Kathy Sweeney is a hair stylist. She charges $17 for a men’s haircut at Klip It Up Salon in Stillwater, Oklahoma. On occasion, she has the weight of the college football world on her shoulders as she works.
Sweeney is entrusted with trimming the most celebrated hair in the sport, the magnificent mullet atop the head of Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy.
“There is some pressure,” Sweeney acknowledged with a laugh.
Cut Gundy’s mullet too short, and Cowboys fans will have a meltdown. (The coach himself referred to the “ramifications” of trimming it.) The party in the back must be meticulously maintained in proportion to the business in the front. That’s certifiable Americana entrusted to Sweeney’s shears, a major responsibility.
Gundy was definitely overdue for a trim earlier this summer, when the mullet grew long enough that Sweeney said she could have put it in a small ponytail. A ponytail might have caused an uproar of its own – George Washington was the last great leader who could get away with that look. It would not fly on a football coach, and certainly not a football coach in Oklahoma.
Then again, who ever dreamed that a football coach’s mullet would be considered cool in 2017?
Folklore has it that Sweeney shuts the blinds when Gundy comes in to the salon on Washington Street, in order to keep thrill-seekers away. Not true, she said. He is a pretty normal customer, and when he is in the chair they discuss family, current events and local happenings – not football.
“I really don’t know anything about it,” Sweeney said. “We just talk about other things – mostly he listens and I talk. He’s very nice, very funny.”
Sweeney may not know about football, but everyone in football knows about Mike Gundy’s hair. It has become the latest and perhaps greatest way for the unconventional coach to draw attention to himself, and thus to his Oklahoma State program.
“I think that would be a good subject for marketing majors, graduate students to look into,” Gundy said last month at Big 12 media days. “But I’m going to say that the dollar figure [in free mullet-related publicity] is somewhere in the millions for the amount of time that we’ve had on the air for that.
“I was very fortunate to get a new contract and should probably get an extension and a raise for that free marketing for the university.”
Indeed, Gundy agreed to a five-year, $20-plus-million deal in June. It was a validation of his 12 years of work at Oklahoma State, where his 104-50 record has at times been overshadowed by his self-created sideshow. But the man who once infamously raged about being 40 years old is now 50, and after that viral video and the pictures hunting rattlesnakes and wearing a wrestling singlet, Gundy suddenly has ascended to the top of the Big 12 Conference.
When Bob Stoops retired at Oklahoma this summer, and with Bill Snyder 77 years old, Gundy has become the altogether unlikely face (and hair) of the league. It’s a grown-up role, and it required some growing up from the coach to fulfill it.
“I don’t feel any different than I did in my mid-30s, and I still act like I’m 25,” Gundy said. “But I’m having more fun now. I think I’m having more fun than I ever did. … I think I’ve relaxed a lot. Truthfully, I have some security in a lot of areas and I think that’s relaxed our team.
“Patience has been a big part of my life in a lot of areas.”
Gundy certainly tested the patience of his boss, athletic director Mike Holder, at varying times. Winning helped make his rough edges tolerable, and now those rough edges are largely smoothed out.
“It’s remarkable how much he’s grown and matured,” said Oklahoma State athletic director Mike Holder. “I think he’s very comfortable in his position, feels very secure.
“Boone Pickens gave us hope and Mike Gundy gave us leadership. Before that we kind of wallowed in the wilderness for the better part of five decades. The times we did have success, it was followed by probation.”
Holder has endured some turbulent times with Gundy. They had to get through the “I’m a man, I’m 40” eruption – a belittling rant aimed at a reporter that Gundy says he would never do at 50. There were some flareups to manage between Gundy and Pickens, whose checkbook has funded massive facility upgrades at Oklahoma State. And there were the occasional flirtations with other jobs.
But now, leading what could be his best team into a new season that begins in the Associated Press top 10, Gundy says his previously wandering eye is now focused solely on Stillwater. He says he’s content to hunker down at his alma mater – with perhaps one notable exception.
“Never’s a long time,” Gundy said. “At some point you think you may be the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys. But I don’t foresee coaching anywhere in college other than Oklahoma State.”
Said Holder: “It’s natural to want to explore your options, and it’s nice to hear that you’re wanted. But Mike’s from Oklahoma [Midwest City]. He’s a Cowboy [Oklahoma State class of 1990] and he’s a homebody. I believed he would stay with us.”
Gundy has stayed and Gundy has won, more than any other coach in school history. He’s piled up five double-digit-victory seasons in the last seven years, an unprecedented run of success in Stillwater. The 2011 Oklahoma State team narrowly missed playing in the BCS Championship Game, instead winning the Fiesta Bowl over Stanford and Andrew Luck.
Along the way Gundy has become a renowned offensive architect, with his teams thriving in the no-huddle, spread attack. That has helped him spin off several former offensive assistants into head-coaching roles, among them Dana Holgorsen at West Virginia and Larry Fedora at North Carolina.
There is just one significant flaw on the résumé: beating rival Oklahoma. The in-state big brother has dominated the Bedlam Series roughly forever, and that has continued with Gundy in charge at Oklahoma State. He was just 2-10 against Bob Stoops.
“We’ve got to get the Bedlam piece figured out,” Holder said.
No time like the present? Gundy at least has Stoops out of his famous hair, and now will take on 33-year-old Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley. The Cowboys get the Sooners in Stillwater Nov. 4, in what is shaping up as a game that could have College Football Playoff implications.
But there are plenty of games before that, starting Thursday night against sneaky-good Tulsa. And there probably will be at least a couple visits in the coming months to Kathy Sweeney’s chair at Klip It Up Salon for mullet maintenance. One thing seems certain: as long as Oklahoma State is winning, the squirrelly hairdo is here to stay.
“I believe,” Holder said, “in the power of the mullet.”
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