By Lenn Robbins
There are moments we cannot plan for, moments when all the emotions of the last 40 minutes, heck, the last 39 years can overwhelm a man and he erupts – hands balled into fists throwing roundhouse air punches at the bleachers of students in Gallagher-Iba Arena, most of whom look nothing like Michael Boynton Jr., and have no idea where Bedford-Stuyvesant is, no less Brooklyn.
Boynton’s Oklahoma State team had just edged Texas Tech, 74-69, in overtime, yes, that Texas Tech, which lost in last year’s national championship game to Virginia. The students were tearing the roof off the place. Their Cowboys were suddenly in 6th place in the Big 12. All five teams ahead in the standings are ranked.
Not bad considering Boynton, the head coach, was an unpopular choice in Stillwater, OK when he was hired four years ago at the age of 35.
“It was, ‘All right, so we don’t really care about basketball at Oklahoma State anymore,” Boynton said in a telephone interview Thursday. “We just hired a 35-year-old black man from Brooklyn, New York who’s never been a head coach before.”
Who made this hire, anyway?
“I don’t want to interrupt but I am,” said athletic director Mike Holder in a phone interview Friday. “I chose a 35-year-old difference maker; an extraordinary leader. And the color of his skin meant absolutely nothing.”
Maybe that would be true in a more perfect world but the color of a person’s skin is arguably the single most polarizing issue facing America today. The Republican candidate for president has carried Oklahoma every year since 1968.
The Southern Poverty Law Center tracked 12 active hate groups in Oklahoma in 2020, at least two of which are white supremacists. Football coach Mike Gundy came under fire in 2020 when a photo surfaced of him wearing the T-shirt of a far-right cable news channel.
This is where a 39-year-old black man from Brooklyn, who is married to a white woman, now makes his home.
So Holder wasn’t the only person taking a chance. Boynton wasn’t about to turn down a job where Hank Iba and Eddie Sutton have coached. He wasn’t going to turn down becoming one of just 13 black coaches in the Power Six conference. Five are in the Big East.
But Stillwater is little more than a one hour drive from Tulsa, where an unknown number of blacks were massacred by whites and an estimated 10,000 were left homeless. More recently, Eric Courtney Harris, a black man, was accidently shot dead in 2015 by a white deputy, Robert Bates, who was found guilty of manslaughter.
“I’ve got to have some courage here,” said Boynton. “What I say, what I feel, not everyone is going to agree with. Some people who are pretty important might be offended or might feel Im disrespecting them.
“You know, we had a conversation about the flag which unfortunately has been coopted and politicized. No one is saying,’ We don’t care about the United States. No one is saying that we don’t care about the flag.’ We’re saying, ‘Hey, I would like to tell you how I’m feeling. You’ve got to take a risk.”
Oklahoma State wasn’t exactly the most appealing job for a coach of any color in 2017. The Cowboys were banned from this year’s NCAA Tournament because of violations committed by former assistant coach Lamont Evans while at South Carolina. The Cowboys appealed and are eligible until the appeal is heard, which won’t likely be before March Madness.
Former coach Brad Underwood, who brought Boynton with him from Stephen A. Austin in 2016, bolted Stillwater for Illinois after one season amid a bitter contract dispute with Holder. Underwood was unhappy with his reported $1.1 million salary. Illinois reportedly tripled that figure.
Enter Boynton, who never imagined earning the $1.1 million he received in his first contract (now $1,750,000 according to figures reported by USA Today.). For that matter, he never imagined the formative years of his life at Bishop Loughlin High School, and the support of his parents, Millicent and Michael Sr., would give him the chance to one day go from Bed-Stuy to Stillwater.
No one could have drawn that map.
“The naysayers, and there are plenty of them, say we hired him because we could get him on the cheap,” said Holder “That had nothing to do with it. I want this place to be seen as some place that’s different.”
“I got a chance to interview him on a daily basis for a whole year. Neither of us knew that it was a job interview. I saw him most days and I watched a lot when he didn’t even know I was around. I was just thankful that he was here and that the risk was worth it. The risks are easily quantifiable but I thought the upside far outweighed the unknowns.”
Boynton has experience with the unknown. He chose to play his college ball at South Carolina because of the relationship then coach Eddie Fogler, a former All-City player at Flushing High School, built with Boynton. Fogler retired after the 2001 season, replaced by Dave Odom.
“I had never had a conversation with him before he stepped on campus,” Boynton said of Odom. “Immediately from a basketball standpoint, I wondered, ‘Does he believe in me? Does he want for his program, what he wants to do, does he think I can do that?’ You have to reach out as a coach and have meaningful conversations with the players. Have a little compassion. They didn’t ask for this.”
Boynton stayed at South Carolina and that experience proved invaluable when he got the Oklahoma State job. The NCAA announced its penalties against the Cowboys in the Evans case one week before Boynton held his first practice.
“Here I am, already behind the eight-ball,” said Boynton. “You’re in the fishbowl now. There were more people wanting answers from me at that time, prior or since, I was hired.”
Boynton only lost one player to transfer. The then 35-year-old coach had handled first crisis. He knew there would be others.
Oklahoma State, like most colleges and universities around the country, has faced difficult moments considering the treatment of students of color. Social media posts depicting at least two students in blackface rocked the campus in January of 2017.
Three months later Boynton was hired. It could have been a toxic situation, especially in recruiting. But Boynton had already built a trust factor.
“He would talk to us about financial literacy, what to do in certain situations, “said freshman Rondel Walker, a four-star recruit from Midwest City, OK.,“He talked more about non-basketball stuff than basketball.
“I told my dad, ‘If he ever becomes a head coach, anywhere from Hawaii to New Hampshire, I want to play for him.”
Walker, of course, wasn’t the only top recruit Boynton signed. Cade Cunningham, the nation’s No.1 recruit from Texas by way of prep power Montverde Academy in Florida, is now the odds-on favorite to win Freshman of the Year honors.
This guarantees Boynton nothing. Yes, the Cowboys are 15-6 overall, 8-6 in the Big 12 and currently a No.8 seed in the NCAA Tournament according to ESPNs Joe Lunardi, going into Saturday afternoon’s bedlam of a game at Oklahoma (14-6, 9-5).
Boynton is 66-55 overall, 28-40 in the Big 12 in his fourth season and the Cowboys have not finished higher than tied for sixth in the league. The great recruiting class should help and Boynton’s popularity might be his ace.
When Underwood left for Illinois the players lobbied hard for their assistant coach, who didn’t even have his own Wikipedia page at the time. Boynton has made good on his word on the recruiting trail, bringing in experts to educate his players on financial literacy and the importance of knowing political candidates from those running for president to those running for the local district attorney office.
He’s had local police officers in and asked them to listen to his players concerns. He’s asked his players to listen to the police officer’s concerns. Sometimes Boynton will spontaneously open discussions on those issues and others.
“If you’re not aware, you’ll get chewed up and spit out by this world,” Boynton said. “I grew up in a place where there’s no question, people get used all the time for their talents and they don’t get anything out of it and end up frustrated. Education is the key.”
Truthfully, so are wins and losses in bigtime college sports.
Boynton believes his age, his skin color and timing might have contributed to him not getting the head coaching job at Stephen A. Austin when Underwood left for Oklahoma State. That was the low point of his professional career.
The high point, along with the Cowboys’ 2018 upset of then No.4 Oklahoma with Trey Young, came Monday night in the nationally-televised win over the Red Raiders. It was a classic league battle; the game not decided until the last second of OT.
For Boynton, something deeper was in play when the horn sounded. The man from Brooklyn, who says some of his best friends haven’t made it out of a bad life, who wasn’t welcome in Stillwater four years ago, was overwhelmed by the love the students were showing him and his players.
“Our students felt connected because they thought I was a young guy who was given a chance, “said Boynton, who mimed the initials, ‘OSU,’to the delight of the fans. “And literally from Day One our students have been so invested in helping us have success. There’s been a partnership.”
How far can this partnership go?
If he continues to succeed in recruiting – the 2020 class was ranked sixth nationally – and compete for Big 12 titles with the likes of Kansas and Baylor, Boynton might be able to have the kind of impact he truly wants – change. His success could influence other Power Six programs to hire a minority coach.
“Part of being great is winning over the student body and getting them fired up to come to Oklahoma State basketball games,” said Holder. “If you want to point to what sets Duke apart, other than Mike Krzyzewski and the players, it’s the Cameron Crazies.”
The Boynton Brigade? Who knows. Right now, something special is taking place at Oklahoma State. Not a lot of programs can make that claim.
NOTES – Despite growing up in a Brooklyn, which is heavy Mets territory, Boynton is a Yankees fan. How did that happen?
The Mets were winning in the mid-to-late 80’s and the Yankees were not. Mets’ tickets were expensive. Yankees tickets were not. Boynton, then a child, and his dad would take the bus and two subways lines to get to the Bronx.
In the mid-to-late 90’s, Derek Jeter and friends arrived and the Mets faded. The die was cast. Boynton is a Yankees fan for life. He is friends with Matt Holliday, a Stillwater native who played for the Yankees in 2017, who is an assistant baseball coach at Oklahoma State.
“My son [Ace] said he wants to be a baseball player, “said Boynton, who also has a daughter, Zoe. “We would have a catch and I would tell him to watch the ball into his glove. He wouldn’t listen. Matt Holliday tells him the same thing, probably not as nicely, and he listens.”