Gary Pinkel is Missouri football.
Gary Pinkel was Missouri football? No. Not yet. The impact the Tigers coach has had over the past decade and a half is too great for him to be reduced to the past tense so quickly—not when he has three games left to coach, not when the mark he’s made on his program over the past 15 seasons will endure for years, if not decades.
On Friday afternoon, Missouri announced that Pinkel will resign at the end of 2015. He was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma in May and had kept his condition secret in the months since, but after consulting with physicians and family after the team’s Oct. 24 game against Vanderbilt, Pinkel made the decision that the 2015 season would be his last. In a release sent Friday, the coach qualifies that the disease is “manageable” and that he is not doing poorly; rather, he wants to focus on returning to health and spending time with his family.
The announcement comes just five days after Pinkel came out in support of his players’ decision to boycott football-related activities amid growing unrest on Missouri’s campus. (The boycott was later suspended when University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe resigned Monday morning.) And though that event and the coach’s resignation are unrelated, that Pinkel’s public support of his players’ historic action will be his final prominent act as coach is fitting. After all, this is a man who has always stood by his players above all else, who sees himself as coach and father figure—and who acts the part. During his 15 seasons at Missouri, Pinkel has been known to begin a crucial meeting with dating advice for his players if the mood strikes him. A season ago, he picked a virtue a week from William J. Bennett’s “The Book of Virtues,” to share with his team, and in 2015, each week has brought a bullet point of fatherly advice. “You don’t really see him as Coach,” Missouri’s freshman quarterback Drew Lock told me in September.
Defensive end Shane Ray, a first-round draft pick last spring out of Missouri, elaborated further this week to reporters in Denver, where he now plays for the Broncos. “Once you go to the University of Missouri, you’re Coach Pinkel’s guy, and he’s going to do everything in his power to make sure that his players are taken care of and treated with respect,” Ray said.
Still, in spite—or because—of that affection, Pinkel’s expectations for his players have always been high. When he took over at Missouri in 2001, he inherited a program that had gone 3–8 the year before and boasted three winning seasons in its past 19. In his third year with the Tigers, the team made a bowl game. In his fifth, it won one, and from there, Missouri made a postseason game in seven consecutive seasons. When the Tigers joined the SEC in 2012, much of football deemed them overmatched, and after a 5–7 debut, those concerns seemed founded—but only briefly. Pinkel’s teams went on to win the SEC East in their second and third seasons in the conference.
In recent years, Missouri’s calling card has been its defensive line, which has consistently produced NFL talent like Ziggy Hood, Aldon Smith, Sheldon Richardson, Kony Ealy, Ray and Markus Golden, all first- or second-round draft picks. But over the course of his career, Pinkel has also been known for grooming quarterbacks. Brad Smith, Chase Daniel and Blaine Gabbert all went on to the NFL during the coach’s tenure in Columbia, and all three remain in the league. But what’s perhaps most remarkable about the list of talent Pinkel has produced is its origins. Instead of focusing on four- and five-star recruits, Pinkel has worked to recognize under-recruited talent and grow it, coining the phrase “Mizzou Made” to describe the process. “We have a system in place [for] how we look at guys,” he told me in September. “Our emphasis is on recruiting and recruiting players who we think have speed and athleticism potential. We can develop that. That’s what ‘Mizzou Made’ is. We can develop you as a person, as a student, as a football player.”
Moreover, in a game that too often sees coaches sacrifice common sense and morals in the name of winning, Pinkel has never been afraid to make the unpopular, but correct, choice. After the 2013 season, with a roster that looked primed for another run at the SEC championship and beyond, Pinkel cut ties with Dorial Green-Beckham, the nation’s former No. 1 recruit, after he was accused of assaulting a woman. No matter that the receiver, a 6'5", 235-pound physical specimen who would go on to be the 40th pick in the 2015 NFL draft, wasn’t charged in the incident. Pinkel deemed his behavior unacceptable for his program, and that was that.
Missouri’s first-year athletics director, Mack Rhoades, has known of his coach’s decision since Oct. 28. He’s had more than two weeks to begin quietly planning for the future of his program, and as he and the rest of Missouri’s athletics department go about their search for Pinkel’s successor, they owe their almost-former coach a heap of thanks. The transformation that Pinkel (who has a 117–71 record at Missouri going into Saturday) brought about in Columbia turned the Tigers from a bottom-tier Big 12 team into an SEC threat, a job that should pique the interest of college’s football’s brightest up-and-coming coaches. Without him, not so much.
There’s no question of what Pinkel’s legacy at Missouri will constitute. He’s the program’s winningest coach, the man who steered it in the best conference in the game and produced a pipeline of NFL talent. That’s why this news, that he’s leaving football on a disease’s terms rather than his own, is so heartbreaking, and the timing couldn’t be worse. Over the course of the past month, Missouri’s team has seen more drama and uncertainty than most programs face in a season. Former starting quarterback Maty Mauk was suspended, reinstated and suspended again.
The Tigers are currently riding their first four-game losing streak since 2004, and for 36 hours, there was a chance they’d have to forfeit this Saturday’s game should their boycott continue. And now, finally, this. Whether Pinkel’s illness and looming resignation will galvanize his team or further fracture a group of young men whose identity has already been shaken for nearly a week is impossible to say. And for all the beauty of Pinkel’s support on Sunday, even the staunchest Kansas fan should admit: The man who made Missouri football deserves an ending better than this one.