SHREVEPORT, LA. — Gary Pinkel had coached his Missouri team to a comeback win in the Independence Bowl, celebrated with a Gatorade shower, spoken with the media and returned to the locker room to shower — this time conventionally.
He emerged with his hair combed back and in a suit jacket, carrying a briefcase and, for perhaps the first time in some six months, looking at ease.
A season that began with the tragic and somewhat mysterious death of freshman linebacker Aaron O’Neal ended with a compelling upset win against South Carolina on Friday evening. The Tigers erased an early 21-0 deficit by dominating the second half to win 38-31 in what athletic director Mike Alden called “a great win for the program.”
With the rare markings of a smile on his face, Pinkel said more than once that he was elated to win the game but that he thought his program was headed in the right direction regardless of Friday’s result.
“I felt if we lost the football game, I’d still feel very, very good about the program,” Pinkel said. “Nobody, nowhere, could in any way affect what I know about where the program’s going.”
Still, the game gave the Tigers a win that will turn some heads nationally, send Brad Smith out with a bang and provide a winning season to a team that was staring 6-6 in the face.
It was a high note in a season that had more ups and downs than a car driving through the Ozarks. Pinkel was reminded of that at the Minuteman Luncheon held in Shreveport on Thursday when he was asked, in front of a large crowd, how he was able to coach the Tigers through O’Neal’s collapse at a summer workout and the player’s resulting death.
“We all went through a lot,” Pinkel said Friday. “At that luncheon yesterday, I got kind of blindsided by that question because that was pretty emotional for all of us. I did everything I could to help my players, but they probably did a lot more helping me through it.”
The tragedy overshadowed the preseason other news: Missouri unveiling its spread offense. No one outside of the team knew exactly how much Pinkel and his staff were going to tweak their system until the season opener against Arkansas State.
The Tigers used a completely revamped system to dominate the Indians 44-17.
One week later, however, came the latest chapter in what has been a disturbing trend in Pinkel’s five-year tenure. For the fourth time in that span, Missouri lost to a non-conference opponent from a non-major conference. This time, New Mexico outgunned MU 45-35.
After a blowout loss to No. 2 Texas two weeks later, the Tigers sat at 2-2 and a crossroads. They responded with a three-game winning streak, which included their only road win of the season at Oklahoma State, an improbable comeback against Iowa State led by freshman quarterback Chase Daniel and the program’s second victory against Nebraska in 27 years.
At 5-2, Mizzou was starting to gain some national attention. Brad Smith was named player of the week for his effort in the 41-24 over Nebraska, the Tigers seemed like a lock for a bowl game and they stood tied with Colorado for first place in the Big 12 North Division.
But for the third-straight year, arch rival Kansas stood in the way of MU’s plans. The Jayhawks stifled Smith and the Missouri offense in a 13-3 win in Lawrence, Kan. It was a wasted opportunity for the frustrated Tigers, and the feeling carried over into the next week, when Colorado blitzed MU for 41-12 win.
The games brought on some negative feelings about Pinkel, similar to what he received after last season’s 5-6 disappointment and what some in Independence Stadium might have been thinking Friday when the score was 21-0 South Carolina.
“I can imagine what they were saying about me in the stands at that particular time,” Pinkel said. “Certainly a little different than when I walked off the field.”
Missouri rebounded from the Colorado loss to beat Baylor at home and clinch bowl eligibility, but blew a two-touchdown lead at Kansas State to end the season, leaving a sour taste in the mouth’s of many fans.
An Independence Bowl bid for the second time in three seasons failed to ignite passion either. Only about 2700 Tiger fans made the trip to Shreveport for the bowl game, significantly down from the 8,000 who went in 2003.
Friday’s win, though, will be the lasting memory of this 7-5 season and could carry a lot of momentum into the new year.
The Tigers will lose Smith, maybe the best player in school history, Tony Palmer, one of the best offensive linemen the school has ever seen and three quarters of its secondary.
Almost no one else is leaving, though, and the win against South Carolina showed that there are still plenty of thoroughbreds in the stable. Tight ends Chase Coffman and Martin Rucker each had more than 80 receiving yards Friday. Coffman will be a sophomore next season, Rucker a junior. Daniel, who will be a sophomore, proved his merit against Iowa State and didn’t miss a beat in Shreveport when Smith sat out a few plays with an injury.
All of that has left sophomore running back Tony Temple already looking forward to 2006.
“It’s never too early,” Temple said. “You could say this was kind of the introduction to next year. Without Brad, we’ve just got to get ready and step it up.”
In addition, all of the Tigers productive defensive line returns, as does everyone on the offensive line except Palmer.
“We’ve got a lot of young players, and it’s exciting,” Pinkel said. “We’ve got all these young playmakers, we’ve got guys all over the field. We switch quarterbacks, whoever wins that job, but he’ll have a lot of good people around him, and on defense we’re going to have a lot of good players too.”
It’s a far cry from the Tigers that Pinkel inherited when he took the position before the 2001 season. The Tigers had little talent at that point.
“I knew the first couple years were going to be tough,” Pinkel said. “The program slowly improved, though, going from 4-7 in Pinkel’s first season to 5-7 in 2002 and 8-5 with an Independence Bowl loss in 2003. The next season began with the Tigers ranked in the Top 20 but things didn’t turn out that way, leaving the program at a junction headed into this season.
“I was disappointed last year. I didn’t do a good job,” the coach said. “If I had done a better job, we’d have gone to three bowls in a row.
“And we caused ourselves a lot of grief. And sometimes you don’t know why you go that path. But we believe in what we do and we perservere.”
That resiliency has given Missouri its second winning season and it’s first bowl win under Pinkel, all of this despite having to fight through the emotion that followed O’Neal’s death and several in-seasons setbacks.
“We were in it together, just loving each other and caring for each other,” Pinkel said. “To end this season and being able to say that we’re Independence Bowl champions, we honor the season. On our championship rings, the seniors want to put ‘A.O. 25’ on the side of the ring, so it will be there forever.”
Then again, Smith is gone, as are the rest of Pinkel’s original recruits. The Missouri program has not been able to achieve consistent success in three decades. A winning season next year, with new leaders and with its inevitable challenges, could go a long way toward reaching that goal - and give Pinkel the chance to have a few more leisurely strolls out of the locker room.
“With the game being over, I can start thinking about (next year) a little bit more, “ said junior safety David Overstreet, who will likely be a captain on next year’s squad. “...this win taught us that no matter where we are, and what kind of adversity we’re facing, we can play ball with anybody.”