COLUMBIA — Gary Pinkel was glowing.
He was standing on Faurot Field, surrounded by reporters and fans after Missouri's annual Black and Gold Game on Saturday, discussing the conclusion of spring practice. His arms waved back and forth as he talked about the improvement of quarterback Maty Mauk and the continued dominance of the defensive line. As his hands moved back and forth, the sun was shining off of his right hand with a particularly fierce glow. The diamonds of Pinkel's brand new Southeastern Conference Eastern Division Champions ring were hard to ignore.
Pinkel only breaks out the jewelry in specific circumstances. He was the first to receive the freshly designed championship ring on Friday. He showed it off to his friends, and on Saturday was showing it off to recruits. After wearing it for a few days, Pinkel will put the ring back in its box and never touch it again.
"I want another one," he said.
The 2013 season was a special one for Missouri football. The 12 wins, division championship and Cotton Bowl victory earned Pinkel a contract extension, helped the program gain respect in its new league and ensured that the senior class would always hold a place in program history.
Those seniors were introduced at midfield on Saturday along with Kony Ealy and Henry Josey, two juniors who declared for the upcoming NFL Draft. Michael Sam did his sack dance for the crowd, and the public address announcer fought through the cheers of 23,121-person crowd introduce every 2013 Tiger who would not be on the 2014 roster.
It was an homage to the season that was but also a sign of the challenge the future holds for Missouri football. The long line of players showed how many holes Missouri has to fill heading into the 2014 season.
"It felt good coming out working with the 2014 team," senior running back Marcus Murphy said. "We've got to leave last year in the past and focus and get better for this year."
Behind the NFL hopefuls, cranes hovered over the field as work continued on the renovations of the east side of Memorial Stadium.
"It's building," Pinkel said. "We're in the SEC. You should always see cranes, you know? That's the way it should be. I always joke around with the alumni events and say, 'Hey alumni, if you don't see cranes up in the sports area, then I'm going to give you (athletics director) Mike Alden's cell phone number. You can call him.' You need to build."
Of course, the addition of more seats doesn't guarantee increased attendance.
"Winning brings people to the stadium," Pinkel said.
It's becoming more and more apparent that whether Missouri continues to win in the rugged SEC will rest largely on the arm of Mauk. The redshirt sophomore had another productive scrimmage on Saturday and finished the three spring scrimmages completing 64 percent of his passes for 446 passing yards.
Missouri is Mauk's team at this point. Pinkel pushed him by saying there would be a competition at quarterback during spring practice. But Mauk didn't waver.
Mauk filled in admirably for injured quarterback James Franklin last year, leading Missouri to a win at Georgia, throwing five touchdowns against Kentucky. He also sparked the Tigers' offense in the Cotton Bowl while Franklin was ineffective. It was obvious when Franklin's career ended that this was Mauk's football team.
But the long hours he spent in Missouri's indoor training facility throughout the winter and spring to get his timing down with receivers helped cement it. So did Mauk's continued improvement with his patience and decision making.
Offensive coordinator Josh Henson said he's more comfortable letting Mauk call plays than he was last year. That's why, for the second spring in a row, Mauk was named Missouri's most improved quarterback.
"Maty has done a great job stepping up and doing the things he's been doing," center Evan Boehm said. "He's only getting better. That's one of the main reasons he won the most improved player two years in a row. He really has improved. That's special when you see a quarterback doing that. He's our playmaker."
Everything around Mauk has changed since a year ago. He has all new wide receivers, and a new left side of the offensive line. He's even planning to grow a mullet and a beard along with some of his teammates in an effort to "get weird."
He spent nearly 30 minutes after the Black and Gold Game signing autographs and taking pictures with fans, the smile never leaving his face. He's taking everything in stride. What does Pinkel want to see now? The same improvement from Mauk when fall camp opens in August.
After all, spring practice, like the 2013 season, is in the past. Soon, Pinkel's new ring will be back in its box, Missouri will have a list of new NFL players, and the construction on the east side of the stadium will be finished. Then it's on to the next phase of building, for the stadium and for Missouri football. As Pinkel said, Missouri is always building.
Supervising editor is Mark Selig.