SHREVEPORT, La. – Before the Independence Bowl had ended, even before it had started, the Missouri football team found it hard not to think about the future.
With 11 Independence Bowl starters, including quarterback Brad Smith, returning next season, that future looks bright.
Third-year coach Gary Pinkel, who is 17-19 at Missouri but led the Tigers to their first bowl bid since 1998, admitted Tuesday that he couldn’t wait for 2004.
Well, it’s here.
“When this game’s over, win or lose, we’ll go back to work in January,” Pinkel said.
The Tigers lost to Arkansas 27-14 on Wednesday, and it’s back to the drawing board for Pinkel and his staff. One thing they won’t be retooling is the laid-back attitude with which they approached the bowl preparation.
Pinkel insists his players enjoyed the experience, win or lose, and he said he won’t make any changes to the way Missouri prepares for its next bowl game, which Pinkel hopes comes sooner than later.
“We have a way we’re gonna do it,” Pinkel said. “We’re gonna stick to it, and it’s gonna work.”
To use a phrase from Pinkel’s vernacular, the Tigers “broke down a lot of walls” this season, winning eight games for the first time since 1998 and challenging Kansas State for the Big 12 Conference North Division title until the next-to-last week of the season.
“Hopefully, we’ll look back at this year as a springboard for our program,” Pinkel said.
Sophomore cornerback Calvin Washington called this season a “stepping stone” for next season, and he said though the loss to Arkansas was a tough way to end the season, there is an advantage to the loss coming on New Year’s Eve.
“One positive is it’s behind us,” Washington said. “That’s last year, and it’s all about moving on. We’ve got a lot more in store, and we’ve got greater heights to reach.”
For all the accomplishments, though, Missouri’s 22 seniors leave without a bowl win, making this breakthrough season somewhat bittersweet for senior defensive tackle Russ Bell.
“We had a winning season and got to a bowl,” Bell said. “We’ve done a lot of great things this year. You can’t ask for everything, I guess.”
Senior center A.J. Ricker said he hopes the younger players learn from the experience and build on it in the offseason leading into next season. Ricker said he told the underclassmen to remember the feeling of defeat when they go into winter conditioning later this month.
Senior wide receiver Darius Outlaw shared that sentiment.
“For the young guys, this was a learning experience,” Outlaw said. “They’re gonna take this and run with it. It’s just gonna get better from here.”
Outlaw thinks things will be so good for Missouri football that he’s not sure he’s ready to leave. He said he plans on making a run at playing professional football next season, but if that falls through, he has a plan B. Outlaw, who dreams of being a coach one day, said he has considered staying at Missouri for graduate school and becoming a graduate assistant under Pinkel.
“I told coach, ‘If it doesn’t work out, I’m coming back,’” Outlaw said. “I love this place, man. I’ve gotta stay around.”