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July 17, 2013
HOOVER, Ala. -- On July 17, 2012, Missouri coach Gary Pinkel addressed the SEC media for the first time in Hoover, Ala. His opening statement was short and simple, and he ended it with a brief thought:
"(We're) excited about being a part of this great league, and understand, too, when you go into a league like this, you're new, you have to prove yourself, earn respect, and that's what we're going to work hard to do."
Exactly a year later, Pinkel again stepped to the podium in the ballroom at the Wynfrey Hotel in Birmingham. This time, a losing season followed him. His opening statement was again short and simple. And, again, he reflected on his new conference.
"People ask me, 'What did you learn from the SEC after your first year into it?'," Pinkel mused. "The SEC is what I thought it was going to be. It's a line-of-scrimmage league. Offensively, defensive line. I don't care what skill positions you have, you got to be good up front. I knew that going in."
And that's where Missouri fell short in 2012 -- Pinkel admitted that in the final question he was asked ("I think, we stay healthy, we stack up," Pinkel said). Injuries riddled the offensive line in 2012. Injuries dismantled any chance of consistent quarterback play.
Missouri finished 5-7.
"I mean, we still had a chance to overcome (the injuries)," Pinkel said. "I'm paid to overcome anything that happens to us."
Already, changes have been made. August camp will be less demanding. Pinkel said he eliminated "true" two-a-day practices. There will be less full-contact drills, making sure preseason injuries like those to key offensive linemen in 2011 and 2012 are avoided.
Those injuries allowed the younger players across the line to get more experience -- experience that Pinkel says will be invaluable this season. The less-intense practices will make sure those newly experienced linemen stay healthy.
It's the circle of life in college football.
Pinkel has had this kind of season before, in 2004. That losing season gave rise to Missouri's greatest success in three decades. The rebound started with advice Pinkel received from a familiar mentor.
After Pinkel took his first head coaching job at Toledo, he spoke to his former boss at Washington, Don James. The new head coach asked his old head coach for advice.
"He looked at me and he said, 'Gary, when things get tough, and they're going to get tough, you focus on doing your job'," Pinkel said. "'You wake up every morning and hour by hour you focus on doing your job. You go to bed at night and you do the same thing.'
"I walked out of that. I'm thinking, what the heck did that come from? Well, guess what, that's probably the best advice I've ever been given."
A year ago, Pinkel was asked 21 questions by the SEC media during his session in the main room. On Tuesday, that number was nine. Injuries across the board derailed Missouri's first season in its new conference, turning Tuesday's session into an afterthought.
The Steve Spurrier Show featuring Jadeveon Clowney would start soon. Johnny Manziel's circus begins Wednesday morning. Saint Nick Saban descends on Hoover on Thursday.
In the meantime, a healthier Missouri team will again try to live up to Pinkel's opening statement from 2012:
"You have to prove yourself, earn respect, and that's what we're going to work hard to do."