Grounded and principled, Gary Pinkel has made a lasting mark on the Missouri football program
Missouri coach Gary Pinkel will tell you that November is the most important month on the college football calendar because it is a time when championship-caliber teams make statements on the field. "Those who finish in November will be remembered," he likes to say.
Yet in the week leading up to their game against BYU last Saturday night in Kansas City, Mo., Pinkel and the Tigers were mired in a four-game losing streak and being remembered for reasons having nothing to do with football. With their coach's blessing, players joined fellow students in a protest against racism on campus, announcing they would cease all football activities until University system president Tim Wolfe stepped down. Pinkel threw his support behind the players, and within 24 hours Wolfe had resigned.
Then things got really complicated. Diagnosed with lymphoma in May, Pinkel shared the news with only a small circle, and in late October he told athletic director Mack Rhoades he intended to step down at the end of the season. The plan was to tell the players on the day after the BYU game. But when word leaked last Friday that he would retire due to health issues, prompting cynics to say he was bailing on his team, Pinkel broke the news to his stunned players that afternoon. He described himself as "an absolute wreck emotionally. I really felt bad because I didn't know if our guys could be able to focus enough to even have a chance to win a football game against a good team like this."
A day later, improbably, incomprehensibly, Mizzou awoke from a season-long offensive slumber and produced a 20—16 victory at Arrowhead Stadium. "This is one of the great games I've ever been a part of," Pinkel said as the most tumultuous week of his 25-year career as a head coach wound down.
That is saying something. Don Faurot and Dan Devine are arguably the greatest coaches in Missouri history, but Pinkel undoubtedly has been the most transformative. In 2001, he took over a program that for the better part of a quarter century was among the worst in the country. He will retire as the winningest coach in school history. He has won or shared five division conference titles, including back-to-back SEC East championships. Twice over a seven-year stretch the Tigers have been one victory from playing for the national championship. And on a frigid night at Arrowhead in November 2007, Missouri defeated bitter rival Kansas and ascended to No. 1 in the polls for the first time in 47 years.
I wrote about that game and Pinkel's turnaround of the program in a 2013 book, Tigers versus Jayhawks: From Civil War to Battle for #1. Through extended interviews and conversations, I came to know the man and understand his vision for the program. He can be engaging and animated, and he is loyal to a fault. On his way to becoming the winningest coach at Toledo in the 1990s, he made it clear he would not entertain any head-coaching offers until the last of his three children had graduated from high school. (Bear Bryant and Steve Spurrier are the only other coaches to lead two schools in career victories.) He has never fired an assistant coach, and four of the coaches from his original staff at Mizzou are still on board.
As good as Pinkel has been for Missouri football, the experience has been equally rewarding for him. Sourpuss and surly were among the labels he was saddled with during his early years in Columbia, but two events in 2005 changed everything: First, a group of players told Pinkel they didn't truly know their coach. He vowed to be more open and approachable. Then in July, freshman linebacker Aaron O'Neal died of viral meningitis after a voluntary team workout. The bond between a coach and his players grew even tighter.
"All the things we did when we hit that adversity, it all came together," Pinkel told me for the book. "How we communicate with each other, how we care about each other, all the things we did in meetings and building relationships."
The relationship between coach and athlete blossomed into player development and leadership programs—on and off the field. It's no surprise that in the wake of the boycott and the retirement news, Pinkel's Twitter feed filled up with testaments from countless former players. The sustained bond is the reason why a football team can go an entire season honoring the secret of Michael Sam, a defensive end who in August 2013 shared with coaches and players that he was gay. It explains why a coach is willing to stand with players in protest even amid backlash from critics who said he should have chosen another course of action or at the very least not been so quick to join the fight.
"It was certainly a difficult week, but you know it's also not difficult if you feel you are doing the right things, making the right decisions, doing the right things for your kids," Pinkel said on Saturday.
The kids—they are what he'll miss most. That was never more evident than at an emotional press conference last Monday. Pinkel had to stop for a good 15 seconds to collect himself before talking about his players. "I'm going to miss the interaction, scolding them when I have to scold them and hugging them and touching them every day," he said. "I've always told recruits they are a Tiger for life. This isn't a four- or five-year decision. And I tell my players you're going to have my phone number forever. You call me anytime you need me for anything."
Asked later what he has learned from his players, he replied, "You learn all the time from them," before adding with a laugh, "I've got to hang around them just to be cool."
You want cool? Cool is watching a football team celebrate victory by enveloping its coach, waylay an SEC Network interview, chant "G-P! G-P! Hey!" and demand he break out the dance routine he introduced after a Cotton Bowl victory in January 2014. Cooler still is watching a 63-year-old grandfather of eight oblige. "Obviously, I don't dance very well," PInkel quipped. "We all know that."
Next on the dance card is a Saturday night date with Tennessee in what will be Pinkel's curtain call at Faurot Field. Farewells are never easy, and this one figures to be doubly tough. It's Senior Night, and nothing stirs Pinkel's emotions more than saying goodbye to the kids he has molded into young men over the previous four or five years. There won't be a dry eye in the house. It will be a November night to remember.