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September 12, 2013

Gary Pinkel, the brand

KANSAS CITY -- There's a saying that has come to define Gary Pinkel's tenure in Columbia. It's a phrase he's used in the past. Lately, it's become a rallying cry for those concerned with his stability in Columbia.

We do what we do.

If Pinkel instead used a different phrase -- think Nick Saban's "The Process," which ostensibly means the same thing -- it wouldn't be viewed as a stubborn, square-peg-into-round-hole adage that some fans view it as now, after a 5-7 season. It's viewed as a reluctance to change, a fax machine in the era of e-mail. It's viewed as out of touch with the evolving college football landscape.

But maybe -- just maybe -- that view is wrong. That view is as stubborn as the phrase itself.

Because Gary Pinkel does what he does -- until he doesn't.



Pinkel has already changed his entire offense and defense once since he arrived in Columbia. If you count new offensive coordinator Josh Henson's tweaks, such as tight ends attached to the line, under center snaps at midfield and a down-hill rushing attack -- well, maybe Pinkel has changed his offense twice.

Now, Pinkel is changing from a public relations standpoint, too. That much has been made clear the past two days. Pinkel crisscrossed the state of Missouri, making stops with media outlets in St. Louis and Kansas City, while at the same time speaking to boosters and fans at the Kansas City Tiger Club at the Westport Flea Market.

A member of Pinkel's staff got the idea from ESPN. The past two summers, Pinkel traveled to Bristol, Conn., to make the rounds at the ESPN campus, doing various interviews and TV appearances throughout the day along with other SEC coaches. ESPN refers to it as a "car wash."

"Chad (Moller, director of media relations) goes, 'Why don't we do that in Missouri? Why don't we go to St. Louis one day and Kansas City the other day and just kind of go to the media outlets, they always come to us, and just from a public relations standpoint, talk about Mizzou?'," Pinkel explained.

"That's why I'm here."

Maybe it's a nice coincidence that Pinkel makes these trips as his team enters its bye week 2-0. Missouri now runs a gauntlet of eight games, four on the road, and three in a row in October against the three power programs in the SEC East -- Georgia, Florida, South Carolina. It's unlikely the same Show-Me State "car wash" will occur during the second bye week in mid-November. It's a PR move, and a good one, at that. Pinkel is setting the tone for the start of those eight games by being a very public presence in the two biggest cities in the state.

It shows something else, too. It shows how Pinkel -- or those around him -- are attempting to turn him into a brand.

It started with the web site, GaryPinkel.com, an outlet to present Missouri's coach in a public, positive setting in which the athletic department can control the message. It continued with Google Hangouts, where fans can interact with Pinkel in a limited, controlled setting.

This week, that brand has evolved. More and more, Pinkel's personality is coming out. Instead of just being a stoic figure in charge of Missouri's football program, instead of being the stone-faced coach on the sideline, a different side of Pinkel has begun to emerge, starting last spring and continuing this fall.

On Tuesday, that took a new step. Pinkel was as loose, energetic and plain funny as I've seen him in my five years covering the team full-time. Pinkel normally calls in every other week to the Kansas City Tiger Club to answer questions before another speaker takes over in-person. On this Tuesday, Pinkel answered questions in person, standing on the stage that's usually used for improv comedy on weekends.

Among the highlights:

"Any questions?," Pinkel asked after his opening statement. "I'll stay here and answer any one. That's what we usually do, right? Let's see if you're a little bit more polite."

"I was wondering the same thing," Pinkel laughed when asked about the officials stopped Missouri's offense for "not giving the defense a chance" at one point against Toledo. "He should not have said that."

And then, 16 and a half minutes into his question-and-answer session, Pinkel was informed that his alloted time was over. Pinkel responded:

"I can stay, these people came here. As long as the questions are calm."

More laughter.

A fan asked a question about whether Dorial Green-Beckham could get 15-20 touches a game.

"I'll make a note of that," Pinkel said.

Pinkel went on to tell a story about being asked to sign a Missouri-themed toilet at a fan day.

"I thought, 'I'm not going to sign a daggum toilet,'" Pinkel said. "I have to have some degree of dignity."

(He did sign the toilet, after seeing that a Jayhawk was painted at the bottom of the bowl.)

A fan asked if Pinkel could tell which high schools he would visit in Kansas City for recruiting.

"I can't answer that or I'd go to jail," Pinkel said.

Pinkel went on for about ten more minutes after his scheduled time was up, bringing the crowd to laughter a few more times. Often, "coach humor" is exaggerated. People laugh at unfunny jokes because a head coach is saying them. But Pinkel was legitimately funny on Tuesday, a jarring change for him. I'm not saying that Pinkel doesn't have a sense of humor, but in public settings, he usually presents himself as very reserved.

There were no reservations on Tuesday.

It's all part of bringing out a new brand for Pinkel, as all the changes before Tuesday have shown. It's Gary Pinkel, the person, instead of Gary Pinkel, the coach. For the media, it's a welcome change. He's never been a better interview than he has been the past nine months or so. And that's PR 101. If you're a good interview, the volume on the criticism is turned down.

Perhaps that's a criticism of the media itself, but it's also human nature. When you treat others well, they tend to slide you the benefit of the doubt, when possible.

That can still change. Missouri likely won't stay undefeated this season, and it will be interesting to see if this PR continues should the Tigers struggle later this year. Yet Pinkel, the guy who many believe doesn't change, is changing. He is adapting to that changing landscape, to social media, to his role not just as a coach but the public face of the program.

His tenure will be decided on wins and losses, not laughter in a comedy club. But the past few days prove one thing:

Gary Pinkel does what he does.

Until he doesn't.


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