Gary Pinkel's Toledo legacy: friendship and success

Thursday, September 4, 2014 | 9:38 p.m. CDT; updated 6:56 a.m. CDT, Friday, September 5, 2014
Head football Coach Gary Pinkel watches a play during the second quarter of the Tigers' opening game against the South Dakota State Jackrabbits at Memorial Stadium on Saturday.

COLUMBIA — Longtime University of Toledo professor Clint Longenecker was having a bad day. He needed cheering up.

Longenecker's wife knew what to do. She called Gary Pinkel, Toledo's football coach at the time, and told him Longenecker — Pinkel's close friend — was feeling blue.

Pinkel showed up at the couple's Toledo, Ohio, home in his Jeep Wrangler. The top was down and music was playing. He took Longenecker for a ride. Their hair blew in the wind. They went to Dairy Queen and ate cones of vanilla ice cream dipped in chocolate. Longenecker said it was just the pick-me-up he needed.

If you talk to Toledans like Longenecker, they will share fond memories of Pinkel's time in Ohio. They remember the big wins and the foundation he built for the Toldedo Rockets. They remember the conflicting emotions when Pinkel announced his move to Missouri. And they will tell you that they saw it coming.

Michael Bell was Toledo's fire department chief during Pinkel's tenure as the Rockets' coach. Bell is a former Rocket himself — he played defensive end from 1973-76 and was co-captain of the defense. He also served as Toledo's mayor from 2010-14.

And while Pinkel was at Toledo, Bell served as one of the coach's community liaisons. He remembers Pinkel visiting local schools and mentoring the youth. He remembers Pinkel embracing the community as much as it embraced him.

Dan Saevig, associate vice president for alumni relations at Toledo, echoed Bell's sentiments. "He understood and knew from the get-go that he needed to engage people," he said.

And that's what Pinkel did.

Saevig remembers the coach breaking away from his team on the eve of Toledo's Nov. 22, 1997, game against the University of Central Florida in Orlando. He accompanied Saevig to a hotel to speak with alumni in the area. Saevig was impressed. He'd worked with other football coaches prior to Pinkel; none of them did things like that. The Rockets lost the game 34-17. They lost to Marshall University in the Mid-American Conference championship game by the same score two weeks later.

But Pinkel's tenure at Toledo is defined by wins, not losses. And chief among the victories is his win over Joe Paterno and the Penn State Nittany Lions on Sept. 2, 2000, in Beaver Stadium.

On the eve of the game, Longenecker and Pinkel visited Penn State's campus and walked through downtown State College, Penn. It was a warm summer night. Longenecker, who earned his doctorate at Penn State, led Pinkel to State College Alliance Church: He wanted to show Pinkel where he worshiped.

As they made their way back toward the Holiday Inn and downtown, Longenecker turned to his friend. He had faith that Pinkel's Rockets would knock off the Nittany Lions. He shared the prediction with Pinkel. The coach just listened.

And then Longenecker, who was familiar with the sports culture at Penn State, shared a final thought: If Toledo was leading Penn State late in the game, Nittany Lions fans would turn on their team and start cheering for the Rockets. Pinkel was skeptical, but the result spoke for itself.

Toledo beat Penn State 24-6. Longenecker remembers the Rockets running a victory lap in Happy Valley while Penn State fans cheered. Some of the Nittany Lion faithful even raised toasts from the parking lot as the Rockets left the stadium.

Pinkel was a short-timer at Toledo after that win — 2000 was his last season. His final home game came against Bowling Green. The Rockets won.

"You'll never step foot on this field again, Coach," Longenecker told his friend.

He was right.

Folks weren't surprised by Pinkel's departure at the end of the season. Michael Bell remembers sitting in his office — in a building that now bears the former fire chief's name — when a colleague peeked in to let him know the news. Bell flipped on the TV. He started making phone calls. Sadly, the news was true.

Longenecker was "devastated" by the news. But he — and many Toledans, he said — took pride in the opportunity Pinkel had at Missouri. Toledo has a history of turning out successful coaches, including current Alabama coach Nick Saban. And, as Bell, Saevig and Longenecker will say, Toledans are proud of their pedigree, even if they hate to see their coaches go.

Pinkel spoke warmly of Toledo at Monday's press conference, at one point saying, "I'll always be a Toledo Rocket, but obviously not this weekend."

Longenecker said that sounded like something his friend would say.

"There'll absolutely be some nostalgia," Longenecker said. "But he'll do his very best to put a big licking on us."

Supervising editor is Eliza Smith.

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