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How Mike Gundy made his team tougher by practicing lighter

Mike Gundy has experienced two life-changing realizations recently. The first is that he can become an American folk hero simply by not cutting his hair. The second is that the path to creating a healthier, more physical and better football team is by practicing lighter.

Speaking to a group of thousands of coaches at the AFCA Convention in Nashville last week, the magnificently mulleted Gundy riffed on how he runs his program at Oklahoma State. "The 20-hour rule isn't an issue at our place," Gundy said. Cowboys players never stay on the practice field longer than an hour and 45 minutes. "There's only so many hits in their bodies, their heads, their necks, their shoulders," Gundy said, and in turn Oklahoma State doesn't waste those limited hits on the practice field. As Oklahoma State makes a conscious effort to build up its players bodies, so, too, do coaches treat their players' psyches. "We don't cuss our guys," Gundy said, "we don't beat them down. We build them up."

Off the field, Gundy never asks his players to sit through a meeting longer than 40 minutes, which he said was a time frame backed up by lots of offseason reading on the attention spans of 18- to 24-year olds.

That same less-is-more philosophy also extends to his staff. "You have to give them a chance to have a family," Gundy said. "If you're keeping them at the office where they miss recitals and games, you have too many plays."

But, and here's the big but, this shift has not created a softer team. In fact, Gundy says, it's the opposite.

To illustrate this point, Gundy winds the clock back a year. As Oklahoma State prepared to face No. 12 Ole Miss in the Sugar Bowl, Gundy pushed his players harder than usual in December practices. "They're going to knock us off the ball and it's not going to look pretty," he remembers thinking. That strategy backfired on him, though, as the Rebels pounded Gundy's team 48-20. Oklahoma State was out-rushed 207-63 and averaged only 6.7 yards per pass attempt to Ole Miss's 9.9. "We weren't physical and we were slow," Gundy said.

Fast forward a year, and Gundy was again worried. Oklahoma State went far in the other direction preparing for this year's Alamo Bowl, never putting players in full pads twice in a row and giving them one in every three days off. Gundy again worried his team would be pushed around by a more physical team. That lighter practice load, though, led to a 180-degree turn in Oklahoma State's bowl performance. The Cowboys pounded No. 10 Colorado 38-8, out-rushing the Buffaloes 189-62 and winning a 10.2-6.7 advantage in yards per attempt. Even though their de facto Big 12 Championship finale against Oklahoma ended in a 38-20 loss, Gundy said a lighter workload led to a tougher team. "In both games, our guys were physical and our guys hit."

Throughout the season, Gundy insists Oklahoma State was healthier -- one player from the Cowboys' two-deep missed the Alamo Bowl, he said, to a torn Achilles -- and fresher than their opponents. He credits a lighter preseason and game-week workload with their large number comeback victories en route to their 20-6 record over the past two seasons. Oklahoma State came back from down 31-14 to beat Iowa State 38-31 in October, and from down 37-28 with 12 minutes remaining to beat Kansas State 43-37 in November. In 2015, Oklahoma State rallied from second half deficits to beat Texas, Kansas State and Iowa State, and outlasted West Virginia in overtime.

Once the games start, Gundy highly regulates his players' conduct on the field. "We never show fear, we never show fatigue, and we never show frustration," he said. Hurt players are not allowed to lay on the turf, but instead move to the sideline on their own power if possible.

In the end, Gundy says players play hard if they know coaches care about their well-being and effort to make football fun. "It has to be fun," he said. "If it's not fun for them, if their shoulders are hurting, if they're worn out from fatigue, they're not going to play hard."

Other notes:

- Gundy had two rules for his players when he took over as head coach in 2005: "Be on time, and be a good citizen."

- If the typical team has 100 players, Gundy says 15 to 20 play because they love the game and would still play without a scholarship, 50 play to get their school paid for, and 20 play because "someone says they have to."

- Gundy said he felt like a bad head coach because he had a dozen assistants speak in front of the team over the course of the season "and I learned things I didn't know from 10 of them."

- Gundy places a major emphasis on Oklahoma State's walk-on program. "I tell them, when it becomes (a scholarship player) and a walk-on, I'm taking a walk-on every time." We saw that level of commitment to highlighting walk-ons first-hand in our 2015 tour of Oklahoma State's facilities.

- Gundy outsources day-to-day player discipline to a committee of players. When a player complains about punishment, Gundy deflects to the committee, who often doles out harsher sentences than he would. "If he's a good player and the committee wants to kick him off the team, I'll make that decision. No need to be so hard on the young man," Gundy joked.

- Gundy's continued trolling of his 12-year-old son is one of the best ongoing delights in college football. (Gundy told the media during the season he'd cut his mullet if his son scored a 92 on an upcoming test. He scored an 89, and the mullet still lives today.) Gundy told the story of watching the son play an 8 a.m. basketball game the Sunday before he left for Nashville, and his disgust at watching the 12-year-old's lackadaisical effort. "He doesn't like to get up, because he's lazy. It's his mom's fault," he deadpanned. As the 12-year-old ignored his father's, uh, encouragement to play harder, a red-hot Gundy turned to his wife, asking, "Is this the best we've done raising him?" Unable to stomach his son's performance, Gundy had to leave the gym to avoid saying something he'd later regret.