Making Mizzou Made
Inside recruiting with the SEC East football champs.
Recruiting. In the world of college football, there is no weightier word. Many believe championships are won and lost, careers are extended or cut short, and programs are built or dismantled based on a coaching staff’s ability to land the nation’s top high school athletes.
But there’s no trick to spotting the truly elite athletes, and although head Coach Gary Pinkel targets consensus stars, he and his staff have also mastered the subtler and more disciplined craft of selecting players who, with proper guidance, can be developed into strong college performers.
Of the schools in the “power five” conferences — the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC — the Missouri Tigers are No. 5 in wins since 2007. Mizzou has capped 10 of the past 12 seasons with bowl games, won back-to-back SEC East championships and produced six first-round NFL draft picks in six years. Pinkel has led the Tigers to five top-20 and two top-five finishes in eight years. That record takes talent.
Yet most preseason rankings of his recruiting classes are almost dismissive. 247Sports Composite, a ranking aggregator employed by multiple NCAA football preview magazines, ranks Mizzou, on average, No. 36 over the past decade.
So what does Pinkel see that other coaches don’t? And how are he and his staff able to transform groups of mostly unheralded recruits into one of the nation’s top programs year after year?
“Our system isn’t necessarily designed so that you get the greatest players, but it is designed so that you don’t make recruiting mistakes,” Pinkel says. “It’s about development as a player, as a student and a person, and we have an organized plan for all three. It’s all about getting exceptional people to come here.
“It’s all part of what we call Mizzou Made.”
Brad Smith was born and raised in the cradle of football: Youngstown, Ohio, near the Pennsylvania border. By the time the fleet-footed quarterback graduated from MU in 2005, he had set 69 Missouri, Big 12 and NCAA records. He also had helped to launch the second act of his head coach’s career and to reinvigorate Mizzou football’s fan base.
So how did one of the most gifted athletes in Mizzou history slip past football behemoths Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan — right in their backyard?
“Why those other schools didn’t recruit him, I don’t know,” Pinkel says. “I knew he had great potential. Everyone has their choices they have to make.”
Smith’s choice, however, was easy.
“I came to Columbia, ate great food, met great people, and saw the stadium and everything lit up,” recalls Smith, BS BA ’05. “I was like, ‘Oh, man, I can’t miss out on this.’ The big thing was the opportunity to build something — to come in on the bottom level and set the foundation for all the teams to come.”
Pinkel’s eye for quarterback talent is especially sharp. He looks for physical skills — a quick pass-release, footwork and arm strength. But he also investigates intangibles, including competitiveness, mental toughness and leadership capability.
And quarterback is just one, albeit the most important, position. Mizzou’s exhaustive evaluation form, used for all players, includes skill categories such as elusiveness, vision, acceleration, lateral movement and “motor” (the energy with which a player plays), to list a few.
It also includes a battery of “tough questions” for high school coaches, such as “Does he have the ability and desire to be a great player in the SEC?” and “Does he do what he is supposed to do when he is supposed to do it?”
Like so many aspects of Pinkel’s program, the Mizzou evaluation system descends directly from the one used by his mentor, the late Don James, head coach at the University of Washington from 1975 through 1992.
“Many of the guys who [coached under] Don James changed the evaluation system, for whatever reason,” Pinkel says. “For almost all of them, it didn’t work. It’s thorough, and we ask a lot more questions than most people.”
The starting point of Pinkel’s recruiting success is what he calls “size, strength and speed potential.” By examining a player’s build — arm length, shoulder width, bone thickness — and other less-obvious clues, Mizzou recruits players who can develop into SEC- and even NFL-caliber athletes. Cases in point: offensive linemen Justin Britt, BGS ’13, of the Seattle Seahawks, and Mitch Morse, BS ’14, of the Kansas City Chiefs.
“Those guys came in here at about 250 pounds,” Pinkel says. “How can they be 310? Plug them into our program. Give them to [Associate Athletic Director for Athletic Performance] Pat Ivey [BS ’96, M Ed ’00, PhD ’13] and his staff, and he turns them into the best they can be.”
Mizzou Made, the tagline on national TV commercials and Memorial Stadium’s east façade, is a student-athlete development concept across MU sports. Coined by former Mizzou safety Kenji Jackson, BA ’11, M Ed ’14, and used as a Twitter hashtag for following Tigers during the NFL draft, it now describes a philosophy and programming that help players progress athletically, academically and socially.
Key to the concept is the Total Person Program, which launched in 1986 to provide student-athletes with tutors, mentors and opportunities to get involved in the community.
“We want not only to help student-athletes concentrate on their four years at Mizzou but also to prepare them for 40 years later,” says Tami Chievous, associate athletics director for academic services.
Players also hone themselves psychologically by working with Pat Ivey, BS ’96, M Ed ’00, PhD ’13, Mizzou’s associate athletic director for athletic performance, who teaches mental toughness and positive coaching concepts.
Young football players everywhere aspire to “play on Sundays,” but at Mizzou, even those with long odds as freshmen are developing into NFL draft picks.
In the palatial Mizzou Athletics Training Complex (MATC), the corridor leading to the Sells Athletic Family Dining Hall is lined with game-action photos and plaques highlighting former Tigers who have made it to the pros. The exhibit is a strategic threshold for wide-eyed prospects to traverse on the way to a scrumptious meal.
Sitting in boxes on the floor in the office of Nick Otterbacher, Missouri’s director of recruiting, are newly framed NFL jerseys emblazoned with the names of Mizzou alumni destined for the same area. The Denver Broncos picked the most recent example, Shane Ray, and the team even traded up in draft position to secure the once lightly recruited defensive end out of Kansas City, Missouri.
That’s not to say Mizzou coaches are going after only “diamonds in the rough.” They are also recruiting, and landing, highly touted prospects targeted by other SEC programs.
“You want to be strategic in terms of who visits and when,” Otterbacher says. “You want to be a kid’s final visit [before he commits]. Especially when you know it’s going to come down to the wire. We feel like it gives your school a better chance.”
Long before signing day, the relationship between team and recruit has been cultivated over many months and sometimes years. Pinkel’s staff starts with an annual list of 7,000 to 9,000 prospects from various recruiting services. The names are generated from high school coaches and camps sponsored by apparel companies such as Nike and UnderArmour. Mizzou also hosts its own camps attended by youth league and high school football players, mostly from the Show-Me State.
“Some years we’ll call every single coach in the state because we have a lot of little towns that don’t always have players capable of playing Division-I football,” Otterbacher says. “Got any sophomores or juniors who might be able to play at our level? Anyone we need to be aware of?”
Once upon a time, says Mizzou offensive coordinator and tight ends Coach Josh Henson, universities recruited only high school seniors. Not anymore.
“When I first started, that was a big deal: People were starting to offer scholarships to juniors,” Henson says. “Now you’re seeing some teams make offers to sophomores, freshmen and eighth graders. I’m not sure where it stops. I do know this, though: Some of the most productive guys we’ve ever had at Mizzou we didn’t recruit until their senior year. They were late bloomers.”
Another modern recruiting boon is digital video footage. Where once VHS tapes filled rooms and spilled into hallways at the MATC, now coaches can use their smartphones to review game film of virtually any recruit in the nation.
“I go back to the days of film — cans of film,” Pinkel says. “At Washington, high school coaches would send us film and ask us to send it along somewhere else, or we would copy it and send it back. But technology has changed. Everything is 1,000 times faster.”
After evaluating thousands of student-athletes for more than a decade, Mizzou coaches know the proof is in the pudding. So Pinkel and his staff pay little heed to prognosticators such as 247Sports Composite, which ranks the Tigers’ 2015 signing class at No. 25.
“You always want to hit your position goals as far as the number of players at each spot, and if you don’t, you’re going to pay for it a year or two down the road,” said Pinkel of the class on national signing day. “I feel great about this class, and I’m looking forward to the guys getting on campus.”
At its simplest, recruiting is a conversation among coach, player and family in the living room. Those talks usually happen in Mizzou’s main recruiting footprint, which extends throughout Missouri and its contiguous states, south to Texas and east through Georgia and Florida. However, sometimes those relationships are built around the kitchen table.
“In 2007, Coach Pinkel and I had three home visits [in St. Louis] one evening, which is a lot, so we grabbed a bite before we started,” says Cornell Ford, cornerbacks coach and St. Louis recruiter. “First stop, [former Mizzou quarterback] Blaine Gabbert’s mom had a spread. Next visit, Wes Kemp’s mom had another spread, and Coach Pinkel said, ‘There’s no way I can eat any more.’ I whispered, ‘Coach, we can’t turn these people down.’ Then we got to [former Mizzou defensive back Robert] Steeples’ house, and it was like Christmas dinner. We actually ate four meals that night.”
Home visits are also an opportunity to sell the family on the University of Missouri’s academic virtues, such as the football team’s Academic Progress Rate (a measure of graduation and retention), which is third in the SEC. Through the years, Pinkel has slept in his car, taken 3 a.m. calls from prospects and landed at high schools in a helicopter, all in the name of recruiting.
“I want to be in the home of every player we sign,” Pinkel says. “It allows me to understand how a player was brought up; then we can do a better job of working with that player and bringing him along.
“Then I like to make it real clear that it’s my responsibility to make sure your son or nephew graduates from Mizzou. That’s my job. We’re not perfect, but we’re pretty darn good.”