Boone Pickens: How the Oklahoma State megabooster changed his alma mater for generations to come
STILLWATER — Larry Reece drives through the Oklahoma State campus almost every day.
Even though he’s known to most Cowboy fans as The Voice, his day job is fundraising for the university. That makes him keenly aware as he makes those daily drives of the buildings, the projects and the programs made possible by donors.
And Reece knows he is never far from something bearing Boone Pickens’ fingerprints, whether the result of a donation from the OSU megabooster or the inspiration Pickens provided others to give.
“No matter where you go on campus,” Reece said, “you’re going to be within reach of something that was inspired by Boone’s giving.”
But here’s the truth — Pickens didn’t just alter the landscape of his alma mater.
He transformed the psyche.
On Wednesday, Pickens died after several years of declining health. He suffered a series of minor strokes in 2016. He fell on several occasions in the years since. But even as the 91-year-old's health suffered, his love for OSU never wavered.
As recently as a week ago, Pickens planned to fly to Stillwater for the Cowboy Pro-Am golf event. He’d attended the fundraiser for 46 consecutive years and had every intent of making his 47th late last week.
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He ended up not feeling up to it.
The same held true over the weekend when he scuttled plans to attend OSU’s home opening football game. Only at the last minute did he decide to stay home, prompting athletic department officials to overnight a Barry Sanders jersey to Pickens to wear during the game.
Saturday night, a photo of Pickens watching the game and wearing the jersey was shown on the big screen in the stadium that bears his name.
Watching the Cowboys play was one of the last things Boone did.
Pickens was a big booster, but he was also a big fan. He was never afraid to show it either. Rarely did he make an appearance on a national show to talk business without giving a shoutout to OSU.
He always wore orange, too. A tie. A pin. A pocket square.
“You always knew he was an OSU guy,” said Reece, also the announcer for football and men’s basketball games.
Boone’s unyielding support of OSU was meaningful to Cowboys and Cowgirls everywhere. Here was this billionaire, a leader in oil and finance and energy and pretty much any business he got interested in, and he was not shy about his pride in being a Cowboy.
OSU folks have never lacked pride. Alumni are loyal and true. Fans are orange through and through.
But Pickens made Cowboys hold their heads even higher.
“It wasn’t just a change in having more money,” OSU president Burns Hargis said of Pickens' impact during an interview earlier this year. “It just changed people’s attitude about who we were and what we could do.”
Pickens gave OSU a vision of what was possible.
In some ways, he did that long before he started writing big checks to the school. He grew up in small-town Oklahoma, came from a family of modest means. But from those humble beginnings rose a giant in oil and finance and energy.
He accomplished greatness, and he often gave credit to OSU for helping him reach such heights.
Then a few years back, Pickens decided he wanted to help his alma mater reach new heights. Even though he’d given some before, he made his first multimillion dollar gift in 2003, $70 million.
Two years later, $30 million.
The next year, $165 million.
Not all of his donations were for athletics — in the end, the $652 million he gave was split nearly 50-50 between athletics and academics — but with a major overhaul to football, that was most noticeable. Most transformative, too, as the Cowboys went from middle of the pack in the Big 12 to one of the nation’s winningest programs over the past decade.
Boone was bold his belief the Cowboys could achieve that sort of success.
“I loved his attitude, his brashness,” Chris Norris said.
The owner of Chris’ University Spirit is a lifelong OSU fan. He has long believed his school takes a backseat to no one, but he didn’t always feel such spirit from every Cowboy fan.
“And by golly,” Norris said, “Boone said it.”
Or as Hargis, the university president, put it this summer, “We weren’t the little brother anymore.”
Even though everything Pickens did was not loved by every OSU type, the good far outweighed the bad. He altered his alma mater forever, and that will continue to be the case for years to come.
His impact will inspire Cowboys and Cowgirls for generations to come.
“Hundreds upon thousands of people have been inspired to do what they can do at Oklahoma State,” Reece said, “and you can see it.”
Reece plans to be making those daily drives on campus for many years to come, and he suspects he will only see more of Boone Pickens’ fingerprints as time passes. Who knows what project might pop up next? Or what building might get funded down the road?
Dreaming big has become a new Cowboy way.
“They say to leave a place better than you found it,” Reece said, “and Boone Pickens not only did that but he transformed our place and led the way.
“We are so fortunate Boone Pickens is one of us."
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK or follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok.