COLUMBIA - Bill Fleenor, an outspoken Washington booster, hopes Missouri fans appreciate what they have in coach Gary Pinkel. On second thought, he would rather they don't.
With the Huskies winless after three games and support waning for fourth-year coach Tyrone Willingham, it's a fall of discontent for the once-proud program. And should Willingham not return, supporters such as Fleenor have their sights on Pinkel.
"It would be an earthquake of excitement," said Fleenor, a stockbroker in Walla Walla, Wash. "People would go nuts if he were our coach. He would be well-accepted."
More so than Willingham. Since he signed a five-year deal to become Washington's coach in December 2004, Willingham carries an 11-28 record into the home Pac-10 Conference opener against Stanford on Saturday. Pressure is building in Seattle for the Huskies to become bowl eligible for the first time during his tenure. Should University of Washington officials fire Willingham, those close to the program say Pinkel and MU offensive coordinator Dave Christensen, both with Washington ties and rising national profiles, could become attractive options.
Pinkel's coaching career began in Washington under venerable coach Don James, whom Pinkel played for as a tight end at Kent State. In 1976, Pinkel worked as a tight ends coach before becoming a wide receivers coach at Bowling Green. In 1979, Pinkel returned to Washington and spent the next 12 seasons as a wide receivers coach (1979-83) and offensive coordinator (1984-90). During Pinkel's time under James from 1979-90, the Huskies won 104 games, three conference championships and two Rose Bowls.
Then, after the 1998 season, the Washington job opened. Pinkel, Toledo's head coach since 1991, was seriously considered. But Colorado coach Rick Neuheisel, a flashy up-and-comer, signed a seven-year contract to become the Huskies' next coach.
Washington and Pinkel moved on. On Nov. 30, 2000, 12 days after firing Larry Smith, Missouri hired Pinkel. Then, after the 2002 season, Washington officials fired Neuheisel, despite a 33-16 record and a 2001 Rose Bowl victory; in June 2003, Neuheisel admitted to betting on the NCAA basketball tournament. Later that year, Pinkel guided the Tigers to an 8-5 record and Independence Bowl bid, the program's first postseason appearance since 1998.
"I think he liked it out here," James said of Pinkel, speaking from his home in Kirkland, Wash. "He was on the list when they hired Rick Neuheisel. My vote was to hire Gary then. A lot has happened since then."
Such as reversed fortunes for the two programs. Considered a Pac-10 Conference heavyweight during the James era, the Huskies have a 33-54 record since 2001 and haven't appeared in the postseason since the 2002 Sun Bowl. In the meantime, MU won 12 games last year, the most in school history, and played for the Big 12 Conference title for the first time. The Tigers have played in three consecutive bowl games, something that hadn't happened since a streak of postseason berths from 1978 to 1981.
"There has always been a push for Gary to come up here," said Kim Grinolds, managing partner for Dawgman.com, a popular Web site among Washington fans. "There is always going to be that push for it. But ... why would he leave there? Why would he leave? He has great facilities. He has great backing. He's well liked. It seems like he can stay there as long as he wants.
"It might be a little intriguing. It's like the girl at the bar who winks at you. It's always a little intriguing, but at the end of the day, you go home with the girl you came with. That girl right now is Missouri."
Said James: "I got to the same place out here. When I got the program going, why would I want to go anywhere else?
"It would be a monumental task here. ... There's a lot of negativity."
Should Willingham not return, the negativity might not prevent Washington officials from trying to lure Pinkel back to the Northwest. In 2007, Willingham earned $1.47 million after benefits, the third-highest salary in the Pac-10 . Last year, Pinkel earned $1.32 million before signing a five-year deal last December worth $1.85 annually .
"If you were going to throw a lot of money at someone," Fleenor said, "Gary would be the guy."
Christensen could be another option. From 1980-82, Christensen was an offensive lineman at Washington and served as an offensive line coach under James from 1989-90. In 2005, he was the mind behind MU's transition to the no-huddle spread offense, which produced a school-record 558 points last year. In 2007, he was a finalist for the Frank Broyles Award, given to the nation's top assistant coach. Like all of Pinkel's assistants, he has remained at Missouri.
But those close to Washington's program say a glamour hire is necessary should Willingham leave - someone with major-college or NFL head-coaching experience. They respect Christensen's ability, but they said he remains a relative unknown outside the Midwest.
"Gary is having a great year, so I think it's going to be tough for him to keep a hold of a guy like Christensen," Grinolds said. "But I don't know if a school like Washington can afford to take a risk on somebody that is a coordinator.
"It's more than coaching the football team that's needed at Washington. You need to create a little bit more of a buzz. I don't know if he's the guy who would be able to do that here."