How staples, an ice cream parlor, and a fake field goal helped Missouri to forget its vexing past and move forward to a winning culture
He swung open the door to Cold Stone Creamery, an ice cream parlor in downtown Columbia, where the future of his football program was sitting with his mother. Chase Daniel, Missouri’s prized recruit from Southlake, Texas, was on his official visit, and as Daniel was being given the tour through the quaint downtown area adjacent to the university, he decided he wanted an ice cream. One of the Dave assistants—possibly Dave Steckel but probably Dave Yost—phoned and said, “we’ve got him over here.” So Gary Pinkel, head coach of the Missouri Tigers football team, drove over and joined them. After that meeting adjourned, coach and player reconvened at Pinkel’s office in the athletic complex.
“When he came in my office we talked about an hour,” Pinkel said. “The guy walked out and I said, ‘wow’ this guy’s got it. This guy has really, really got it.”
“It” meaning the ability to play at a high Division I level plus the desire to exist and thrive on a pressure-packed quarterback island in a Power 5 Conference. Pinkel had heard enough BS in his life and sifted through plenty a quarterback to know what he was looking for. And there was no doubt: he wanted Chase Daniel.
There was only one thing standing in his way.
In Southlake, Texas, a suburb located 25 miles northwest of Dallas, football could often cross over the line between adoration on the one side and idolatry on the other. Perhaps the only thing in Southlake that oozed as much as football was affluence. Like many of the young boys growing up in Southlake, Daniel dreamed about playing football for the University of Texas Longhorns. To fuel that affection, Daniel’s coach at Carroll High School in Southlake was none other than Todd Dodge, a former Texas quarterback. “That’s the school I wanted to go to,” Daniel once told ESPN. “I think everyone growing up in the state of Texas wants to go to Texas.”
Daniel put up insane numbers in his junior and senior seasons, but the reason the Longhorns didn’t have a stranglehold on his recruitment essentially came down to two factors: Daniel’s height (he was only a 6-footer) and a Louisianan named Ryan Perrilloux.
At the time, the prized steer in the state of Texas was Colt McCoy, a quarterback from the tiny town of Tuscola, and both Texas and Texas A&M extended him early offers. No invitation to dance the Texas two-step was extended to Daniel, and instead the Longhorns and head coach Mack Brown chose to offer Perrilloux, who had set prep records at East St. John High School in Reserve, Louisiana. This allowed Pinkel and Missouri, putting on a hard sell of the Missouri offense as a great fit for a gunslinger like Daniel, to slip in the back door. As Pinkel preached, Daniel liked what he was hearing.
But at the 11th hour, Missouri began to hear the footsteps of the reaper. Here’s how Pinkel remembers it all went down: “I remember Texas lost their committed guy [Perrilloux] to LSU and all of a sudden we get a phone call from Dave Steckel who was recruiting. And he said, ‘Texas just offered Chase.’ I said, ‘geez.’ So I call him up and said, ‘Chase, how you doin’ bud?’ ‘Good coach. How about you?’ I said, ‘I hear things are kind of crankin’ up around there.’ He said, ‘yeah but you know what? This isn’t that hard. I’m going to go where people want me the most. And you’ve wanted me Day One.”
When Daniel committed to Missouri in 2005, the gates of mercy widened just a little bit.
“That was hugely important for the success of Missouri football,” Pinkel said.
At the time, Missouri was not one of the power schools of the Big 12 Conference; that elite order was comprised of teams like Kansas State, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Texas. But Missouri was a comer, a team that was slowly trending upward, rising, wobbling, stabilizing. Pinkel would find that trying to elevate the program was like pushing a boulder up a hill on a 45-degree grade. But he had a plan in place—one he had developed as an apprentice under Don James, a coaching legend who escorted the Washington Huskies to a national title in 1990—and was first put to the test while Pinkel was the head coach at Toledo from 1991-2000. Over time, Pinkel would come to refine this system, but with few exceptions he was a devout adherent to the Jamesist philosophy.
The first two years of the Pinkel era were losing efforts (4-7, 5-7), but by Year 3 Pinkel seemed to have something figured out, as the team went 8-5 and made an appearance in the Mainstay Suites Independence Bowl. But when Chase Daniel first walked onto campus in the fall of 2005, the team was coming off a 5-6 season the previous year. The mainstay at quarterback had been Brad Smith, a rising senior who, like Daniel, was overlooked by the big time programs. Pinkel had plucked Smith out of Youngstown, Ohio, an area normally reserved as scarlet country, prime recruiting ground for the perpetual college football juggernaut, Ohio State. But the Buckeyes didn’t recruit him, and Ohio native Pinkel was able to fish Smith out of the choppy recruiting waters, primarily by connecting with Smith’s pastor, Bishop Norman Wagner.
Smith redshirted in 2001, Pinkel’s first year, but became the starter in 2002 when Pinkel chose to go with him over senior Kirk Farmer. It was Pinkel’s first tough decision regarding the quarterback slot, and it paid off. Smith became the second player in NCAA history to throw for 2,000 yards and rush for 1,000 more. And as Smith continued to improve, he became firmly anchored as the starting quarterback.
Pinkel understood that players, and not coaches, win ball games. After four inconsistent years to start his tenure in Columbia, Pinkel was frustrated and searching for answers. While on the golf course one summer, he received some advice from his old mentor, James: “get more guys drafted and you’ll start winning more games,” and that thought continued to oscillate in his mind as he hit the recruiting trail. And while Pinkel knew that what coach James had said was certainly true, he also knew that to win consistently, he had to open up St. Louis.
The Gateway to Success
The healing began in a conference room at the Marriott St. Louis Airport.
Shortly after being hired in March 2001, Pinkel got a phone call from Demetrious Johnson, a former defensive back at Missouri and a product of the St. Louis projects, who had become disillusioned with an apparent rift caused by racial tensions that in essence barred Missouri football recruiters from a number of high schools in the St. Louis area. The root of the animosity could be traced all the way back to the 1960s, when blacks felt alienated and, in many instances, were alienated as students at the University of Missouri.
Norris Stevenson had been the first black football player at UM in the early 1960s, and across the years, more African Americans began to slowly trickle in. However, many felt that the campus in Columbia, still predominantly white, was unwelcoming to blacks and did not encourage their assimilation into the general student body. Across the years, as more and more black football players began to feel estranged from the football program and from campus life itself, two disc jockeys, Richard “Onion” Horton and Charlie “Tuna” Edwards, railed against the program daily, stoking the fire of discord and placing a racial stigma on Missouri athletics that was difficult to overcome.
One of Pinkel’s first orders of business was to try to patch things up with the black community. So Pinkel, with the help of Missouri Athletic Director Mike Alden, invited all former football players from the St. Louis area to a meeting at the Marriott that March. As Pinkel estimates, between 100-125 guys showed up and were encouraged to share whatever was on their heart. “It was very sincere,” Pinkel said. “It was good because I think guys walked away being able to express themselves. A couple of times it got heated in a very unthreatening way, which is OK.”
No ultimatums were given, but after the meeting Pinkel resolved to do a few things. First, he wanted to make former players feel welcome again, and part of this had to do with being more intentional about recognizing them on campus. The centerpiece of this effort was Stevenson, and not only was a scholarship fund soon established on Stevenson’s behalf, a “Plaza of Champions” dedicated in his honor was constructed on the west side of Memorial Stadium. (Some were critical that the dedication of the plaza occurred on a Friday afternoon, and not during a Saturday game.) Further, Missouri had to do a better job of inviting former players back, as Pinkel demonstrated in the 2001 spring game when more than 65 players descended on campus. That number began to steadily increase throughout Pinkel’s tenure.
The second thing was that Pinkel had to build trust in the St. Louis community. It was one thing to talk about investing in the community; it was quite another to actually go to Ground Zero. Pinkel himself toured the area—“I took him all around black folks — barbershops and everything,” Demetrious Johnson once told Joel Anderson of Buzzfeed. “We gave him credibility”—but he also dispatched Cornell Ford, a black assistant coach who grew up in Gary, Indiana, to make further inroads.
Over time, Missouri began to pick away at St. Louis’ icy facade, its first big pickup being Damian Nash out of East St. Louis, a recruiting get that later paved the way for players like Jeremy Maclin and Terry Beckner. Seven true freshmen from St. Louis stocked the 2002 Missouri roster, and the best recruiting tools to further pry open the Gateway City were the positive testimonials on the program that town natives would give as they returned home on break. “The players on your team from St. Louis, when they went back home, people would ask, “What’s going on at Mizzou now?’ And they are going to present their feelings,” Pinkel said. “Even though it was tough, even though the change was really difficult, at the end of the day, trust wins, and caring about people. You treat people well, you communicate well, you build trust, and you do things first class. And that’s how we started getting it going.”
But Pinkel also did something wise. He revived the dormant “Arch Rivalry” with Illinois and stuck it in St. Louis until further notice (for years, it alternated between Champaign, Illinois, and Columbia, Missouri.) This gave St. Louis alumni the opportunity to come watch the Tigers play; making it an even bigger deal was that the game was held at Edward Jones Dome, a 66,000-seat venue that once had hosted Bono and Mick Jagger.
The challenge in St. Louis for Pinkel was not solely related to race. Many of the high school coaches dotted throughout the state had witnessed the instability of the Missouri program and become disenchanted with the high degree of coaching flux. For instance, on one of Pinkel’s first recruiting visits, a coach told him, “I’ve had more than 10 coaches in here recruiting, and I just don’t want my kids to go to Missouri.” Pinkel had to assuage this skepticism by assuring them he was in it for the long haul. Fortunately, he had a group of loyal lieutenants serving under him and there wasn’t much turnover in his 15 years at the helm. With Pinkel, folks knew what to expect. And with a proven track record at Toledo and Washington, Pinkel could point to that success while in living rooms and say, “See what we’ve already done? Well, we are dropping it here.”
It wasn’t the sexiest argument ever, but Pinkel’s utter belief in the system shined through, and gave it teeth. Slowly, recruits began to buy in to what Pinkel was peddling.
Beating Nebraska, that was another deal altogether.
A Winning Culture
Nick Saban, who played with Pinkel at Kent State and was the head coach at LSU at the time of Pinkel’s hiring, wondered why in the world his old pal would want a job like Missouri. After all, Pinkel had it made. He was 10-1 at Toledo in 2000 and had 19 starters returning on a team that had beaten Penn State. Missouri, on the other hand, had been the black hole of the coaching profession, a place where coaches went to get lost. Not to mention Missouri had only two winning seasons in the last 17 years before Pinkel got the job.
Once described as football “backwater,” Missouri was a program that had little to be proud of at the time. After Dan Devine left in 1970, Missouri hired a series of coaches whose names only strike a cord with those either from the Show Me State or inside the Big 12 circle. (See if these names ring a bell: Al Onofrio, Warren Powers, Bob Stull, Larry Smith.) Even Woody Widenhofer, a former Missouri linebacker and member of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ “Steel Curtain” defense, could not find success. From 1985-88, Widenhofer posted a dreadful record of 12-31-1. The absurdity of his tenure was punctuated by a man who, professing to be a vampire, mysteriously walked onto the practice field and offered to hex the opposing team.
By the end of the 1990s, heartbreaking moments had come to define Missouri athletics. The first of these was the famous “Fifth Down Game” versus Colorado in 1990, when officials completely botched the game and gave Bill McCartney’s Buffaloes a mulligan down, which led to the winning score. The second occurred in 1995 in the NCAA basketball tournament. In the second-round game in Boise, Idaho, Missouri faced off against the No. 1 seed, UCLA. The Tigers had the Bruins on the ropes, but with 4.8 seconds remaining, 5-foot-10 guard Tyus Edney went coast-to-coast for a layup and the 75-74 Bruin win. Folks remember the play, but the general public has largely forgotten whom the play was made against. Missouri certainly didn’t. And lastly but no less painfully was the “Immaculate Deflection.” In 1997, Missouri was leading Nebraska when a tipped ball in the end zone was caught by a diving Cornhusker receiver for the 45-38 win. The immaculate deflection led to the immaculate deflation of Missouri. It should be mentioned that all three teams—Colorado, UCLA, and Nebraska—went on to win the national championship the same year these crazy things happened to Missouri.
When Pinkel arrived in Columbia, he became quickly annoyed with these constant reminders of Missouri’s past. To win, Pinkel knew he needed a degree of savvy: he had to fundamentally change the culture while instilling a championship work ethic that was more demanding than anything his players had ever seen. His message was to look forward, not backward. He told his players, “The past is not your burden.”
In his first game as the Missouri head coach, Pinkel was greeted by a rude awakening, and somewhere in the dark corners of his mind he had to wonder if Saban was right. The Tigers faced off against lowly Bowling Green, a school from the Mid-American Conference (MAC)—the conference Pinkel had just left. No doubt it would be an easy win, right? Wrong. Bowling Green’s no-name coach would later go on to win three national titles, two with Florida and one with Ohio State. His name? You guessed it: Urban Meyer.
So in Pinkel’s first game, Missouri lost at home to Bowling Green 20-13. Welcome to Columbia.
At the end of that exasperating year, Pinkel found himself crying at the foot of his bed after a 55-7 loss to Michigan State. “My kids played just awful. Awful, awful, awful. I got home and was emotionally…I had a moment,” Pinkel said.
But this signaled the tipping point. After that game, he resolved to crank it up like never before and scheduled a meeting with his coaches the next day to implement his new strategy. “We are going to demand better effort. We may have guys quit on us, but they are going to quit in January, February, March, and April. They are not going to quit in September, October, November,” he told them.
And even though winning did not come quickly, Pinkel stuck to his knittings. Even when he seriously questioned himself while in the throes of losing seasons, he still believed in his system. Sure, there would be some tweaks along the way, including installing a new offense, the no-huddle spread, modeled after Bowling Green. But for the most part Pinkel kept James’ system. For the most part Pinkel dug his heels in and never deviated from the core principles he’d learned under Donald Earl James. That system involved “relentless evaluation,” precise scheduling, recruiting NFL-caliber players, and attention to detail, even down to the angle of bulletin board staples.
“We had a daily schedule for the content that we tacked on the team bulletin board in the locker room. It was the graduate assistant’s job to post the right information at the right time of day every day. The staple on the bulletin board had to be at a precise angle so the sheet of paper wouldn’t tear,” Pinkel wrote in his autobiography, The 100-Yard Journey.
For the first several years, Pinkel’s teams lacked the overall talent and maturity to win consistently in a Big 12 slate. This is not to say the team did not give effort or have stretches of excellence. But winning consistently was something that eluded Missouri for the first few years under Pinkel. In order to achieve the kind of success he was after, he knew there had to be something special about his program, something that set Missouri apart.
His program needed an identity.
Branding a Program and Protecting the House
M. Michigan. Minnesota. Mississippi State. Maryland.
M stands for so much in college football, and for Pinkel, something didn’t feel right about the block M, the logo that had been used by the athletic department for years. It wasn’t “Missouri” enough. “We got Astroturf in our stadium right after I got here, and I went into Mike Alden’s office and I said ‘Mike, if you are asking me what I want to put in the middle, I do not want to put the M in. We’ve had this M forever.’ I said, ‘Mike, it’s not Missouri…and we’ve got to be who we are.’”
Pinkel thought the focus ought to be the Tiger, and he began to encourage creatives within the athletic department to brand the program accordingly. And splat! The tiger head was suddenly at midfield. New logos were rolled out, and the block M was eventually phased out.
Next Pinkel was inspired by his own kids, who had hung back in Toledo and wanted their pops to bring them back some Missouri athletic gear for Christmas. After Pinkel promised he would, later his son called back with a brazen qualifier: “Dad, just to let you know we don’t really want Missouri on it. We want Mizzou on it.” Wow.
That statement turned out to be a light bulb moment for Pinkel. So he went back the next day to Alden and said, “How do you figure this? Let’s call ourselves ‘Mizzou.’”
Perhaps Missouri had become rather blah. But Mizzou…that had a little pop to it. In Pinkel’s opinion, it was a unique nickname, something that connected people.
Finally after Pinkel had done all that, he began to brand the football field. “For us to build a winning program, we had to start winning home games,” Pinkel said in The 100-Yard Journey. “Eventually, established programs win games at any location, but you’ve got to start with success at home.”
That success started in 2003, when Missouri flashed a light on what its program could be. The program went undefeated at home, knocking off Iowa State, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, and the big one: Nebraska.
Losing to Nebraska was something Missouri had become accustomed to, as the Tigers had dropped the last 24 straight to the Cornhuskers before 2003. For three quarters, Nebraska appeared as though No. 25 was a mere formality, and led 24-14 going into the final refrain on a rainy night in Columbia. But on the first play of the fourth quarter, Brad Smith streaked for a 39-yard touchdown on an option keeper to bring the game within 3. After the Tigers scooped up a Jammal Lord fumble on the ensuing possession, it was Katie, bar the door.
Nebraska seemed to have Missouri hemmed in after three ineffective runs, but as Tigers placekicker Michael Matheny trotted out onto the field, nobody anticipated what was going to happen next. After the snap, holder Santino Riccio received the ball, stood up, and rolled to his right. He snapped a spiral to Victor Sesay, who corralled it in the end zone, painted in white diamonds.
After the play, the stands at Faurot Field nearly imploded with glee. The Tigers weren’t done, however, as Smith added two more touchdowns to leave no doubt:
Missouri 41, Nebraska 24.
The goal posts had no chance on that night in Columbia. After Smith kneeled in victory formation, fans ran onto the field and brought them down. A few students rode them to the ground like ponies. Others mobbed Pinkel as he sorted through the crowd.
It was the biggest thing to sweep through Missouri since Jesse James.
Listen as Pinkel describes one of the biggest wins in Missouri football history: “It was just neat…we played so well. We told our players we are going to go out and try to win this game. The defense had some great stops. That was a big game. Even though we struggled the rest of the year, we were up and down, that sent a message to our team that we’ve got a chance to be good down the road here. There are games like that that you have in your program. We needed it bad. I needed it bad. With all the emotion that we put into this thing.”
That was a start. Over the next few years, Missouri would demonstrate that it had the capacity to beat anyone in the Big 12 Conference. Advantage was a label the Tigers could tack onto the end of home field, as Memorial Stadium became known as “The Zou.”
By the time Daniel became the starting quarterback in 2006, Missouri football had made its final turn, and it wasn’t going back to the Missouri of old. Despite going 8-5 after charging out to a 6-0 start, every game thereafter was close. In the final game of the season, Missouri lost to Oregon State in the Sun Bowl, 39-38, but Daniel threw for 330 yards and two touchdowns (173.52 QBR), foreshadowing the program’s success in 2007.
Border War and Reaching No. 1
The buses shook as they approached Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City. It was late November 2007 and the scene reminded Pinkel of his days in Seattle under coach James, when Husky fans would arrive in droves to the Rose Bowl and rattle the team buses on the way to the stadium. “In 2007 when we got to the stadium, we were going real slow to the locker room and there’s thousands and thousands of people tailgating,” Pinkel remembered. “They start pounding the buses. And I look in the back of the bus and my guys’ eyes were as big as saucers. It was something we’d never experienced.”
As hard as it may be to believe now, at kickoff of the 2007 “Border War,” the Kansas Jayhawks were ranked No. 2 in the country and Missouri was tailgating them closely at No. 3. Mark Mangino, the Kansas coach, had the 11-0 Jayhawks rolling, making the good folks in Lawrence think that this wasn’t just a basketball school anymore, and Missouri, sitting at 11-1, was every bit as good. ESPN College GameDay was on site, elevating the game to unprecedented levels.
That night, K.C. belonged to Daniel, who was 40 of 49 for 361 yards and 3 touchdowns in a 36-28 Missouri victory. And no one gave him more praise than his head coach. “You saw it, America saw it. They saw this guy in adverse conditions in the fourth quarter who had to make plays. We got a 15-yard penalty, and somehow we get a way to convert it. He’s be the first one to tell you it was the offensive line, the wide receivers or tight ends, but I’m going to be the first one to tell you, this guy is special,” Pinkel said. “I’ve said this for a year-and-a-half, and America got to see it today how special he is.”
The entire Midwest was now murmuring about the Heisman. And Missouri—yes, Missouri—had just won the Big 12 North and was headed to the Dr. Pepper Big 12 Championship Game to face Oklahoma.
Someone get this man an ice cream.
The next day, Missouri stood at the top of the polls. It was the first time since Norris Stevenson roamed campus in 1960 that the Tigers were No. 1.
A Surprise in the SEC
For the next four seasons, 2008-11, Pinkel’s teams struggled to recreate the magic of 2007. Sure, ’08 and ’10 produced 10-win seasons. Sure, the Tigers finally got that dog off of their back and beat Oklahoma in 2010. Sure, the Tigers swept the state of Texas in 2011. But while everybody in Columbia was giddy, Pinkel kept his eyes focused on what the program could be. Then came an entirely new challenge for the Missouri program in 2011: a move to a new conference.
The Southeastern Conference (SEC) welcomed the entire Missouri athletic program as a new member in 2012, and Pinkel now was faced with the insufferable task of competing in the best conference in college football. In its first season of SEC action, Pinkel’s team took a big step back, posting a 5-7 overall record and winning only two conference games against middling Kentucky and Tennessee. The next year, Pinkel kicked the door in.
When the conference added Missouri and Texas A&M in 2012, hardcore SEC fans expected the two teams to sit over in time-out for several seasons and pay their dues. Neither team was agreeable to that. In 2013, Missouri romped to a 7-1 conference record, good enough for a berth in the SEC Championship Game against red-hot Auburn, which would eventually lose to Florida State in a heartbreaker for the national title. And although Missouri lost, Pinkel and the Columbia Tigers sent a message to the rest of the conference: We are a force to be reckoned with.
In October of that year, Pinkel suffered a major setback in his life when his coaching mentor, James, died of pancreatic cancer. “It’s hard to put into words how much it hurts to lose a man like Don James,” Pinkel said. “He was my coach, my mentor, my friend, and he had such an amazing influence on my life, both personally and professionally.”
Pinkel flew out to Seattle for the public memorial, where he told the attendees, “I wanted to coach because of Don James.”
There would be no more encouraging words, no more advice from the golf course, but James had given enough to his protégé by how he demonstrated his life.
The next season, Pinkel assured 2013 wasn’t a fluke, as Missouri again went 7-1 in conference play and faced Alabama in the SEC Championship Game. And what are the chances that two former graduate assistants at Kent State under James would meet for the SEC title, exactly 40 years later?
“Two kids from Kent, Ohio, a place that never wins,” Pinkel laughs.
During the game festivities, Pinkel and Saban, referred to by AL.com as “The James Gang,” took time to reflect on the life and legacy of their coach. It was fitting that a year after their mentor and coaching inspiration passed away that two of his disciples should meet in such a venue. “It was just a huge statement for [Coach James],” Pinkel said. “I never thought he got the credit for what he probably deserves.”
Missouri lost 42-13, but it had earned the respect of the conference. Instead of dwelling in the SEC cellar, Pinkel settled for Park Place. No, he didn’t win either game, but there was victory in the journey. For from the end of the bed in 2001 to the victory over Nebraska at Memorial Stadium in 2003, to the win at Arrowhead Stadium over Kansas to this, Gary Pinkel performed CPR on a football team lying on the cold floor of mediocrity, breathing life into a program that was emotionally and spiritually dead.
The celebration was short-lived. A year after Missouri went to its second SEC title game in a row, Pinkel was diagnosed with lymphoma and elected to resign following the 2015 season. “So many people have bigger struggles with other forms of cancer and other serious diseases, and I feel blessed that I’ve got something I can fight and still enjoy a good quality of life. I don’t know how many years I have left, but I want to turn my focus to life outside of the daily grind of football,” Pinkel said in a statement.
More than three years removed from that moment, Pinkel says he doesn’t miss coaching, but there are aspects of the game he does miss. “I miss game day. I miss putting my headset on,” Pinkel says reflectively. “But, the thing I miss the most, though. I miss helping my kids, the players. I miss that more than anything.”
When prodded about getting back into the game, he shrugs it off and reinforces that he’s retired. He has plans to start a foundation for kids and has a few other things up his sleeve as he approaches the dusk of his life.
Sometimes he wonders how he might have fared at one of the traditional college football powerhouses—a Michigan, USC, or Alabama. But mostly he’s satisfied with the work he put in at a backwater school smack dab between Kansas City and St. Louis. He’s satisfied that the road that began in Akron ended in Columbia. It was a 100-yard journey, for sure.
And he’s a better man for having fought for every inch. H&A
Cover graphic: Sarah Roberts
To order Gary Pinkel’s book, The 100-Yard Journey: A Life in Coaching and Battling for the Win, please visit: https://www.triumphbooks.com/Pinkel
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