By: John Saltzman
This Saturday, Mizzou plays host to the Tennessee Volunteers in what will be long time head coach Gary Pinkel’s last home game.
On Friday afternoon, Pinkel made the announcement that he was stepping down from his head coaching duties at the university due to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma that he was diagnosed with back in May.
“After we played Vanderbilt (Oct. 24), I had a scheduled PET scan on Oct. 26th for reassessment, and then visited with my family and came to the decision on October 27th that this would be my last year coaching,” said Pinkel.
Pinkel’s on-field success puts him in an elite group of coaches. At the end of the 2013 season he became only the fourth coach in history to have the most wins at two different D-I universities.
From 1991 to 2000, Pinkel led the Toledo Rockets to three Mid-American Conference East Division championships and one overall MAC title in 1995. The ’95 team finished the season with an 11-0-1 as one of only three teams to finish the season undefeated that year.
The 2000 season, what would be Pinkel’s final season in Toledo, ended in his second double-digit win season at the helm of the Rockets. The signature win of the season came over Joe Paterno’s Penn State squad. The game ended 24-6, stunning a crowd of over 100,000 in Happy Valley.
Pinkel left Toledo as the winningest coach in Rockets history with an overall record of 73-37-3 and headed to Columbia to take over the coaching job for the Tigers.
Pinkel walked in to a program that had one double-digit win season in 110 years, where a .500 record was the goal along with a bowl appearance. Not only did Pinkel almost immediately deliver on those expectations, he shattered them as he built Mizzou into a formidable national contender.
The first four years of Pinkel’s tenure in Columbia landed Missouri in one bowl game in 2003, a loss to Arkansas in the Independence Bowl. However, the Tigers and Pinkel had laid the foundation of a power program, as Mizzou became a mainstay in national conversation from 2005 through this season.
Pinkel led Mizzou to seven straight bowl appearances from 2005-2011 in the final seven years that Mizzou was a part of the Big 12 Conference. As a part of the Big 12, the Tigers won three Big 12 North titles in four seasons from 2007-2010.
The 2007 Missouri Tigers are commonly referred to as the best team in program history. Finishing with a record of 12-2 the Tigers won the Big 12 North for what was the first time in school history, Chase Coffman won the John Mackey Award for top tight end in the country, Chase Daniel was a Heisman Trophy finalist, and Mizzou climbed all the way to No. 1 in the polls for the first time ever.
Despite the success in the Big 12, Mizzou made the leap to the SEC following the 2011 season. Many speculated that this would be a rough transition from wide-open Big 12 offensive football to speedy, defensive, smash-mouth football that the SEC had displayed for much of the 2000s.
In true Gary Pinkel fashion, he never let his team waver, even after a 5-7 campaign in Mizzou’s inaugural year as a member of the SEC East. The Tigers rebounded the following year to win the SEC East en route to a second Cotton Bowl victory in six years.
The success only motivated the players as the team played with a chip on its shoulder the following season to prove the naysayers that they were here to stay. Mizzou repeated as division champs, solidifying Missouri’s spot as an SEC contender and cementing Gary Pinkel’s legacy as he was awarded the 2014 SEC Coach of the Year.
Although he amassed 118 wins (and counting), won 5 Division titles, and coached nearly 30 NFL players in his time at the University of Missouri, Gary Pinkel’s legacy lies with the relationship he has with his players.
“Coach Pinkel has impacted thousands of young men’s lives,” said Mizzou Athletic Director Mack Rhoades as he introduced Coach Pinkel during his retirement ceremony Monday.
“Gary’s program has defined what it means to be Mizzou Made, as an athlete, as a person, to receive an education, to become a champion, and to be a member of a family,” said Rhoades.
Pinkel led not just fantastic football players on the field, but he molded young minds off it. 97 percent of his players graduated in the past five seasons, and graduation rates went up each season he was at the helm.
“I am going to miss them. I am going to miss being around them, interacting with them, scolding them when I have to scold them, hugging them, and touching them everyday. That is what I am going to miss the most, just being around the players,” said Pinkel.
The impact Pinkel had on his players is an infectious bond that sparked a lasting tie between the ones he coached, coached with, and coached for. As Missouri turns to the future, those values and foundation will be ever present in whoever is tasked with filling the giant shoes Coach Pinkel left in his wake.
“I love Mizzou,” said Pinkel.
The scene after last Saturday’s win over BYU at Arrowhead Stadium is Coach Pinkel’s legacy. As players mobbed him during a postgame interview, chanting his name and dancing, fans were reminded why he was so successful.
The unshaken loyalty to his players and usage of his position to shape young men into successful members of society is why Coach Pinkel is revered in Columbia. His accomplishments never forgotten, his legacy forever lasting, and while Coach Pinkel battles lymphoma with a positive spirit and passion, we are reminded what it truly means to be a Missouri Tiger.