COLUMBIA — The man responsible for Missouri football’s turnaround in the past decade was once a Kansas Jayhawk.
That’s what Gary Pinkel would have you believe, anyway. Pinkel’s mentor, University of Washington coaching legend and former Kansas graduate student Don James, died Sunday of pancreatic cancer at the age of 80.
James will be remembered as a winner. He led the Washington Huskies to the national championship in 1991, just one year after Pinkel left his offensive coordinator post to take the head job at Toledo.
Monday, Pinkel reminisced about the day he left Seattle more than two decades ago. He made one final stop in James’ office before heading to Toledo.
“Coach, do you have any words of advice?” Pinkel asked.
James stared his protégé dead in the eyes.
“Yeah,” he said. “When things get tough — and they’re gonna get tough — you focus on waking up that morning and doing your job hour by hour by hour. Because in this business, there are so many outside distractions. If you let those in, you will never have a chance to be successful.”
Pinkel would never forget those words.
“From a management standpoint and a leadership standpoint, it was the greatest advice I was ever given,” Pinkel said.
In all, he worked as a coordinator under James for 13 seasons, and he also played for the late coach at Kent State in the 1970s. The two spoke on the phone often during Pinkel’s Missouri tenure, but James’ illness had hampered the frequency of conversations in recent weeks.
Pinkel left an emotional message on James’ voicemail approximately three weeks ago.
“He called me back a week later,” Pinkel said. “I’ll always remember that. He said, ‘Gary, I got your message,’ and his voice started quivering.
"Then all of a sudden, Coach James came back. You know, in charge, a leader. He asked me about our next game. I got to tell him I love him. He’s had just a profound influence of me my whole life.”
James will be remembered as a coach who stressed discipline and a no-nonsense approach. Pinkel often attests that he owes his organizational foundation to James, and he constantly alludes to James when talking to his players.
“Coach Pinkel took (James’) program and everything he was about and installed it into our program,” linebacker Donovan Bonner said. “If he wasn’t in Coach Pinkel’s life, then our program would be a lot different.”
Pinkel was in a meeting with his players on Sunday when his phone “went off like 60 times.” He knew James was in hospice, but the news still hit him hard. He notified his team that his mentor was gone.
“When Coach Pinkel told us, you could definitely tell he was hurting, and he was down about it” center Evan Boehm said. “(James) had a huge impact on this program, because I don’t think this program would be in this place today without Coach.
“That’s a family member. He’s a part of the Missouri family. That’s something we can rally around.”
Last season, there was a lot of outside pressure for system-wide change as Missouri lost seven games in its first SEC season. It would take a different approach, some said, to succeed in the new conference.
But Pinkel would not budge.
“We embraced (the challenge),” Pinkel said. “We didn’t make any changes. We embraced that system. (James) taught me how to be a head football coach by example.”
Although the revered coach is gone, he will still play a role in the Tigers’ success this season.
“We’re gonna go out there,” Boehm said. “And we’re gonna play for him.”
Supervising editor is Erik Hall.