If the Missouri football coaching staff were a baseball player, it would almost certainly be the league’s batting champion.
When coach Gary Pinkel took over the Missouri football program Nov. 30, 2000, repairing the anemic relationships with state high schools that tainted the recruiting efforts of his predecessor, Larry Smith, was one of his first orders of business.
Pinkel vowed to make an effort to land 90 percent of the best players from the state every year. When his fourth recruiting class signs letters of intent Feb. 4, MU expects 15 players from Missouri to put pen to paper.
Missouri missed on only two of the players it offered in the state, a number that is sure to bother Pinkel, but one that should give the Tigers positive results on the field in the near future.
Nobody could quite figure out what it was that made recruiting in Missouri so difficult.
Smith had recruiting success early in his tenure at MU, getting talented local players, including star quarterback Corby Jones from Hickman. Jones led Missouri to a pair of bowl appearances with a win in the Insight.com bowl in 1998 capping his career.
Hickman coach Gregg Nesbitt said Pinkel has Missouri in the same place that Smith had it after the bowl.
“This is a real critical phase for Coach Pinkel,” Nesbitt said. “They have had some success on the field and now they have to keep it up.”
It was no coincidence that when Jones’ class finished its eligibility at Missouri, the performance of the team on the field dropped dramatically.
Smith’s next teams fell to 4-7 and 3-8 before Missouri fired him.
Danny Heitert, a longtime MU recruiting analyst with the STC Grid Report, has a few ideas of why the breakdown occurred.
“The Pinkel administration has taken a leap forward from the Larry Smith administration,” Heitert said. “Larry Smith got over the hump, but then got sloppy with the details. They had two bowl seasons, but couldn’t maintain it.”
Smith’s inability to get the best talent in the state wasn’t necessarily because he was ineffective, but partly because he didn’t try.
Smith attempted to recruit nationally in Florida and Texas, places where football talent comes in bulk and many of the nation’s most powerful programs reside.
“Philosophically, it felt like the up years of coach Smith’s tenure they made a decision to go with out-of-state kids,” Nesbitt said. “They felt like they could recruit a higher level out-of-state kid than they could.”
Instead of getting the good talent from Missouri and supplementing it with out of state potential, Smith missed on the best talent out of state and Missouri.
Pinkel has changed that with his staff’s tireless work ethic and attention to detail. Each assistant coach has an assigned area to recruit and Pinkel often enters the picture to help close the deal.
Hazelwood Central coach John Pukala, the Hawks’ coach for 15 years, said there is no doubt in his mind that Pinkel has changed the way schools in Missouri view MU.
“Those guys at Missouri now are a lot more open than the guys before them,” Pukala said. “It seemed to me that when they were down there for a while they disappeared out of state.”
Missouri receivers coach Andy Hill is in charge of Kansas City, and outside safety coach Cornell Ford leads the way in St. Louis. Those cities are the most important for MU and home to many of the state’s top players every year.
The recruiters don’t spend much time worrying about trying to persuade an athlete to go to Missouri, taking a more subtle approach by telling the players the values of the program and letting them make decisions.
Pukala said it is a combination of many things that has made Missouri a force in recruiting. High school coaches in the state have open invitations to attend MU’s summer camps and practices, and the assistant coaches routinely visit and call the coaches to keep strong working relationships.
“Quite honestly, we like it a lot better the way they came to the high school coaches and asked us what we wanted to see,” Pukala said. “Pinkel is the kind of guy that when I listen to him speak that I know I would want to send my kid to play for.”