During the 2002 football season, Corey Hilliard was a senior at Jesuit High School in New Orleans. As a highly regarded offensive lineman, he designated Clemson, Ole Miss and Oklahoma State as the finalists in his recruiting process.
“I remember watching the 2002 Bedlam game in Stillwater (a 38-28 Cowboy victory), and the crowd was unbelievable,” Hilliard recalled. “I was thinking that it would be cool to play at a place like that. I visited OSU and loved everything about it — except for the stadium.
“Lewis Field was like a big, ugly high school stadium. It was almost a deal-breaker, to be honest, but I decided that OSU was the best place for me.”
During his four years as a Cowboy, Hilliard developed into an All-Big 12 tackle and witnessed the beginning of the stadium’s transformation from rusted, modest Lewis Field to state-of-the-art Boone Pickens Stadium.
Today, Hilliard is a Tulsan and a small-business owner and nutrition coach who occasionally returns to Stillwater to watch practice sessions and games. Even now, nine years after the renovation was completed, he says he is dazzled by the stadium.
A few weeks after the end of Hilliard’s junior season in 2005, T. Boone Pickens presented Oklahoma State a donation of $165 million — the largest single donation ever made to the athletic department of an American university.
In OSU’s original plan of an $86 million renovation, nothing was scheduled to have been done at the west end of the stadium. With the Pickens money, there was a $283 million project that included a west-end complex, 10,000 additional seats and 36 additional suites.
As recently as 2003, OSU had no luxury suites in the stadium. Now, including the 13 that are contained within Gallagher-Iba Arena, OSU has 123 suites for football. For the 2017 season, they all were sold.
“If we hadn’t had this gift,” OSU athletic director Mike Holder says of Pickens’ monumental donation, “I feel like we would have been dead in the water for the next 20 years.”
Jan. 10, 2006
On Jan. 10, 2006, reporters were summoned to Gallagher-Iba Arena. An OSU press release indicated there would be a “substantial leadership gift announcement — historic in scope and size.”
The day before the Pickens media event, the Tulsa World was told by OSU sources his donation might amount to $50 million.
“I remember there being a buzz around the department that something huge was going to happen,” said Steve Buzzard, the media relations director for OSU’s athletic department from 1986-2006.
Three hours before the news conference, a source reported the total might be as much as $100 million.
Nearly 10 minutes into the news conference, then-university President David Schmidly finally provided the number: “Ladies and gentlemen, it is my distinct honor to announce that Boone Pickens has given Oklahoma State University a remarkable, record-setting cash gift of $165 million.”
The Pickens total obliterated the previous record donation of $100 million given to the University of North Dakota by Las Vegas casino owner Ralph Engelstad. North Dakota used that money to build a hockey arena.
Pickens is a Holdenville native who attended Amarillo (Texas) High School and Texas A&M. Unable to secure a position on the Aggie basketball roster, he transferred to Oklahoma State. He graduated in 1951 with a geology degree.
“It’s a great university, and our facilities are going to be as good as anybody’s and better than most,” Pickens said on Jan. 10, 2006. “I want it to happen, and we’re going to have it happen.”
Today, Buzzard is the senior manager of business and administrative functions for the OSU’s Department of Public Safety. He still attends all home football games, and, like Hilliard, still marvels at the difference between Lewis Field and Boone Pickens Stadium.
“I knew that Mr. Pickens’ donation would change this place forever,” Buzzard says. “I drive past the stadium every day. It changed how an OSU football game looks and sounds and feels. It changed the way OSU people felt about football.”
Process began in 1973
In September 2005, after 32 years of coaching the Cowboy golf program to eight national championships, Holder became the OSU athletic director. He was Pickens’ hand-picked preference for the position, and Holder’s persistence resulted ultimately in the $165 million gift.
The process did not begin in 2005, however. It began in 1973, during the inaugural Cowboy Pro-Am fund-raiser for OSU’s golf program. At Stillwater Country Club, a 25-year-old Holder and a 45-year-old Pickens were introduced to each other by mutual friend Jerry Walsh.
“I was so thankful that the CEO of an oil company would come to our event,” Holder remembers. “I did some research on (Pickens’) Mesa Petroleum. My wife and I didn’t have any money at the time, but we bought shares of stock in his company. I’ve invested with him from then on because I trust and respect him.”
While Pickens and Holder developed a friendship, Pickens did not become Oklahoma State’s ultimate donor until 2003, when he committed $20 million to the renovation of the football stadium. It was the seed money for OSU’s Next Level fund-raising campaign that ultimately involved 2,500 donors and crested at $100 million.
After the $20 million donation, the university responded with the name change. For the Cowboys of 2003 and beyond, Boone Pickens Stadium would be home.
A fantasy becomes reality
Phase I, a complete rebuild of the stadium’s south side, was completed in time for the 2004 season. The north-side Phase II structure was finished in 2006.
Until the $165 million donation, a west-end project was a fantasy. An impossibility.
“I went to see (Pickens) a couple of weeks after I became the athletic director,” Holder says. “The meeting didn’t go very well. I asked him for $300 million, and explained why we needed it and what it would do for us.
“He looked at me incredulously and said, ‘I’m not writing you a big check.’ I said, ‘Well, I expected you to as part of me taking this job as athletic director. My expectation is that you were going to make a transformational gift. If you don’t, I’m going to be just like all of the athletic directors who I served under during my tenure as the golf coach. I won’t be able to make a difference because we’ve never had enough money at Oklahoma State to compete at the highest level.’ That didn’t faze him.”
Robert Stillwell, Pickens’ corporate attorney since 1963, patted Holder on the shoulder and said, “Don’t get discouraged.”
Holder visited Pickens again two weeks later. The presentation was comparable. So was Pickens’ response.
There was another meeting in November 2005. Same result.
On Christmas Day 2005, Holder was in his Gallagher-Iba Arena office and had an idea. Maybe Pickens would have a greater regard for Holder’s proposal if Oklahoma State had a stake in the deal.
The OSU golf program had a $31 million account in Pickens’ BP Capital Hedge fund. It had grown from a starting point of $6 million only two years earlier, Holder reports.
Holder decided to take Cowboy Golf’s $31 million, along with $6 million Pickens recently had donated to help the athletic department make ends meet, and offer to combine that $37 million with a big gift from Pickens.
“I had known Boone long enough to know that he likes for others to have a skin in the game,” Holder said.
Holder’s ultimate goal was for OSU to have a football stadium and competition venues for all other sponsored sports that were on the same level of quality as Karsten Creek, the university’s sensational golf venue; and Gallagher-Iba Arena, which in 1999-2000 had been renovated. For $55 million, the arena was doubled in size.
Holder’s revised donation request amounted to $165 million, and he sent a spread-sheet explanation to Pickens’ office.
Pickens invited Holder, Schmidly and Burns Hargis (then a member of the OSU Board of Regents) to Dallas, and that meeting occurred on Dec. 29, 2005.
It wound up being one of the more significant dates in Oklahoma State history.
Pickens asked Holder to crunch the numbers on a dry-erase board. Holder complied.
Pickens asked, “You’re asking me to give $165 million?”
And that was it. Pickens agreed to give Oklahoma State an unprecedented jolt of financial support. Only 2½ years later, from a starting point of $202 million, the OSU athletics fund managed by Pickens had increased to more than $400 million.
The fund was damaged considerably during the stock-market crisis of 2008, but there were additional Pickens donations that allowed Oklahoma State to finish west-end construction and dedicate the fully renovated stadium about two hours before the 2009 season-opening victory over Georgia.
“In all my years with Boone, I never had more fun than when we were giving that money to Oklahoma State,” said Stillwell, a former University of Texas track athlete who served on the UT Board of Regents in 2009-15. “UT will always be my school, but OSU became my second school because of Boone.
“Holder and I had to drag Boone across the finish line on the ($165 million gift). I said, ‘Why not do it now? You can win now. Do it now, while you can watch it happen.’ It was a great experience, and the money certainly did a lot of good.”
A $165 million impact
Pickens has donated more than $500 million to his alma mater, but because it was such an extreme and meaningful amount, the $165 million gift always will command its own chapter in the university’s history.
“You would see artist’s renderings of what the stadium might look like,” Buzzard says, “but you really couldn’t wrap your mind around what the reality was going to be. If anything, the reality is better than the renderings.”
The positive impact of the stadium makeover is undeniable. Football coach Mike Gundy says recruits always are impressed when they tour the west-end complex with its 14,000-square-foot locker room, 20,000-square-foot strength-and-conditioning facility and 5,500-square-foot team theater.
OSU attendance and ticket-sales figures have been sustained at unprecedented levels. Cowboy football teams have recorded at least 10 wins in six of the last eight seasons. In 108 seasons before 2010, there were only three 10-win finishes.
In eight of the last 10 seasons, OSU has achieved a national top-10 ranking.
“We’ve had good coaches here, but Mike Gundy is the first to have benefited from a real financial commitment to football,” Holder said. “It was all inspired by Boone Pickens.”