COLUMBIA —Gary Pinkel stands behind a podium at the University of Toledo Student Union, and everyone in the room is hurt.
It’s Dec. 9, 2000, the night of Toledo’s annual football banquet. But this ceremony is unlike any in Pinkel’s 10 years as the Rockets’ head coach. On this night, everyone has heard the news, but the players want to hear it from Pinkel.
They want to hear that Pinkel, the man who had just coached them to a 10-1 season, is leaving them. Not just leaving them, but leaving them for Missouri, a team that won only three games in 2000 and finished dead last in the Big 12 North two consecutive years. A new challenge.
Toledo’s 2000 season wasn’t a fluke, either. The Rockets will return the same core group of players in 2001, but a different coach will be on the sidelines. Pinkel will be taking on a new challenge 500-plus miles west and collecting a paycheck more than three times the size of what he was getting at Toledo.
“Why’s he leaving this program for Missouri?” asks Andy Boyd, a junior safety during Pinkel’s final season at Toledo. “You’re leaving a program with a ton of players in it for a bottom feeder in the Big 12. You feel a sense of abandonment as a player. We felt disrespected a little bit.”
Pinkel knows his players are upset. He stands and delivers his speech, closing the door on his Toledo coaching career.
Then Pinkel starts making his way around the room. There are 90 players on Toledo’s roster. Each player gets a hand shake, a message of gratitude and well wishes for his future from the coach that won’t be there to see it unfold.
The gesture doesn’t satisfy every player, and some let Pinkel know it. But it doesn’t change anything. Ten years of building, and Toledo is on the cusp of another Mid-American Conference Championship. But the team that won 10 games is looking for a new coach.
“He pulled the rug out from underneath us,” Boyd says.
Pinkel built Toledo his way.
He got handed a Mid-American Conference Championship in 1991. The 1990 Rockets, coached by Pinkel’s college teammate Nick Saban, won nine games.
Saban was only at Toledo for one season, but he left Pinkel a winner. He waited to resign until after national signing day, taking a job as defensive coordinator with the Cleveland Browns.
But Pinkel wanted to make Toledo his own. He and Saban played together under Don James at Kent State, and while Saban had won the MAC, the program needed stability.
Pinkel provided that. He had spent 12 seasons as an assistant coach at Washington under James. He had roots in Ohio and was prepared to build the program the right way, with experienced players and an established chain of command.
“He had a plan, and he stuck to that plan,” said Toledo assistant athletic director David Nottke, who was a student during the early part of Pinkel’s tenure. “He had a specific way he wanted to build the program with specific types of kids he wanted to recruit.”
The results didn’t come right away, though. Pinkel failed to match Saban’s nine-win, 1990 season during his first years with the Rockets. Patience in Toledo was wearing thin.
“There was a lot of pressure on Gary after what was perceived to be a disappointing season in 1994,” said Mark Beier, the voice of the Toledo Rockets radio station.
1995 changed everything. Pinkel’s recruits had aged and gained experience. His plan was starting to take shape, and under the pressure, Pinkel and his team responded.
Toledo didn’t lose a game that year, going 11-0-1, finishing the season with a win in the Las Vegas Bowl. It was the first bowl win of Pinkel’s career and a season that changed the attitude toward Toledo football.
“It brought back a lot of excitement,” Nottke said. “Our students were fired up, the campus was excited about football again.”
Pinkel was always professional, even on an early September weekend in 1998 that proved to be one of the most difficult of Pinkel’s life.
It was the second week of Toledo’s season, and the Rockets traveled 2 and a half hours south to Columbus to take on Ohio State, who was ranked No. 1 in the nation.
The 49-0 loss was hard enough for Pinkel and Toledo, but the day got worse when he left the stadium and immediately rushed to his mother’s bedside. She was ill, and Pinkel wasn’t sure how much longer she had to live.
The next morning, Beier didn’t know whether to expect Pinkel at their weekly television broadcast. It started at 8:30 a.m., and Pinkel arrived right on schedule. His mother died four or five hours earlier, Beier said.
“His heart was broken, but he was still able to do what was supposed to be done,” Beier said.
Pinkel has always overcome adversity. When the pressure was mounting in 1995, Pinkel led Toledo to an undefeated season. In 1998, Pinkel pushed past the death of his mother to post his fifth consecutive winning season as Rockets head coach. By 2005, Pinkel faced similar job scrutiny at Missouri. He got the Tigers to a bowl game and beat South Carolina to gain positive momentum for the program.
He's facing similar pressure in 2013 after Missouri's 5-7 record in its first season in the Southeastern Conference. But Pinkel doesn't drastically change his approach, he stays focused, and he remembers what his coaching mentor Don James told him before his introductory news conference at Toledo.
“He looked at me and said, ‘Gary, when things get tough, and they’re going to get tough, you focus on doing your job,’ ” Pinkel said at 2013 SEC Media Days.
"That's probably the best piece of advice I've ever gotten."
Not much has changed for Pinkel since his Toledo days. He's at a bigger program with higher expectations and has more zeroes on his paycheck, but he still sticks by James' advice. He has a handful of the same coaches around him and runs the same program. It worked for James at Kent State and Washington, and it's worked for Pinkel at Toledo and Missouri.
Boyd paid his old coach a visit and noticed the similarities between Missouri and Toledo. Same terminology, same structure and even the same weekly routines. Boyd pointed out that Pinkel still asked his players for "truths" at the end of the week to find out how many classes each player went to and how their grades were.
"He ran a program like a business. He was the CEO, and he was treated accordingly," Boyd said. "I wouldn’t say he was a players coach.
"We didn’t have a whole lot of interaction with him one-on-one. He coached the coaches, and in turn the coaches coached the players."
That approach worked at Toledo and has worked so far at Missouri. Pinkel is hoping 2013 won't change the pattern.
On Saturday, Pinkel will be on the sidelines for a Toledo football game. But the man who won a program-record 73 games as head coach and was enshrined into the Varsity T Hall of Fame in 2009 will be on the opposite sideline this time.
But that's not all that has changed for Pinkel.
He's a different man than he was at Toledo. He's older, more experienced, almost hardened. A smile like the one Pinkel flashed after Toledo dominated Penn State at Happy Valley in 2000 is rare for the more guarded version of Pinkel that Missouri fans know.
He's made as many headlines in recent years for things happening away from the field (his divorce and DUI arrest) than his coaching.
But those who have been at Toledo since the Pinkel era remember him as a loyal professional eager for a new challenge. Few have kept in close contact with him in the 13 years since he left the program, but a sense of pride remains over his continued success. They joke that it all goes out the window when the two teams meet on the field, though.
"He's the enemy," said Boyd, who served in coaching and recruiting roles at Toledo after his playing days before joining Beier in the broadcast booth.
Pinkel's challenge extends beyond Toledo, though. His team stumbled in its first season in the Southeastern Conference, and Pinkel is feeling the pressure, like he has many times before in his career. But this is different, because he's changing.
Rather than stick to the plan and let the results fall in place, Pinkel adjusted his preseason practice plan and tweaked the offense. Still, his mentor's words are fresh in his mind.
"Focus on doing your job."
Supervising editor is Greg Bowers.