COLUMBIA — On July 17, Gary Pinkel stood alone behind a lectern. He faced a room full of skeptics, their microphones jabbing in at him, their lights reflecting off of the sweat gathering on his forehead.
For the first time — it wouldn’t be the last — they asked him questions about his style, his resume and his team’s ability to compete.
Pinkel, wearing a black suit and a gold and black striped tie, stared straight ahead. The SEC logo, also printed in gold, was stamped all over a blue backdrop that hung directly behind him.
Here, during Pinkel’s first news conference under the SEC spotlight, he made no shocking promises. He didn’t predict his team’s future record, or boast about what his uptempo spread offense would do to unassuming defenses that had rarely faced that style of play.
He sat there, among his critics and future opponents, and acknowledged the challenges ahead. He knew then, just as he knows now, that the only way to turn heads and make believers in this conference is to win.
“The only way you're going to get respect is winning games, OK? That's the way it's going to happen,” Pinkel said. “I’ve got no problem with that. You have to prove yourself.”
One season down, and Pinkel’s team has proven little.
Bowl appearance? Nope. Notable conference victories? Few.
After a 5-7 season that resulted in Missouri being left out of postseason play for the first time since 2004, Pinkel and his staff are going back to the drawing board. Pinkel will assess each aspect of the program in offseason evaluations, which will determine whether that staff remains the same next season.
"I look at everybody in our program," Pinkel said Monday on KTGR Radio's "Tiger Talk." "If you can't fit into our program, I'll make a change."
Missouri's coaches were constantly challenged this season, having to adjust to an entirely new cast of opponents and steady injuries to key cogs at quarterback and in the offensive line.
Whether those coaches have been under more pressure in the team’s first season in the SEC, though, is up to interpretation.
“I think they’re under pressure every year. In the SEC and in the Big 12, you have to win. Everybody wants you to win,” offensive lineman Elvis Fisher said. “It is a business.”
On Saturday night, Pinkel faced another group of skeptics – this time in a cramped interview room next to the equipment shed just outside Kyle Field. After Missouri’s season-ending 59-29 loss to fellow Big 12-castoff Texas A&M, he assured the media that while the season had ended, he will continue to go to work.
“On Monday, I go to work and do what I do — focus on the program,” Pinkel said. “This isn’t the time to talk about the whole season, and not going to a bowl game and everything. I just don’t really feel like talking about it right now.”
He felt a little more like talking Monday night, as Pinkel described the motivation he has to continue winning on a high level.
"When we fall off that (high level), you don't think that destroys me? That's my job — to get us back to a bowl game," Pinkel said. "I'm going to work my tail off to get it."
Pinkel will speak again to the media Tuesday morning, when he hosts a news conference wrapping up the 2012 season and looking ahead to next year.
The news conference, contrary to the rumors swirling around Twitter over the past few days, will most likely not result in Pinkel announcing his resignation. He will, however, have to outline a plan on how to turn blowout conference losses into SEC wins.
The pressure that comes with the conference is unrelenting, and losses only bring more speculation. Pinkel and his staff will have an entire offseason to make sure a disappointing 2012 season doesn’t carry over into 2013.
The wins will come, he says, if Missouri can improve — not change — the way it plays football.
“What we do works, OK?” he said Saturday, leaning forward in his chair and pointing firmly ahead. “I’m not about to change anything now.”
The style of play doesn’t have to change. But if Pinkel wants to gain the respect he mentioned in Hoover, Ala., on July 17, the final record better.
Supervising editor is Grant Hodder.