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November 3, 2013
Mizzou's Redemption Tour
You could fill a library with all the stories Gary Pinkel says he hasn't read. It is the culture of big-time athletics that the coaches take a certain sense of pride in letting everyone know they pay no attention to what anyone says about them. I don't know, maybe it's even true.
If it is, at no time would Pinkel's media-free cocoon have been a safer haven than last off-season. You could not search the words "hot seat" without Pinkel's name and picture being attached. Pinkel was past his prime and his program had jumped into the deep water without its precautionary floaties, they said. It was too bad that things were going to end poorly for him, they opined. Not only did Pinkel never acknowledge the criticim, but he does such a good job of isolation that even his players say they paid no attention it.
"We really didn't think about that," Kony Ealy said. "We decided to get closer as a family. That's what we're doing. We're still in the process."
"I don't know, that's something you might have to ask him," team co-captain E.J. Gaines said when asked if this season was redemption for his coach. "Coach Pinkel just talks about winning. That's really all he talks about and that's what we talk about as a team. Coming in today, it was all about winning. Not about redemption."
As he usually does, perhaps offensive guard Max Copeland put it best. What he said when asked whether this team was playing to redeem its coach answered not only that question, but provided a deeper insight into this out-of-nowhere run to 8-and-1 and the projected No. 8 ranking in the Bowl Championship Series standings which will be released later tonight.
"Here's the thing, man, we didn't set out to do what we're doing this season to prove anything about one person. It was about this team as an ideal and what we decided to do and the situation we put ourselves in last year. We wanted the identity of a Missouri Tiger to be looked at in a new light. That's why we play with a tenacity and a fire about us. It could be to prove our coaches, but it also is to prove ourselves and us as a unit."
Chemistry and winning are the chicken and the egg of team sports. Do you have to win to have chemistry or do you have to have chemistry to win? Either way, this Missouri team has it.
"We want to prove every person wearing black and gold deserves validation," Copeland said.
The validation has come now, though the players and coaches say they're paying no more attention to the praise than they did the doubt. Instead, they ignore the talk and focus on their team.
Three Tigers share the carries in the running game. None is likely to run for 1,000 yards, but the trio has Mizzou second in the SEC in team rushing and helped the Tigers put up their most rushing yards against a BCS opponent in nearly a decade last night.
The nation's No. 1 high school player caught one pass for six yards last week, just two in the 31-3 win over Tennessee and hasn't seemed bothered a bit to cede the spotlight at his position to an unheralded two-star who had just a handful of Division One offers.
The backup quarterback has stepped in and gone 3-and-1 against Georgia, Florida, South Carolina and Tennessee when the starter went down...and appears completely accepting of the fact that he will be asked to surrender his position possibly as soon as this week.
"We have each other's backs," Dorial Green-Beckham said. "No matter what. This team is a good team we got this year."
What came first, the chemistry or the wins? When asked about how his team has handled everything this season, Pinkel simply repeats what he has said dozens of times over the last two months: "I trust these kids. These kids, they're a special group of kids. They really are, to me."
At no point has the coach, who is now three wins from becoming the all-time leader in that category at his second school, offered up an "I told you so." He has said a few times that he thought the 2013 Tigers would be good and didn't understand why no one else seemed to agree.
This is as close as you will get to an admission from Pinkel that he knows what everyone thought about his team, what they thought about him, the program he has built and his future. Pinkel won't say that this season has been validation for him, a giant one-finger salute to all those who said he couldn't do it. Nobody at Mizzou will say that.
That doesn't change the fact that it is true. The next stop on the Gary Pinkel Redemption Tour is Lexington, Kentucky. After that, Oxford, Mississippi, and back home to Columbia for Texas A&M and Johnny Football. At the end of all that, we'll know if the tour makes needs to schedule an encore appearance in Atlanta.
The tour so far is getting rave reviews. Every critic has run out of derogatory slights. Not that Pinkel was listening anyway.