Vicki Pinkel plays a critical role for the MU football team.
Gary Pinkel insists that his success as a coach is a byproduct of his wife’s ability to be his support. Gary Pinkel’s assistant coaches will aid him for game day, but that’s not enough.
Enter Vicki Pinkel, the first lady of MU football. For 33 years, she has been the gear that makes everything in the Pinkel household turn. She has served as the constant for her children and the support for her husband.
“I’m a baby, and I’m insecure,” said Gary Pinkel, who doesn’t hesitate to repeatedly admit his weaknesses. “She’s a rock, and I need having her around.”
Vicki Pinkel didn’t even have a working knowledge of football before she attended Kent State to study physical education. She had grown up in a small Ohio farming community that didn’t have a football team at the high school.
Having cheered for her high school basketball team, she joined the Kent State football cheerleading squad. There she met her Gary Pinkel, a tight end for the Golden Flashes. The two were married before his senior season.
“I don’t think you ever know what you’re getting into,” Gary Pinkel said of his wife’s agreeing to marry an aspiring college football coach. “You’ve got to be the right wife.”
Vicki Pinkel was first married to a football player, then to a Kent State graduate assistant who put in an absurd number of hours each week. In 1979, Gary Pinkel took a job at the University of Washington, where he would remain an assistant coach for the next 11 years.
It was there that the two had their three children, Erin, Geoff and Blake, and where Vicki Pinkel learned what it meant to be a coach’s wife.
It took an ability to prepare a meal for a group of players who came over after practice. It meant being able to fix things around the house without assistance.
“You basically do everything on your own at your house because they just aren’t there,” Vicki Pinkel said. “You’re basically a single parent.”
However, while true single parents typically must work to support their families, Vicki Pinkel reaped the benefits of her husband’s job. With a steady degree of financial stability, she could focus all of her attention on her three children.
She became the constant in the family, the one the kids could count on to be the room mom, to be in the stands for the recreational league and high school basketball games, to be the chauffeur and the sounding board.
“I was the mainstay for the kids,” Vicki Pinkel said. “I used to say, ‘We don’t depend on dad, but if he comes, that’s a bonus.’ If you say, ‘I really need you to be here at this time for this thing’ and they just can’t, then you are just setting yourself up for disappointment. You just depend on yourself.”
Blake Pinkel played all of his high school football games without Dad in the stands. Erin Pinkel was crowned homecoming queen her senior year in high school while Gary Pinkel was on the road. A few years later, Erin Pinkel’s grandfather escorted her out onto the University of Toledo football field as a member of the university’s homecoming court, while her father was in the locker room preparing for the second half of the game.
Vicki Pinkel, dressed head to toe in the school colors, was at it all — and with a video camera in hand.
“There’s just a lot of things that he missed,” Vicki Pinkel said. “He would have loved to have been there, but you just deal with reality. That’s just the way that it was.”
Being her own person
When Katie Christensen, daughter of MU offensive coordinator Dave Christensen, sat down for her first day in sports medicine class at Rock Bridge High School last year, her teacher asked the students to go around and tell what type of work their parents did.
Katie Christensen told her class that her dad was a banker.
“I just don’t want to deal with it,” she later told her mom. She never came clean.
Vicki Pinkel recalled a similar situation with her daughter. After the family moved to Toledo, Ohio, Vicki Pinkel advised her children not to go to school and tell their classmates what their dad did.
The secret didn’t stay hidden for very long. On the first day of seventh grade, Erin Pinkel’s gym teacher asked her to stand up and tell the whole class who her dad was.
Cameras may not be on them and reporter’s recorders may not be held in their face, but families of prominent coaches are inevitably shoved into the spotlight.
Kelly Eberflus, the wife of defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus, said that she has been cornered at the grocery store and with her children at the neighborhood pool. Susie Christensen has had to console her daughter when she leaves games in tears after hearing fans’ negative comments and taking those comments personally.
It’s impossible to escape the criticism, and it becomes an enormous challenge for the coaches’ wives to shield their children from it.
Possibly an even greater challenge is keeping a tight rein on the tongue. There is an admirable sense of self-control in being able to stay facing forward when negative comments are being tossed around from behind. It’s inevitable that fans will have their own expert opinions, and rarely are those opinions self-censored.
“I think you get a little desensitized to it,” Vicki Pinkel said. “I’m pretty tough, and I know it’s just part of the job. The expert fans are the ones you have to watch out for because they’re the ones who are going to tell you that they have all the answers and know what should be happening. Sometimes it’s hard to listen to fans say this-and-this-and-this, when as a coach’s wife, you want to turn around and say, ‘Well, really, it’s this-and-this-and-this.’”
Being in the public eye isn’t limited to just scrutiny. Vicki Pinkel said that the applied status that seems to come with her last name can also be an obstacle. As a result, she introduces herself as Vicki, never as Vicki Pinkel.
It’s not to hide what her husband does, but to ensure that she has her own identity. She wants people to know her as Vicki Pinkel — the tennis player, aerobics instructor and Bible study participant.
She has seen how hung-up people can get on her husband’s job title or how embarrassed they are when they find out her name, as if they were supposed to instinctively know that she was someone important.
“You can’t be so wrapped up in being a coach’s wife that you lose yourself,” she said. “Because then you really don’t like what your husband is doing because it takes away from yourself. I’m me. I’m Vicki.”
Life, football intertwined
Any Friday night before an MU home football game and the scene at the Pinkel household is the same.
“It’s like a bed-and-breakfast at our house,” Vicki Pinkel said, smiling.
Suitcases are dragged through the entryway, and guests are directed to their rooms. Food and drinks sit on the table ready to be enjoyed.
However, there is one noticeable absence — the man everyone is in town to watch. Gary Pinkel had kissed his wife goodbye early that morning and wouldn’t be home until after Saturday’s game.
It makes no difference whether the game is at home or on the road. For Gary Pinkel, Friday night means spending the night with the team in a hotel. For Vicki Pinkel, it means playing host and chef, bellboy and entertainer.
“That’s the funny thing,” Vicki Pinkel said after listing the 20 people who would be in town for that weekend’s contest against Colorado. “He will say, ‘Well, where is everybody sleeping?’ And I say, ‘Why do you care?’ ‘You aren’t even going to be here.’”
The Friday-night frenzy for Vicki Pinkel doesn’t end when the calendar page turns to December. Instead of preparing meals for out-of-town guests, she sits across the dinner table from football recruits and their families.
“We sell family,” Gary Pinkel said. “We sell our staff.”
Convincing the parents of high school recruits can be even more crucial than convincing the players, and Vicki Pinkel has frequently been that calming influence for these parents.
“You talk to parents who come to our house, who want to see what we’re like since they are turning their son over to us,” she said. “Is this a person I can trust or not trust? Parents need to know that.”
With her husband gone Sunday through Thursday on out-of-town recruiting visits, the majority of the time Vicki Pinkel sees her husband is in this type of in-town recruiting setting. The alone time with her husband is scarce, but Vicki Pinkel accepts that fact as simply part of her life.
“I’m not home enough,” Gary Pinkel said. “I feel bad for our neighbors because they probably think I have an apartment or something.”
Both Kelly Eberflus and Susie Christensen said they prefer their husband’s in-season schedule because they can expect him home for at least two to three dinners a week, which as Christensen said, “is more than most families can say.”
That luxury disappears during the spring and winter.
Coaching is a grueling, yearlong, seven-day-a-week commitment. For the Pinkels, this meant that vacations consisted of Bowl Game sites and trips home to Ohio to visit family.
Since 1991, however, Vicki and Gary Pinkel have made one other trip, to the American Football Coaches Association convention, which is held annually during the “dead recruiting period.”
Vicki Pinkel serves as the president of the American Football Coaches Wives Association, an association that meets alongside the coaches’ conference. Her term will last until January, when she becomes a permanent member of the board of trustees.
Life, football and family are synonymous. They are inevitably intertwined.
“As a coach’s wife, you get into it because it is a part of your life,” Vicki Pinkel said. “It’s not like another profession where your husband goes to work and you do your thing and there’s no connection there with his job. With this, your whole family is involved.”
Constant in family
When Erin Pinkel began to have pregnancy complications in August 2005, Vicki Pinkel had only one focus – get to Toledo and stay there.
She spent the next seven weeks in Toledo, flying to Columbia for home games, while giving up her seats at away games.
The coach’s wife title took a backseat to being a mother, and no one had a harder time with the situation that Gary Pinkel.
“I drove all my friends crazy,” he said.
The patterns and routines he had become accustomed to were no longer there.The omnipresent words of comfort came through the phone instead of from the friend sitting across from him at the kitchen table. For Gary Pinkel, there suddenly seemed to be numerous household projects that became his responsibility.
Vicki Pinkel has suffered through every loss and celebrated every win from a unique perspective. She understands that after a loss, her husband will want to come home and go off on his own. There aren’t any prototype phrases to console him with, and she’s found out that it does no good to try to fire him up. Her presence is enough.
“You’ve just got to kind of be there,” she said. “He’s going to get over it whenever he gets over it. There’s nothing I can do except be there and be that same constant that I am for my kids.”
Vicki Pinkel can’t imagine life any other way. She finds a certain intrigue in the unpredictability of her husband’s job. She finds satisfaction in seeing 18-year-old boys leave Columbia as 22-year-old men, in large part due to her husband’s influence. She embraces the position she is in.
“The thing about being a football coach is that they love it,” she said. “I hear other women talk about how their husbands hate what they do. They don’t want to get up or do this or that. (Gary Pinkel) loves what he does. He loves working with those players. What else would I want him to be? I don’t know what those lives are like.”