In the summer of 2003, a reporter new to the Missouri beat was asking around about Gary Pinkel. Pinkel had won 73 games at Toledo--more than any coach in the program's history--and then gone 9-and-14 in his first two seasons in Columbia.
"If this guy can't get it done," one answer came, "They might as well shut the program down."
Just more than a decade later, since the start of that 2003 season, Pinkel has won 91 games and lost 48, running his record at Mizzou to 100-62 overall. The next win in his Missouri career will tie Pinkel with Don Faurot for the most victories by a Mizzou head coach.
Pinkel would be just the fourth coach to top the victory list at two different Division One schools. Bear Bryant won 60 at Kentucky and 232 at Alabama. Steve Spurrier won 122 at Florida and is at 76 and counting at South Carolina, where he passed Rex Enright for the record last year. George Welsh had 134 wins at Virginia and 55 at Navy, to lead both of those lists, though Ken Niumatololo would pass Welsh with nine more victories in Annapolis.
"It says a lot. Stats don't lie. You look at his record and you can tell he's one of the best to do it," Tiger cornerback E.J. Gaines said. "It honestly doesn't surprise me."
"That's pretty special," sophomore center Evan Boehm said. "Coming from a coach's kid and coming to see what it takes and how many hours, I just see it from the high school level and see how many hours it takes for my dad to be out there and do the things that he does to be successful. You turn that into coach Pinkel and being a college coach, it's unbelievable."
"Coaching is a really hard job. It's a tough job. These guys barely sleep, their minds are constantly invested in this game," senior guard Max Copeland said. "To keep that up for decades speaks a lot to a person's character and their tenacity. The fact that coach Pinkel's been doing this so long and doing it so well for so long speaks to his effort level and how hard he works."
"I think it says that he's a hell of a football coach," said cornerbacks coach Cornell Ford.
Nobody is putting Pinkel in the same sentence as Bryant, or even Spurrier. That duo has 21 SEC championships and seven national titles combined. But the fact that Pinkel will join this list--if not as soon as Saturday, certainly no later than next September--speaks to a trait that has been identified with him perhaps more than any other throughout his coaching career.
"I think you know what you get with coach Pinkel," Ford said. "He's loyal."
"He likes putting down roots," quarterbacks coach Andy Hill said. "In his three jobs, he's spent ten years or better at all three. When you get someplace and things are working, it's easy to stay. The program he's been doing is 3-and-0."
That loyalty kept Pinkel at Toledo for ten seasons, when many other coaches may have jumped ship.
"One of my goals when I went, from a personal standpoint, when I went to Toledo, I was 12 years at Washington, I went to Toledo, is I wanted all three of my kids to graduate from the same high school. That was real important to me to do that," Pinkel said. "When I had other opportunities, maybe an interview and things in the ten years I was there, I didn't do that specifically for that reason."
Eventually, Pinkel did leave, for Missouri in 2001.
"I had some people tell me I was crazy," Pinkel said of taking over a program that had been to two bowl games in 18 seasons. "I had a lot of people tell me I was crazy, I shouldn't do it. But my gut feeling was, Mike Alden was here, someone I felt I could trust, so I took a stab at it."
Pinkel slowly built the program, from nine wins in those first two seasons to a breakthrough 8-and-5 campaign and an Independence Bowl bid in 2003. After a step backward in 2004, the Tigers returned to the postseason in 2005 and would qualify for a bowl game in each of the next seven seasons.
The Tigers played for two Big 12 championships in that time span, came within a half of getting a shot at the national title in 2007 and were among college football's most consistent programs for the latter half of the decade.
And then came 2012, Mizzou's debut in the Southeastern Conference. Pinkel had been arrested for driving while intoxicated in November of the previous year. He went through a divorce. His team was ravaged by injuries. On and off the field, things were messy. Missouri limped to a 5-and-7 finish and the wolves came out. Pinkel was mentioned on every hot seat list in the country. His own fanbase openly questioned whether he was the man to lead Missouri in the best conference in college football. So what did Gary Pinkel do? He simply did the same thing he had always done.
"There wasn't panic. We've been here, we've done it before. We've been through some rough days here, not only here at Missouri, but that happened at Toledo too, and you just weather the storm," Ford said. "There's a right way to do things and there's a wrong way. We like to think we're always doing it the right way, but football is an up-and-down game and if you just stick to what you believe in and get your kids to believe in it and get them to work hard, then you're going to have success. "
"He is real consistent in his approach. He's always kind of said we have a plan for everything from A to Z and that does not waver from day one to year 13," Hill added. "It's never been a grab bag, it's never been let's try this. It's always been more of a tweak. Let's listen to the players, let's find out, we're smart guys--relatively smart guys--let's figure out what we can get done and change what we need to change."
"It's not the first time in his career that's happened," said Dave Christensen, who coached with Pinkel at Washington, Toledo and Missouri before becoming the head coach at Wyoming after the 2008 season. "I was with him at Toledo in 1993 or '94, I can't remember. I came into his office and we talked about that exact same thing. We were having some troubles getting things going and getting settled. He asked me what I thought. I said, 'I'm like you coach. The only thing I know is this program and I know it works,' and we stuck with it and turned it around there and had success. He did the same thing last year."
Now, less than a calendar year after the entire foundation of his program was questioned, he is the leader of one of college football's biggest comeback stories. Missouri stands 10-and-1, a win away from the SEC Championship Game, No. 5 in the BCS standings, two wins and some help away from the national championship game. He is mentioned frequently as both an SEC and National Coach of the Year candidate. And those closest to him say it is precisely because he refused to change that it has all happened.
"It helped us a lot. When the coaches don't panic, the players don't panic and I think that's really what coach Pinkel went by this year," Gaines said. "He kept things the same and he said, 'What we do works.' He proved that to be true."
"I even say it all the time: 'What we do here works,'" junior defensive end Markus Golden said. "All the coaches preach that so I love to say that too because I believe it. And that's what we did. When you hear, 'what we do here works' a lot of guys understand that. Coach Pinkel did great with just keeping the program how it is."
"He's been very steady. He's very sound on details. He doesn't miss anything and he wants to make sure that his coaches are doing it right and his players are doing it right," Ford said. "It's the smallest little things about guys having their shirts tucked in and wearing the same color uniforms and socks and all these little things that a lot of people would just take for granted and blow it off. Coach Pinkel is really hard on us coaches and players about the little things because, in the end, it's the little things that will usually get you beat."
"He tells us life lessons every Thursday before we go out to practice. That's one thing that we did this year that we didn't do last year and I think that's really cool that we do that," Boehm said. "It really opens your eyes like, 'Oh, I need to start doing this more.' Like treating women with respect and to walk on the inside of them nearest to the road, those types of those things. It's crazy, but it makes you open your eyes. He's been around long enough to know what to do and he's done a great job this year."
Pinkel has gone through a few iterations in his coaching career. He started as tightly wound as they come.
"When I first became a head coach, I was like ready to play on Tuesday. And the players got the brunt of it," Pinkel said. "But as you learn, if you want to survive, you just have to wait at least until you wake up Friday before all this stuff happens. That's who I am. I don't know. I don't sleep well throughout the season. That's just the way it is."
He has relaxed and remade himself a few times, notably after run-ins with the media in 2004 and the death of linebacker Aaron O'Neal in 2005. But at his core, Pinkel remains the same guy that coached his first game at Toledo back in 1991.
"I talk to coaches before games and I'll talk to them about it's crazy sitting around all day before we play. They'll be, 'Oh, I had a great time, it was great watching games,'" Pinkel said. "And I'm ready to stab myself. That's just my intensity. That's who I am.
"I'm like that every game we ever coach in."
Ask those who spend the most time with him whether the Pinkel the public knows is the one they see every day and you will get varying responses.
"I think it's the same guy. Coach Pinkel is coach Pinkel," Gaines said. "He's always the same guy and he always will be."
"He's a fun guy. Coach Pinkel's just a fun guy to be around," Golden countered. "He makes it as fun as he can. You see how serious college football can get. Coach Pinkel's a fun guy to be around. He cracks jokes and he's just a cool guy."
"He really doesn't change. That's the cool thing. When he's around everybody, he's the same person as when he's down on that field and he's coaching," Boehm said. "I think that's one thing that's helped him. He's the same when he's talking to you guys as he is when he's talking to us."
"It's not like there's curveballs. We know on Monday what we're doing, we know next June 12th what we're doing. I think it's real consistent for us too," Hill said. "You know what you're going to get."
"It's probably a different guy. I know calling a football team a family is kind of a cliche, but it does feel like a family and he does fulfill the paternal role of that family," Copeland said. "He disciplines us when we need discipline and he loves us when we need love. We probably do see a pretty special, just like you'd say of any elder in your family, who he is at work isn't who he is when he gets home. When he's with us, he's home."
But from a walk-on from Montana to a battle-tested junior college kid from the suburbs of St. Louis to a coach that has been with Pinkel for 275 games to one that left the nest and now coaches his own team halfway across the country, all speak glowingly of the coach and the man they know that most never see.
"I don't think he knew who I was. I don't think he knew who I was for a few years," Copeland said with a laugh. "When I got here, that was a head coach that I wanted to play for. He had a strong value of discipline. The cornerstone of his program was about intensity, about discipline and about having fun playing football...I believe in that ideology not just for a football program, but for life. I would like to live my life that way. Work hard, kind of know what I'm doing and have fun doing it. That's the big three for me. I felt very lucky that the school I felt called to go to had a coach of that caliber and over the years as I've gotten to know him, I've learned much about him and he's done great things for us."
"Coach Pinkel, he's like a father figure. He's a guy you can look up to, he's an honest guy," Golden said. "Every time I was getting recruited by him, he always just told me the truth and he was always honest with me. Coach Pinkel, the reason I wanted to play for him, he's just an honest guy and he kept it real with me."
"I was blessed to be with Gary for 17 years," Christensen said. "He's a mentor and was extremely loyal to me when a lot of people who write were calling for my head. He didn't hesitate. For what he did for me for 17 years, I will be forever indebted to him."
"Coach Pinkel's a great man. He's a family guy, which is huge for me," Ford said. "He could have probably fired my butt a hundred times and he's allowed me to grow not only as a young coach, but as a man. I will always respect him. Hell, I love the man."
On Saturday, Gary Pinkel will lead his team out of the tunnel at Faurot Field for his 163rd game as Missouri's head coach. He has won 100 of them. The man that field is named after, Don Faurot, won 101 coaching the Tigers from 1935-42 and then again from 1946-56. At some point, having his name listed beside--and eventually above--Faurot's is something that Pinkel might talk about. That time is not now.
"This isn't the time to talk about it. I'll talk about it more when it happens," Pinkel said. "There's a lot of people that are a part of all this. I never did this to break records. I did this because I have a responsibility to the University of Missouri to built a great program that's respected. It's real important to me. I've said this before, it's real important to me that people in the SEC, in this league, have great respect for the University of Missouri football. It's real important to me, personally, that nationally people, when they say Mizzou football, they have great respect for Mizzou football. That's my goal. That's what I do this for, that's why I came here and that's ongoing."
For now, he is chasing an SEC East crown, and perhaps so much more. That is the goal. And in many ways, it would do more for Pinkel's legacy at Missouri than any of the hundred-and-however-many games he ends up winning in Columbia. It would be the Final Four Norm Stewart never got, the crown jewel on top of a career that will perhaps will not draw the national recognition it deserves if it does not come to pass.
There will come a time when Pinkel--the only coach a generation of Missouri fans have ever known--will move on. It likely won't be for another job, but to enjoy life for the first time in four decades as something other than a football coach. When it happens, he will leave his name in the record books and a legacy as the man that led Missouri football out of the darkness and into the SEC.
"I was at their Tennessee game. We had a bye so I was on the sideline," Christensen said. "Both my daughters still live in Columbia, one of them is a freshman there. I worked for Gary 17 years. The first score I look for every single week is how Missouri did."
"There's a saying out there that your roots come from somewhere. My roots, all I know is Gary Pinkel," Ford said. "I think wherever I go, the tradition will continue."
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