‘Torture’: Why Oklahoma State’s 2004 Final Four team practiced in shoulder pads, helmets

‘Torture’: Why Oklahoma State’s 2004 Final Four team practiced in shoulder pads, helmets

Eddie Sutton always wanted his teams to be tough, and when one BYU player nearly outrebounded OSU by himself, the Oklahoma State coach employed a drastic tactic.

Jenni Carlson

By Jenni Carlson

| Feb 19, 2024, 6:00am CST

Jenni Carlson

By Jenni Carlson

Feb 19, 2024, 6:00am CST

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STILLWATER — All these years later, Ivan McFarlin still remembers Rafael Araujo.

That name might not register to even the most ardent basketball fan, but for McFarland and the rest of Oklahoma State’s 2004 Final Four team, the name of the BYU big man will forever stick in their memories.

He was the reason for the famous (infamous?) helmets-and-shoulder pads practices.

McFarlin still remembers those, too.

“That was probably my worst two days being there,” the former Cowboy big man said on the Sellout Crowd podcast “In the Trenches with Sam Mayes.”

“It was torture.”

This past weekend during OSU’s annual reunion of past players, the 2004 Final Four team was celebrated and honored. Ironically, OSU’s opponent on Saturday was BYU, and it was the first meeting between the programs since the fateful game that prompted Eddie Sutton to put his basketball players in football gear.

It became a seminal moment in a transcendent season.

And it wouldn’t have happened without BYU and Rafael Araujo.

Araujo, a Brazilian, was a 6-foot-11 center for the Cougars who went on to play a few years in the NBA. Even though he was in his fourth year of college when the Cowboys came to town, he was already 23 years old. He was big and broad.

OSU, by contrast, started McFarlin (6-8) and Jason Miller (6-9) that night in Salt Lake City.

The Cowboys had a smaller back line than most teams, which got even shorter when Joey Graham (6-7) moved into the starting lineup along with McFarlin. So, the players knew that rebounding was a group activity. Everyone had to crash the boards.

But against BYU, OSU was outrebounded 44-18.

Worse, Araujo nearly outrebounded the Cowboys by himself, grabbing 17 rebounds to go along with 32 points.

“We just got destroyed on the boards,” said Sean Sutton, then an OSU assistant for his dad.

Even though the game ended up being close — BYU only won 76-71 in large part because of a big night from Daniel Bobik, who scored 18 points against his former team — the poor rebounding performance had the Suttons and the rest of the coaching staff fuming. Sean remembers bringing up an idea he’d gotten from Tom Izzo, the hard-nosed Michigan State coach.

Practicing in helmets and shoulder pads.

Sean Sutton said he and his dad had done such practices before, but not with anyone on that 2003-04 OSU team. But when the team got back to Stillwater from Salt Lake City late that Saturday night, Eddie Sutton stood up as the team bus was about to let off the players and told them to rest up on Sunday.

“Monday,” he told the players, “go get outfitted for helmets and shoulder pads, and we’ll see you at 2 p.m.”

Then, the elder Sutton calmly walked off the bus.

The players all looked at each other.

“Did he just say what we thought he said?” Bobik remembers asking.

The players thought it was a joke.

But the next day when Bobik checked in at the basketball office, a daily mandate Sutton had for the players, Sutton asked if Bobik had gotten his shoulder pads and helmet.

“I thought you were joking,” Bobik said.

“I wasn’t joking,” Sutton said, “They’re waiting for you down in the football locker room. Go.”

Sure enough, the football equipment managers took a few measurements, and later that day, Bobik and every other player had gear waiting for them in the locker. The helmets even had athletic tape on the front with each player’s name.

“And he beat the crap out of us for two straight days,” Bobik said of Sutton.

“It was terrible.”

Reserve forward Terrence Crawford said, “I was hurt a lot of days when I was at Oklahoma State. That was absolutely the one day I was glad I was hurt.”

The thing is, the coaches remembered the players’ reaction to those practices quite differently. Sean Sutton said the players didn’t blink an eye at running plays or doing drills in football gear.

With one exception: Tony Allen.

The tough-nosed guard from Chicago who became known as The Grindfather during his NBA years in Memphis, the guru of the Grit and Grind era with the Grizzlies, approached Sean Sutton about 45 minutes into the Cowboys’ first helmets-and-shoulder-pads practice.

“Coach, I’m getting hot,” Sutton remembers Allen saying. “How much longer do you think we’re gonna go on this thing? I’m pretty hot.”

Sutton: “You’re hot?”

Allen: “Yeah.”

Sutton: “Pretty hot?”

Allen: “Yeah.”

Sutton called all the players together.

“Tony’s hot,” Sutton told them. “He thinks we’ve gone long enough, which really proves our point. It’s 72 degrees in here, and he’s hot, but guys go out on the football fields and do this for two or three hours a day in August.”

Later, Allen approached Sutton again.

“That was a good one, Coach,” Allen said. “You got me. I deserved it.”

It’s impossible to know how those helmets-and-shoulder-pads practices changed the Cowboys. Toughness, after all, isn’t built in a day. A team doesn’t become resilient because it has a couple practices in football gear.

In truth, the helmets and shoulder pads were actually an extension of the way the Cowboys usually practiced.

OSU had a charge drill where a player stood in the paint and took charges from the left, the center and the right. And the players used to deliver the contact? Big guys like 7-foot-2 Frans Steyn, a former rugby player. 

After the final charge was taken, the player would have to get up and corral a basketball being rolled toward midcourt before it crossed the line. Failure to get the ball resulted in extra running.

Eddie Sutton wanted his teams to be tough. That was important in playing man-to-man defense the way he wanted it played, but it was big in other ways, too.

The evening before the regional semifinal against a rugged Pitt team in 2004, the Cowboys went to an Italian restaurant in East Rutherford, N.J. They loaded up on pasta. 

Later that night, McFarlin started feeling sick. Joey Graham, Tony Allen and John Lucas did, too. 

McFarlin remembers he and Graham, his roommate on the road, throwing up for hours.

But when the game tipped off the next day, both were in the starting lineup. Allen and Lucas were, too. And if you watched the game, you’d have never known how bad they were feeling.

OSU, the No. 2 seed, manhandled Pitt, the No. 3 seed, 63-51.

Toughness was a state of being for that great OSU team. Even though many of the players brought their own personal resilience — many came from tough backgrounds or came through difficult situations — Eddie Sutton and Co. made sure to reinforce it.

“We were super tough, and part of that was because he was tough on us,” Bobik said of Sutton. “We knew that he loved us.”

Even when he made them practice in shoulder pads and helmets.

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Jenni Carlson is a columnist with the Sellout Crowd network. Follow her on Twitter at @JenniCarlson_OK. Email [email protected].

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