

Feb 13, 2024, 12:38pm CST

Berry Tramel produces two newsletters every week. To receive his newsletters, go here.

NORMAN — Mike Boynton was not Dead Coach Walking as he trudged up the Lloyd Noble Center tunnel Saturday night.

Not in his demeanor. Not in reality.

Maybe 30 minutes earlier, his OSU basketball team lost a 66-62 Bedlam gutpunch. The Cowboys had a chance to win, but OU produced two critical stops in the final 30 seconds, and a Bedlam sweep became impossible for Boynton.

The accomplishments Boynton could mark as likely job-savers — NCAA Tournament appearance, winning record, upsetting the Sooners on their way out of the Big 12 — are slipping away like the setting sun.

But Boynton still has a ready smile. A straight gait. Even a calm voice; he’s not Dead Coach Talking, either.

His Cowboys played hard in enemy territory. Boynton might lose his job, but he hasn’t lost his team.

“They’ve got no choice but to play hard,” Boynton said. “We’ve got to let people know we care about who we’re representing.”

Boynton knows that OSU has a proud basketball tradition, but that pride is getting more and more removed from that history. Since March 2005, OSU has just two NCAA Tournament victories. Boynton knows that the success of Henry Iba almost 80 years ago and Eddie Sutton a generation ago begat a longing that belies all those empty seats at Gallagher-Iba Arena.

And Boynton still is selling these 10-14 Cowboys on a future. Both now and next season.

“You just gotta understand that we still have a lot of basketball to play, and you can really turn this thing around with one good stretch,” said senior guard John-Michael Wright.

Give Boynton’s teams one thing. They often finish strong. Have routinely gone from the abyss to NCAA Tournament contention as the season zooms toward March, including last season, when the Cowboys were 9-8 in mid-January but rallied during conference play and beat OU in the Big 12 Tournament to forge an 18-14 record. Then Texas beat the Cowboys 61-47 in the Big 12 quarterfinals, and three days later the NCAA selection committee announced its 68-team bracket. OSU was not included and was announced as the first team out.

“With us going through it last year, we had the confidence of what we were able to do and still feel the guys this year are able to do the same thing,” Wright said. “We’re just trying to preach positivity. Especially to the new freshmen, who haven’t gone through this at all. We’re just trying to keep our heads up.”

In the old days of college basketball — you know, like four years ago — a team playing five freshmen would be seen as building for the future. But with the transfer portal’s immediate-eligibility rule, there is no assurance that Boynton’s freshmen will be back, even if Boynton is.

Still, Boynton is not talking like he’ll be gone.

“Again, it’s just a matter of getting through these 18 (Big 12) games, into the conference tournament, playing that out, seeing how the season ends, then going back and studying it all,” Boynton said.

“Using the whole summer to figure out ‘How do I become a more consistent player? How do I make sure that it’s two or three games in a row before I have a step back, not just one, then a couple of games I’m not great?’ That’s part of learning how to be a good player at this level.”

Interesting perspective from a coach who most believe will be relieved of his duties on April 1. This is Boynton’s seventh season as OSU’s head coach. His teams have made one NCAA Tournament, which is the baseline standard of roundball success. Cowboys of recent vintage have played almost all their home games in a half-filled Gallagher-Iba.

OSU athletic director Chad Weiberg declines comment on Boynton’s status, and you can understand why. The season is not over, and the season is not lost. Not yet, at least. You can’t preach perseverance then not practice it. Expressing support for Boynton makes it sound like Boynton needs it. That’s a distortion of the perseverance pact. And publicly supporting Boynton, then firing him, would make Weiberg look disingenuous.

Better to stay mum and let the season play out.

But let’s get one thing straight. It’s not for sure that Boynton is in his final season.

Here are three reasons:

Money matters

An OSU booster told me that Boynton won’t be fired, because the $6.7 million buyout (if OSU cuts Boynton after March 31) would be better spent on football name, image, likeness.

It certainly makes sense. Since 2006, Sutton’s final season as basketball coach, OSU has become a football school.

Mike Gundy’s success has helped the Cowboys’ national brand migrate from the hardwood to the gridiron. OSU over the last 15 years has been the Big 12’s second-most successful program, behind only the arch-rival Sooners and ahead of haughty Texas. With OU and UT bound for the Southeastern Conference, the Cowboys are poised to annually challenge for Big 12 supremacy.

In that same span, OSU basketball has fallen to near the bottom of the Big 12. Only Kansas had the jump on the Cowboys during the Sutton era. Those days are long ago and far away.

NIL funding is a constant concern for a school like OSU, so it’s natural to think money would be steered toward football.

But others in Stillwater say donor money never would be used to pay off a coach. OSU is not Texas A&M. The Cowboys don’t spend lavishly. But they do save well — OSU athletics came out of the pandemic in the black, a remarkable feat that not even OU can claim, and most schools fell heavily into debt.

If Weiberg decides to fire Boynton, the buyout money would come from university coffers.

Boynton love

I suppose it’s possible to find someone who doesn’t like and respect Boynton. But it hasn’t happened yet.

Boynton is popular with colleagues all over campus, both in and out of athletics, but what OSU officials like most is his impact on his charges.

University leaders are thrilled with how Boynton leads young men and know OSU would be hard-pressed to replicate that mentorship.

“He’s exactly what you want in a coach,” an OSU booster said. Other than the winning, of course.

Boynton is a great ambassador for the school, and a great beacon for his players. OSU will not find anyone better in those regards. If there’s any justice in this world, he’ll win games.

OSU officials push back at the notion that winning isn’t required. That they don’t really care about basketball. Even with limited winning and small crowds, the basketball embers remain.

But don’t underestimate a coach’s popularity. Travis Ford was not popular with the OSU masses; the crowds basically quit on Ford, and in 2016 he was fired after eight seasons. The university paid a reported $7.2 million buyout to Ford.

Ford’s final season produced a 12-20 record, including 3-15 in the Big 12.

But sometimes we forget that in Ford’s eight seasons, his teams made five NCAA Tournaments. That’s phenomenal success compared to Boynton.

And that’s the point. Universities are slow to fire cherished basketball coaches, even if they are void of success.

I found 29 coaches from power-conference schools, since the advent of the 64-team NCAA bracket in 1985, who coached seven seasons and made no more than one NCAA Tournament. Twenty-one of those coaches were given an eighth year.

That’s right; 72.4% of coaches in Boynton’s situation kept their jobs. It makes sense on some level, right? Coaches you don’t believe in don’t last seven years. 

Some are names you know well. John MacLeod at Notre Dame. Leonard Hamilton at Florida State. Jim O’Brien at Boston College. Seth Greenberg at Virginia Tech. Herb Sendek at Arizona State.

Don Monson got such grace at both Minnesota and Oregon. Penn State has kept three such coaches for Year 8 (Bruce Parkhill, Ed DeChellis and Patrick Chambers).

Thirteen of those 21 coaches lasted at least two more seasons past Year 7.

If OSU keeps Boynton, the Cowboys would not be breaking new ground. The Cowboys would be doing what many schools have done. Keep a well-liked coach.

Tough times

Boynton’s teams have been beset by bad luck and bad times.

Two of his teams, 2018 and 2023, have barely missed the NCAA Tournament. Another, 2020, was 18-14 with at least a fighting chance of making March Madness when the pandemic struck and ended the season one night into the Big 12 Tournament. Another year was lost to NCAA probation, a penalty delivered as the season started, a mortal blow to any team. And Boynton’s best team, the Cade Cunningham squad that reached the second round of the 2021 NCAAs, played in front of crowds capped at 25% capacity.

That NCAA penalty still rankles Cowboys of every rank. Assistant coach Lamont Evans, who came to OSU for Brad Underwood’s one season as coach, was caught in a federal corruption scheme. Evans pled guilty to accepting bribery money to steer athletes at OSU and South Carolina to certain advisers representing pro athletes.

The NCAA probation came with scholarship reductions.

OSU officials admire the way Boynton has conducted himself during the troubles.

OSU’s cooperation with the NCAA during the investigation was not rewarded. Other schools with many more allegations and much more evidence against them, fought the NCAA. Kansas, for example. The Jayhawks eventually did not receive an NCAA Tournament ban.

Lesson learned, at Boynton’s expense.

And so another dispiriting OSU season trudges on.

“There’s a lot of noise around the program, not necessarily positive,” Boynton said. “And I just want them to try to enjoy playing together and compete and have the opportunity to play in the best college basketball conference in the country.”

The Cowboys don’t play between Saturdays this week. OSU, 10-14 overall and 2-9 in the Big 12, host Brigham Young on Saturday. Early-season losses to Abilene Christian, Saint Bonaventure and Southern Illinois stamped the Cowboys as cellar-dwellers in the rugged Big 12. An overtime home loss to Baylor to open conference play prevented momentum from striking. Blowout losses ensued — 90-73 at Texas Tech, 66-42 at Iowa State, 90-66 and 83-54 to Kansas, 79-63 at Houston.

For what it’s worth, OSU has played better lately.

“Giving ourself a chance today was quite a bit different” than recent road trips to Kansas and Houston, Boynton said in Lloyd Noble Center. “Our kids battled. Came up short … certainly hate losing. Hate losing against these guys. But gotta keep working with these guys, make ‘em better. Effort was there, execution could use a little tweaking. We’ll get that done.”

Boynton continued his trek up the Lloyd Noble ramp. The bus back to Stillwater awaited. Still to be determined is the end of the trail.

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Berry Tramel is a 45-year veteran of Oklahoma journalism, having spent 13 years at the Norman Transcript and 32 years at The Oklahoman. He has been named Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sports Media Association. Born and raised in Norman, Tramel grew up reading four newspapers a day and began his career at age 17. His first assignment was the Lexington-Elmore City high school football game, and he’s enjoyed the journey ever since, having covered NBA Finals and Rose Bowls and everything in between. Tramel and his wife, Tricia, were married in 1980 and live in Norman near their daughter, son-in-law and three granddaughters. Tramel can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at [email protected].

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