Tramel: Athletics have enhanced Burns Hargis' dream job at Oklahoma State
STILLWATER — When prospective students are brought to Burns Hargis office, the OSU president levels with them.
Hargis tells them they can get a good education in a lot of places. Parents, friends, teachers, lots of people will offer advice on where to go to school.
“But you’re the one that’s got to go there,” Hargis will say. “So you just listen to your heart.”
But when athletic recruits stop by, Hargis has a different message.
“I will often tell them they are part of something that’s very good for the university,” Hargis said. “And therefore, we owe you, the student-athlete, an education. We want you to get your degree.”
Hargis says he always claims credit when a recruit chooses OSU. But he’s quick to say he believes both messages. He calls a college campus one of the best places on Earth to be. And being president is even better.
“The excitement, the variety of all the things you deal with … it’s not all great, but most of it is pretty wonderful,” Hargis said the other day.
And athletics is a big part of that.
“That’s one of the most exciting things that goes on on a college campus,” Hargis said. “And it’s also incredibly beneficial. It gets alums back. Reignites their passion for the university, and hopefully they open their pocketbooks. You can’t get 60,000 people to show up for a math contest.”
Hargis announced in October that he will retire as OSU president next June. He’ll be 75 then, 13 years on a job that wears out presidents in about five years on average and, frankly, the pandemic is a drag.
But Hargis and wife Ann will leave beloved by the university community and with memories galore.
“There’s nothing more exciting than to get up on Saturday morning on game day,” Hargis said. “That’s a tremendous thing.”
Hargis began reeling off the highlights. The Fiesta Bowl victory over Stanford. Basketball game victories at Gallagher-Iba Arena over Kansas and OU. Wrestling duals against Iowa and Penn State in front of a packed house.
Athletics are not always so joyous. The 2011 plane crash that killed four, including women’s basketball coach Kurt Budke. The vehicular homicides that killed four during the 2015 homecoming celebrations. NCAA investigations.
And Hargis has some reservations about the outsized role of athletics on campus.
The time demands on athletes. The facilities arm race. The coaching salaries that never seem to plateau.
“I think that’s a little bit — maybe not just a little bit — out of sync with what I would normally think would be,” Hargis said.
But the excitement and spirit that sports bring cannot be replicated.
“It’s been a tremendous benefit to the university,” Hargis said. “It impacts enrollment. That year after the Fiesta Bowl, our enrollment shot up. And a lot of that was having a new stadium. And Boone Pickens going all over the country, wearing his orange tie, talking about Oklahoma State. The whole profile of Oklahoma State University was lifted considerably by all that.”
And those game days. Man, those game days.
“It’s a really, really busy day,” Hargis said. “All kinds of alumni events. Student events. Ann has a golf cart, we go around to all these stops we need to make, because you want to be connected with the alums when they come back.
“I don’t get to see much of the games. We always tape the games. The only way I know what’s going on is I listen to the crowd as I walk around.”
Of course, the pandemic has changed even that. Game days are quiet. Few fans. No functions.
“This has been the perfect transition year to retire, because this is not fun, compared to the times we’ve had,” Hargis said.
The Hargises plan to return to Oklahoma City, where he plans to get involved in something. Nothing as demanding as a university president, but retirement has little appeal. Hargis’ great-grandfather practiced law until age 96.
“That’s what I fear the most with retirement,” Hargis said. “This job is really the first job I’ve had where people care about what I think. I want to stay relevant.”
Hargis long has been relevant. He attended John Marshall High School, then after college practiced law for 28 years, was vice chairman of Bank of Oklahoma, was the Republican nominee for governor in 1990 and co-hosted the popular Flashpoint television show with Democrat Mike Turpen for 14 years.
Quite a life. But not as exhilarating as a college campus.
“We’ve just really loved it,” said Hargis. “Wonderful place to be around a lot of very bright people who are knowledgeable in a seemingly infinite number of subjects. If you get a chance, do it.”
Most of us don’t get that chance. Hargis did, and he’s done the job well.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at email@example.com. 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.