Pinkel has Missouri rising from the doldrums

Monday, December 2, 2013 | 10:05 p.m. CST; updated 4:50 p.m. CST, Wednesday, December 4, 2013

COLUMBIA — One year ago, Gary Pinkel didn’t want anything to do with Christmas music.

His team’s season had been over for a week. The 5-7 Missouri Tigers were not going to a bowl game, and their first year of Southeastern Conference play had been a disaster.

So instead of embracing holiday cheer, Pinkel turned off his radio.

“I didn’t want to feel good,” he said.

As pundits — local and otherwise — decided Pinkel’s style of play could not hold up in the new conference, the coach reflected on December 1988 when he was the offensive coordinator at Washington.

Don James, then the Huskies' head coach, had won the Rose Bowl and the Orange Bowl within the previous seven seasons, but a 3-5 record had many people calling for his head.

Pinkel remembers that month vividly.

“I kept the articles,” he said. “I saw all these articles were written about him. ‘He’s over the hill. He can’t do it anymore.’ I folded them up and kept them because it was interesting to me. To think that they would say those things about him after all the things he’d accomplished.”

James, who died in October, kept his job after that down season and ended up winning the national championship four years later.

Pinkel finally threw away the old newspaper clippings a year and a half ago.

“I know my business,” he said. “I know the way it is. I just do my job. That’s the best way to deal with it.”

The man who was on the hot seat before this season has come through. This Saturday against Texas A&M, he wiped away tears on Senior Night to notch his 101st victory as coach of the Tigers, which tied him with the legendary Don Faurot for first all-time.

The emotional ride has been a fitting tribute to the late James.

“When his mentor (James) died, that’s the first thing he said to us,” center Evan Boehm said. “He goes, ‘I feel like if something happens in my life and my family, I need to tell you guys, because you’re my family also.’

“When your head coach says that to you, it makes you feel like you’re a part of his life and a part of his family.”

The eighth-winningest active coach in the nation needs one more victory to make the Missouri record his, but that is a tall task this week considering the opponent in the SEC Championship is No. 3 Auburn.

No one predicted a Georgia Dome appearance in 2013. No one even saw the signs in September, when Pinkel tied and passed Dan Devine for second on the Missouri list in the Tigers’ third and fourth games. 

But Pinkel did.

“I could see it in the third week, fourth week, sixth week,” he said. “I saw their football team become a lot better.”

When backup quarterback Maty Mauk stepped in to finish off Georgia and beat Florida, Pinkel thought, “Gosh, we might be able to make a run at this.”

That run has culminated in the 2013 SEC East championship.

The strong finish was by design. Each year, the team’s November games are coded with a different color on the schedule. When the Tigers dropped an overtime heartbreaker to South Carolina in late October, they knew they had to be perfect in November to keep their national title hopes alive.

“There was so much out in front of us after the South Carolina game,” Pinkel said. “Everything. We controlled our destiny.”

Four wins later, they are 11-1 with chance to go to the BCS National Championship. But Pinkel looked past the records and accolades to assess the meaning of the team’s success.

“That’s not only good for the University of Missouri football program — that’s good for the University of Missouri,” he said. “That’s good for the state of Missouri. That’s good for Columbia, Missouri. That’s how sports can really be an asset to the university in a very positive way.

“I want to be respected. People want us to win here, and when you have a losing season, you lose respect.”

Missouri will take another step toward unprecedented territory Saturday in Atlanta, but Pinkel is not fazed. He remembers the Seattle news clippings from a quarter-century ago and the ensuing championship.

On Monday, his point was that there are still chapters left to be written in his legacy, and his players agree.

“He’s one of the greatest coaches in Mizzou history,” Boehm said. “He’ll be the greatest coach when he leaves here.”

Supervising editor is Erik Hall.

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