IRVING, Texas — The memory still agonizes coach Gary Pinkel. Those 10 minutes in 2000 were a blur.
His voice quavered when he started to talk about them. His tone dropped.
Pinkel was recalling his departure from Toledo to Missouri in 2000 after Saturday’s practice at Texas Stadium. During his 10 years at Toledo, he built a power in the Mid-American Conference. His success granted him a promotion to MU, the kind of opportunity he had always wanted. But first he had to say goodbye to his former team.
“Really I didn’t want to do it. I did not want to face the team. Obviously I had to do it,” he said.
Toledo was 10-1 in 2000. The key players were returning. But he wasn’t. And it stung.
“It was one of the worst feelings I ever had in my life. It was awful. I was just crying. I was sobbing,” he said.
Athletic director Mike Alden witnessed Pinkel’s anguish. For Alden, his new coach’s struggles exemplified his loyalty. “In today’s day and age, you see coaches leaving in the middle of the night. They’re not saying goodbye. They’re not spending time. But for Gary, it was something so personal to him,” Alden said.
Pinkel and his coaching staff are tortoises in a profession full of hares. While other coaches have quickly hopped from job to job in the frantic chase for success, Pinkel has remained faithful to his teams, gradually emerging from his shell in order for the Tigers to reach uncommon heights.
For a coach, Pinkel’s résumé is brief. After starting his career as a student assistant at Kent State in 1974, he moved on to Washington in 1976 for a year. He returned to Ohio to coach at Bowling Green for two years but then settled down with the Huskies, where he stayed for 12. After a decade at Toledo, he came to Missouri. “I don’t like bouncing around,” Pinkel said.
At Toledo, he wanted to stay long enough so his three children could all graduate from the same high school. When he came to Columbia, he told his wife he wanted it to be his last job. But to accomplish that goal with the Tigers, he would have to solve an everlasting riddle. ”Everybody was talking about Missouri forever. … Why can’t Missouri win?” Pinkel said.
His friends thought he had made a mistake. “I know a lot of friends called me up and told me I was crazy when I took the job — in a little bit more polite way than that,” he said.
But Pinkel was optimistic as long as patience prevailed. “I thought Missouri was a place where, if they did the right things and not fire coaches every four years, but do the right things, you could build at Missouri,” he said.
Some colleagues agreed. Arkansas interim coach Reggie Herring felt that way in the 1980s. He made sure to tell Pinkel that this week. “In the old Big Eight, when I was at Oklahoma State, we always thought that the University of Missouri was the golden jewel. All it took was a great football coach with tremendous passion, spirit, a great staff and energy,” Herring said.
Pinkel brought that staff with him to MU from Toledo, only retaining wide receivers coach Andy Hill from former MU coach Larry Smith’s staff. Like their boss, the assistants are loyal. No one has left during Pinkel’s seven-year tenure.
Pinkel doesn’t dwell on it. “I’ve never sat down in a staff meeting and ask them, ‘Why are you still with me?’ I’ve never done that, so I really don’t know. I kid around and say, ‘Maybe I’m not mean enough,’” he said.
But defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus knows why. He played one year for Pinkel when the coach first came to Toledo. Then Eberflus joined him on the coaching staff and became the defensive coordinator when everyone packed up for MU. “It’s a loyalty factor. We have a boss that’s one of the best in the business,” Eberflus said.
For the MU coaches, they are steady during a period when some teams’ staffs are trying to regain their balance. Just look at the Tigers’ opponent in the Cotton Bowl.
Arkansas’ coaches will scatter after Tuesday. Former coach Houston Nutt resigned three days after the Razorbacks upset then-No. 1 LSU on Nov. 23. He was hired by Ole Miss, where many assistants will join him after the Cotton Bowl.
Former Atlanta Falcons coach Bobby Petrino will replace Nutt. Petrino didn’t finish his first season with the Falcons, lasting only 13 games. Unlike Pinkel, he didn’t meet with his team before joining his new team. He sent his players a letter.
“Disloyal,” Falcons defensive end Jamaal Anderson told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution earlier this month. “If he can leave players here, what makes you think he won’t leave the players he’s going to coach? I’m just afraid to see what happens if he does bad at Arkansas. Is he going to leave those kids?”
Pinkel struggled with the Tigers. But he wasn’t forced to leave his players. Instead, he listened to them.
The transformation began in 2005. The Tigers were coming off a dismal year. In 2004, the No. 18 Tigers opened the season with a ranking for the first time since 1980. But they dropped from the polls after a 24-14 upset to Troy in their second game and finished 5-6.
Then tragedy struck during the summer. Linebacker Aaron O’Neal collapsed during a voluntary workout and died.
The death changed Pinkel. He lightened up. He let down his guard. It was intentional. “I did that for a reason, but maybe a little more because I’m older now. I finally grew up. You get to be 55, and eventually you mature. Eventually,” he said.
His players noticed, realizing he was there for support. “When Aaron passed, he was with us every step of the way. He stood by us,” Lorenzo Williams said.
Pinkel continued to open up. The seniors told him their relationships had to improve, and he committed himself to bolstering those bonds.
Williams uses many analogies to describe the transformation.
Night and day.
Extreme Home Makeover: Gary Pinkel.
And peanut butter and jelly.
“It’s kind of weird. He used to be peanut butter and now he’s kind of like jelly. Peanut butter’s real thick, you know. He used to not be real approachable. But he took that upon himself to have better relationships with his players and to become a better coach, and he did,” Williams said.
Pinkel is close to Williams and the seniors, who led the Tigers to their first No. 1 ranking since 1960. It was tough for Pinkel when they were introduced before their final game against Texas A&M at Faurot Field.
“It was very emotional. … I’m telling you seven minutes into the first quarter, I’m trying to get a hold of myself still,” Pinkel said two days after the game.
After the team closed out its regular season, Pinkel was mentioned in reports as a candidate for the opening at Michigan. But he never wavered, announcing his intention to stay at Missouri. Two days before Christmas, he was rewarded with a new contract, raising his salary by $550,000 to $1.85 million.
It will be difficult again for Pinkel on Tuesday, when Williams and the seniors suit up for their final game with the Tigers.
“They’ve been so loyal and dedicated to us and the university. I certainly owe them a lot. I think they know how much I appreciate them,” Pinkel said. “As far as relationships, it’s going to be real difficult. I’ve grown close to these kids. … We’ve been through a lot together. I’m certainly going to miss these kids.”