Establishing a Legacy
Gary Pinkel passes Don Faurot in Missouri career coaching wins.
Years from now, when the Memorial Stadium lights dim on Gary Pinkel’s career at the University of Missouri, fans will remember the head football coach for many things: his signature Mizzou visor, his knack for developing recruits, his storied 2007 win against Kansas in the rivalry’s most memorable installment, the Tigers’ return to national prominence.
He won’t, however, be known for his dance moves.
In the early hours of Jan. 4, 2014, after Mizzou’s 41–31 AT&T Cotton Bowl Classic win against Oklahoma State, Pinkel jigged and jived. Amid his elated team’s roof-raising arms, the choreography conveyed the joy of a 12–2 record and Pinkel’s 102nd victory at Mizzou. The dance video went viral, but football fever had long since taken hold of Tiger nation.
The victory pushed Pinkel (102–63) past Missouri immortal Don Faurot (101–79-10) in career coaching wins at MU. Although Mizzou is the second institution at which Pinkel holds the mark (he also leads the University of Toledo with 73), he remains humble and focused on improving the program he joined in 2001.
“I never had the goal, at Toledo or here, to become the winningest coach,” says Pinkel of passing the home field’s eponym. “Faurot is legendary, and he’s legendary as much as a person as he was a football coach. He was honest, he ran the program with integrity, and that model works for any successful organization. The key is to daily do all the right things.”
Brushes With Greatness
The son of a General Tire salesman, Gary Robin Pinkel grew up in northeast Ohio’s industrial plateau as many children did — a Browns fan. It’s a 40-mile drive from his Akron hometown, the Rubber Capital of the World, to Cleveland.
At age 16, Pinkel and his dad made the trip in winter 1968 to see the Browns host the Baltimore Colts in the NFL Championship.
Father and son arrived late, and as they approached a buzzing Municipal Stadium, Pinkel stopped his dad near a stretch limousine. Out stepped famed Green Bay Packers Coach Vince Lombardi, wearing what Pinkel describes as the iconic “Russian hat.”
“Everyone knew Vince Lombardi if you watched football on TV, and I did,” Pinkel says. “I was awestruck.”
Back home in Akron, Pinkel grew up alongside younger brother Greg and older sister Kathy. Both siblings suffered from hereditary spastic paraplegia, a condition that confined them to wheelchairs by adolescence. The genetic disorder skipped Pinkel, who developed an especially close relationship with his sister.
“Some people go through struggles at that age because they have acne or whatever, and she lost the ability to walk,” Pinkel says. “When people stared at her, I would walk beside her and stare people down.”
For Pinkel, an imposing 6-foot-2-inch receiver with great hands, the game came naturally. He played peewee football from age 7, and his Kenmore High School team won the city championship.
Pinkel parleyed prep success into an athletic scholarship at Kent State University. There he met teammates and fellow captains Nick Saban, now SEC foe Alabama’s coach, with four national championships to his credit; and Jack Lambert, the crushing Hall of Fame linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Pinkel arrived at Kent State the fall following the tragic shootings of May 4, 1970.
“During my last month in high school, I was with my girlfriend at Dairy Queen when it came over the news,” Pinkel says. “In class after lunch, the teacher put up on the board National Guard 4, KSU students 0. It would take a decade and a half for the university to recover from it, and I had just signed to go to school there five days earlier.”
Led by another future Hall of Famer, Coach Don James, the Golden Flashes won the Mid-American Conference (MAC) in 1972 and went on to the Tangerine Bowl in Orlando, Florida. James would become the most influential figure of Pinkel’s career and the indirect architect of Mizzou football.
After earning All-MAC honors twice as a tight end and graduating with an education degree in 1973, Pinkel remained at Kent State as a graduate assistant coach. When James accepted a head coaching job at the University of Washington, it didn’t take long for him to reach out.
“[James] said he had 80 applicants [for an assistant coaching vacancy] but narrowed it to five, and I was one of them,” says Pinkel. “I hadn’t even applied. He asked, ‘If I offered you the job, would you take it?’ That was the interview.”
Pinkel spent five years as the Huskies’ wide receivers coach and later seven as the offensive coordinator, mixing in a two-year stint as receivers coach at Bowling Green from 1977–78. At Washington, he mentored future NFL quarterbacks Hugh Millen, Chris Chandler and Mark Brunell, among others. In 1991, he took over as head coach at the University of Toledo, while the Huskies, led by a pair of Pinkel-coached quarterbacks, won co-national championship honors.
Pinkel stayed true to James’ strategy for building a winning program. After all, his mentor had laid out the blueprint at Kent State and Washington. The young coach would simply mimic those systems at Toledo. He rattles off the fundamentals of the James philosophy — attention to detail, relentless self-evaluation, hard work, meticulous organization — which now are tenets of Pinkel’s Mizzou Made system for developing student-athletes.
Still, James had some sage advice for Pinkel before he returned to Ohio.
“He looked at me with stone-cold eyes and said, ‘Gary, when things get tough — and they’re going to get tough — you wake up that morning and make it through hour after hour, 100-percent focused on your job,’ ” Pinkel recalls. “ ‘Don’t let anything in. The next day, wake up and do the same thing. If you don’t do that, it will chew you up.’ ”
Gary Pinkel’s Top 10 Mizzou Wins
Aug. 31, 2002: Mizzou 33, Illinois 20
In a bold move, Gary Pinkel gives redshirt freshman quarterback Brad Smith his first career start in the Arch Rivalry game at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis.
Oct. 11, 2003: Mizzou 41, Nebraska 24
Missouri ends a string of 24 consecutive losses to the Cornhuskers, and fans bring down the Faurot Field goal posts.
Dec. 30, 2005: Mizzou 38, South Carolina 31
Brad Smith passes for 282 yards and rushes for 150 to bring back the Tigers from a 28–14 halftime deficit and win the Independence Bowl in Shreveport, Louisiana.
Nov. 24, 2007: Mizzou 36, Kansas 28
With the No. 1 ranking and the Big 12 North championship at stake, the Tigers come out on top in the rivalry’s most significant game.
Jan. 1, 2008: Mizzou 38, Arkansas 7
Led by senior running back Tony Temple’s Cotton Bowl-record 281 rushing yards, the Tigers cap a historic 12–2 season with a No. 4 final ranking.
Oct. 4, 2008: Mizzou 52, Nebraska 17
With its first win in Lincoln since 1978, senior quarterback Chase Daniel and Mizzou hand Nebraska its most lopsided home loss in 53 years.
Oct. 23, 2010: Mizzou 36, Oklahoma 27
Pinkel is 0–6 against Oklahoma until the Tigers knock off the No. 1-ranked Sooners and celebrate Homecoming with ESPN College GameDay in attendance.
Oct. 12, 2013: Mizzou 41, Georgia 26
Despite losing starting quarterback James Franklin to injury in the fourth quarter, the Tigers upset No. 7 Georgia for Pinkel’s first road victory against a top 10 team.
Nov. 30, 2013: Mizzou 28, Texas A&M 21
By beating the Aggies and reigning Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, the Tigers earn a trip to Atlanta for the SEC Championship.
Jan. 3, 2014: Mizzou 41, Oklahoma State 31
Sophomore defensive end Shane Ray’s fumble return for a touchdown seals a Cotton Bowl win, caps a 12-win season in the SEC and ensures a No. 5 final ranking.
Rocketing Toward Mizzou
In 10 seasons at Toledo, Pinkel amassed a 73–37-3 record. His Rockets won or shared the MAC title four times, a stretch that included an undefeated 1995 season (11–0-1) and a 1997 MAC Coach of the Year award.
When Mike Alden, Mizzou’s director of athletics, composed a list of coaching candidates to take over a Missouri program that had posted eight losing seasons in 10 years, Pinkel’s name was at the top.
“Gary has a commanding professional presence, and it was evident in [our] initial introduction he was organized, focused and disciplined in his approach,” Alden says. “His work ethic was, and is, outstanding.”
Pinkel’s first season (2001) in Columbia remains his worst as a head coach. The 4–7 campaign culminated with a 55–7 loss to Michigan State, a game originally scheduled for September but moved to December because of 9–11.
“My guys quit on me at halftime, and I had never had a team quit like that,” Pinkel says. “I sat on my bed that night sobbing, emotionally exhausted, and I remembered what my dad used to say to me after a loss: ‘Go fix it. Don’t be wallering around here. Get going.’ ”
The next day, Pinkel called a meeting with his staff to inform them practices were about to get more intense. If players were going to quit, he said, it would happen during preseason in February, not in the regular season.
Training camp tweaks aside, nothing could prepare Mizzou for the 2002 arrival of Brad Smith, the electric quarterback from Youngstown, Ohio, with whom Pinkel’s legacy and Missouri’s resurgence are inextricably linked. The Tigers played in the 2003 and 2005 Independence bowls, and defeated Nebraska for the first time in 25 years, as Smith became the first player in NCAA Division 1A history to pass for 8,000 yards and rush for 4,000 yards in a career.
Yet Smith was only the first in a string of playmakers behind center. Developing quarterbacks remains Pinkel’s calling card, as does getting big-time production out of unheralded recruits.
“We look for high-character kids with size and speed potential,” says Pinkel of his staff’s talent evaluating system. “They don’t have to be the greatest football player in the world, but with those things, we can give them to Pat Ivey [associate athletic director for athletic performance] and make them stronger and faster.”
The philosophy turned the Tigers into perennial Big 12 contenders, winning the North Division in 2007, 2008 and 2010. That stretch, among Mizzou’s other institutional attributes, caught the SEC’s eye when the nation’s top football conference sought expansion in 2011. In arguably his biggest coup, Pinkel’s 2013 Tigers surprised national sports pundits by winning the SEC East in their second season in the league.
Since 2007, Mizzou is the only BCS school to rank in the top 10 in wins, top five in NFL first round draft picks and top five in Academic Progress Rate, which measures graduation and retention. At press time, there were more than 30 Mizzou alumni on NFL rosters, including Carolina Panthers defensive lineman Kony Ealy.
“No excuses — I heard that from Coach Pinkel coming in, and I heard that leaving,” says Ealy, AFNR ’14. “It means don’t come out here and make up some excuse why you can’t get your job done, or why you can’t be a man. That’s from a football standpoint and a life standpoint. He’s like a father to me. He has always been there. Any time I needed him, any time something went down, he’s always there.”
Pinkel’s tutelage has also allowed a few assistant coaches to spread their wings, including former linebacker and Mizzou safeties coach Barry Odom, BS ’99, M Ed ’04, now the defensive coordinator at the University of Memphis.
“I can still hear coach defining his job: He wakes up every day, worries about the things he can control and does everything he can to make Mizzou football better,” Odom says. “Then he wakes up the next day and does it again.”
Much of that late night toiling and strategizing is done from the top floor of the Mizzou Athletics Training Complex, where Pinkel’s headquarters are appropriately flanked by the Dan Devine Pavilion (named for the third-winningest coach in Mizzou history) to the southwest and Faurot Field to the east. The office is a black-and-gold menagerie of photos, displays, game balls and trophies — emblems of success that span 13 seasons at Mizzou.
Now, in the summer preceding his 14th season, Pinkel shows off a preliminary sketch of a football-shaped trophy he plans to give his dearest coaching assistants and staff who have helped him climb to 102.
“When I got here, I remember putting up the sign [of goals], and one said ‘Win the National Championship,’ ” Pinkel says. “The players weren’t allowed to laugh, but you could tell by their body language they wanted to laugh.
“Last year, we were a quarter away from playing for the national championship. In 2007, we were a half away from playing in the national championship game. Two of the past seven years, we were knocking at the door. There’s a process to winning.”