COLUMBIA — Initially, freshman Kyley Simmons didn't even consider playing for the Missouri women's basketball team.
Her father, Jim Simmons, a Maryville native, only knew of the team's tarnished reputation. And Kyley Simmons had other, seemingly better offers.
"The program wasn't very good," Jim Simmons said. "We didn't see good things coming from it."
But a phone call informed the Simmons family that Robin Pingeton had replaced Cindy Stein as head coach, and the program was headed in a new direction. It was enough for the high school senior to give MU another look.
And when Pingeton sat with Simmons in her office and offered her a spot with the Tigers, she looked Simmons straight in the eyes. Simmons felt a sincerity, an honesty, a transparency.
She felt that by committing to Missouri, she was going to be a part of their journey.
"It was her confidence level in me," Kyley Simmons said. "She was so real."
Ten minutes into the four-and-a-half-hour drive home to Council Bluffs, Iowa, Simmons decided. She reached Pingeton by phone when she got home and verbally committed to Missouri, officially declaring herself a Tiger and turning down offers from Kansas State, Marquette and Drake.
This season, Pingeton anticipates Simmons will be the starting point guard.
"She's one of our toughest players," Pingeton said.
Junior Liz Smith, a Johnson County (Kan.) Community College transfer, shares a similar experience with Simmons, saying the coaching staff drew her to Missouri.
"(The coaching staff is) very family-oriented," Smith said. "They are all about the team and getting better, and that is something that you don't see everywhere."
A lot has changed in the 18 months since Pingeton arrived at Missouri.
"Honestly, I think we’re just a completely different team," Pingeton said.
Pingeton acknowledged the dysfunctional program she inherited from Stein at Monday's media day. But she said the MU athletic department has given her and her staff the necessary financial support and recruiting budget, as well as intangible encouragement, to embark on what she calls her "journey."
It's the journey of building a team. The Tigers finished the 2010-2011 season 13-18 and 5-11 in the Big 12 Conference. Although the team amassed only one more win than in the 2009-2010 season, the five conference wins were the most for Missouri since 2007.
Pingeton wasn't, and isn't, looking for a quick fix. Recruitment is improving as the team does, and chemistry is forming on and off the court. She said the team was not a family last season, that trust and chemistry were lacking.
"We're still working to build those relationships, but there's been a culture change within the team," Pingeton said.
Senior BreAnna Brock said she disregards the Big 12 polls that rank Missouri last, saying Pingeton has boosted the team's morale through her expectations.
"We're at the top in our heads," Brock said. "(With Pingeton) the expectations are a lot higher. It's hard, but we've all stepped up our game."
Pingeton said she has been pleased with the offseason. She is pleased with practices and the players' work ethic and passion. She is pleased with the improvement, initiative and leadership of the seniors, Bailey Gee, Brock and Christine Flores.
"I'm pleased, but I'm not satisfied," Pingeton said. "I'm a long way from being satisfied, but I've certainly seen a lot of growth in our girls."
Pingeton said she refuses to define her team by a score. She isn't as concerned with, and doesn't expect, great success this year in the team's record as much as she expects great success in the growth, maturity and building of the program.
Will Missouri compete for a conference championship this season?
"Probably won't," Pingeton said.
Does the team have a single player who can carry the team on her back?
"No, we don't," Pingeton said.
"We're laying a foundation," Pingeton said. “This is what I love to do, to build."
On Monday, the team huddled at center court, arms stretched upward, and shouted a one-word chant before beginning practice. A resounding “Family” echoed through Mizzou Arena.