Tramel: Mike Gundy's 'Senior Citizens Club' of coaches is a boost to OSU football
STILLWATER — Chris Thurmond is 67. He’s coached so long, he coached John Blake in high school. The late Blake became the Oklahoma coach on New Year’s Eve 1995.
Gary Gibbs is 68. The former OU head coach has coached so long, he was a graduate assistant on OU’s 1975 national championship team. That was 45 years ago.
Bill Clay is 79. He’s coached so long, his first football job came in 1965 at Granby High School in Norfolk, Virginia. In 1965, famed football pioneer Amos Alonzo Stagg, born in 1862, was still alive.
“The Senior Citizens Club, as I call them,” said Mike Gundy, who employs these College of Cowboys.
Thurmond, Gibbs and Clay serve as analysts on Gundy’s staff. They dissect film and write up scouting reports and offer gameplan advice, taking some of the burden off assistant coaches who know a thing or two about midnight oil.
“I absolutely love it,” said Thurmond. “Keeps me involved and I get my football fix.”
Think Don Zimmer, serving as a Tampa Bay Rays coach at age 83. Tex Winter, a Lakers assistant coach at age 86. Sometimes, everybody feels better knowing there are people on board who have seen it all.
“Once you get to that point, they don’t have any ego,” Gundy said. “They’re just here to make Oklahoma State football better. Those guys are a tremendous resource for me.”
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Clay still remembers the lesson his daddy told him back in the 1950s: If you’ve got a sore thumb for 50 years, then all of a sudden it gets well, you’ll miss it.
“I’m kind of that way with football,” said the 79-year-old Clay, who has tried retirement a couple of times and didn’t take to it.
So when Gundy aide Johnny Barr called back in 2015 and offered Clay a job as an analyst, Clay accepted. Then he got on the internet to figure out what Barr meant by analyst.
Clay looked up Nick Saban’s staff, figuring if anyone was doing it in college football, it would be Alabama. Clay called his old friend Bruce Arians, then the coach of the Arizona Cardinals and now the coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Arians and Clay deduced that it was the college version of the advance scout.
Analysts don’t scout on the road, but they scour video a week in advance, so that come Sunday, Gundy’s staff has a head start on that week’s opponent. For instance, the College of Cowboys spent last week studying the Sooners, for the Bedlam game this Saturday in Norman. This week, the College is on to Texas Tech.
“It was like a gift from heaven,” Clay said of the job. “Gave me a chance to be back in the game, trying to make a contribution. Hopefully the team’s a little better because I’m here.”
Clay was born in Arkansas and graduated from the University of Arkansas. He’s been defensive coordinator at Southern Miss, Southern Methodist, Temple, Mississippi State, Texas-El Paso, Alabama-Birmingham and OSU (under Les Miles, 2001-04). Clay also coached at Virginia, Virginia Tech, Louisiana Tech, Texas A&M, Samford, Blinn Junior College and the NFL Buccaneers.
“I tell ‘em I’m the new 59,” Clay said. But he knows the numbers don’t add up. “I’ve been on a football field or pretty close to it, five, six, seven days a week, for 50something years.”
Analysts can’t coach on the field. Or even sit in the pressbox with headsets on gameday. They can go to practice and talk to coaches.
Thurmond, a long-time defensive coach, sits in on offensive staff meetings to offer a defensive perspective. Clay and Gibbs sit in on defensive staff meetings, though Gibbs this season is working remotely because of COVID-19.
In the old days, Thurmond said, he would prepare for game day by drinking a bottle of anti-nausea medicine and swallowing two Advils before donning the headset.
“I still get the butterflies, energy jump, but I’m not as on edge as I was,” Thurmond said. “So that’s probably good. Probably too much on edge before.”
Thurmond, who was born in Tulsa and played at the University of Tulsa, coached high school at McAlester, Sand Springs and Claremore from 1975-82. Then he coached at TU, East Carolina, TCU, OU (under Blake), Alabama, Texas A&M, Houston, Kentucky and Rice.
Thurmond has been a defensive backs coach, a coordinator, even interim head coach for Houston in the 2007 Texas Bowl, after Art Briles left to take the Baylor job.
Thurmond admits that sometimes, his mind wanders into coach-mode.
“What would I do?” in a certain situation. “That kind of thing. But one of the things Bill, Gary and I are comfortable with is that we’re pretty much enjoying the phase that we’re in. Don’t know that we’re trying to climb the ladder. I just enjoy what I’m doing now, and the input you have with the other coaches, the input you have with the young guys.”
Gibbs, of course, is the most high-profile of Gundy’s Senior Citizens Club. He spent 14 years on Barry Switzer’s staff, then six years as the OU head coach, 1989-94, going 44-23-2. Gibbs then began his own odyssey, coaching at Georgia, LSU, the Dallas Cowboys, New Orleans Saints and Kansas City Chiefs. Gibbs and Thurmond were hired at OSU in 2018.
Virtually every college football program has stepped into the analyst pond. Many use it as a path for a young coach. But some use it as a place to hire guys who are in their sixth or seventh decade of coaching.
“I think experience can be stabilizing and just provide a comfort level,” Thurmond said. “I don’t know that it’s always tangible things. It’s a feel of comfort. Hey, these guys have been there, done that. Don’t know that it means that we have all the answers.”
But it means the College of Cowboys have some answers. Some answers and some perspective and a lot of love for the game.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at oklahoman.com/berrytramel.