Coaching acumen extends beyond having a comprehensive understanding of a sport.
For any head coach in any college sport, it’s impossible to overstate the value of having people skills. It has a huge effect on recruiting and relationships with staff members, administrators, fans and media members.
Only a select few occupy the top line of people-skills talent. Josh Holliday, Mack Brown, Tubby Smith, Bill Self, Lon Kruger and Bill Blankenship are among those on that line.
So is Mike Boynton.
One week after Brad Underwood’s 2017 departure — after he had coached Oklahoma State basketball for only one season — Boynton was the surprising choice of OSU athletic director Mike Holder.
Boynton had no head-coaching experience and, as an Underwood assistant, had been in Stillwater just for a few months. From that long-shot position, he scored a Big 12 head-coaching position with an OSU program that fairly recently made two Final Four appearances.
On National Signing Day for football athletes, while fans clamor to check recruiting rankings, a reasonable person might say, “Wait three years. After that, you’ll know what you have.”
The “wait three years” approach really doesn’t work with the 38-year-old Boynton.
I think he’s pretty good, and he was more than just pretty good while pulling OSU from a terrible January slump, but it’s currently impossible to know absolutely that Boynton is destined for a truly successful run in Stillwater.
If you compare his body of work to the Eddie Sutton standard, the difference is striking.
Through Sutton’s first three seasons with the Cowboys, his records were 72-25 overall and 26-16 in the Big Eight. Each of his first two OSU teams advanced to the NCAA Sweet Sixteen.
Through Boynton’s first three seasons, his records are 51-49 overall and 20-34 in the Big 12. He hasn’t yet taken an OSU team to the NCAA Tournament. In 2018, his first squad won twice in the NIT.
You might contend that it’s unfair to compare Boynton’s numbers — or any other Cowboy coach’s numbers — to Sutton’s. It’s not unfair at all.
It’s not as if Sutton got a tradition-rich inheritance in Stillwater. There were nice players on his first roster in 1990-91, but before Sutton returned to coach at his alma mater, the Oklahoma State program had made only one NCAA Tournament appearance since 1965.
In 16 seasons as the Cowboy head man, Sutton recorded 22 NCAA Tournament victories. His 1995 and 2004 Cowboys were Final Four participants.
In 14 seasons since Eddie Sutton resigned, with four different head coaches, OSU is 1-6 in the NCAA Tournament. Sean Sutton, Travis Ford and Brad Underwood also fell short of the Eddie Sutton standard.
The 2019-20 Cowboys had a roller coaster experience: a 7-0 start during the nonconference portion of the schedule, followed by an 0-8 start in the Big 12, followed by an impressive recovery in February and March.
As seniors Cam McGriff, Lindy Waters III and Thomas Dziagwa have exhausted their eligibility, Boynton loses the foundation of his program. Justifications for 2020-21 optimism: the return of Isaac Likekele and Tulsa’s Boone brothers — twins Kalib and Keylan — along with the June arrival of five-star recruit Cade Cunningham.
I was blown away by Kalib Boone’s freshman-season performance. Because he’s so lean and never had any consistent strength training before he became a Cowboy, I didn’t expect him to have a great immediate impact. I expected Kalib initially to be overwhelmed by the physicality of Division I basketball.
Instead, the 6-foot-9 Boone was a really confident reserve who has a chance to become an elite defender and a 12-points-per-game type of scorer.
On Feb. 1, after a Bedlam loss at Norman, the Cowboys bused back to Stillwater with an 0-8 mark in Big 12 play. It had to have been a miserable trip and a miserable time for everyone in the program, and yet no one quit on Boynton. Literally or figuratively.
That says a lot about the coach and his people skills, and Boynton drove OSU to an 8-3 record down the stretch.
The Cowboys closed with a four-game win streak that included a beautifully played and dominant victory at Texas and a dramatic Big 12 Tournament triumph over Iowa State. Boynton takes momentum into the 2020-21 season, during which he attempts to avoid the type of midseason lull that defined each of his first three seasons.
I do think Boynton is a good coach. I know he’s a good man and a great fit at OSU, but for him and all others who’ll coach Cowboy basketball, the Eddie Sutton standard won’t fade. It’s permanent.