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Gary Pinkel's imperfections are obvious, but his strengths changed Missouri

In the 15 years since Mizzou last hired a football coach, the current one won his way to the SEC Championship and became the kind of coach who'd stand by his players against anything.

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As a writer, college football coaching changes fascinate me. There is rarely any rhyme or reason to what will work.

I once tried to look at hires from a numbers perspective, breaking things into the most sensible categories possible -- power-conference head coach, NFL head coach, NFL assistant, offensive coordinator, etc. -- to see if there was any correlation to likely success. "Power-conference head coach" had a small, positive correlation. That was it.

I enjoy talking about coaching changes, in part because unknowns fascinate me, and in part because the Missouri fan in me hasn't had to worry about such a thing since I was an undergrad. The last time Missouri hired a football coach, current high school seniors were three years old. Cast Away hadn't been released yet. The spread offense was a Big Ten fad. Destiny's Child was the biggest thing in music.

So now the unknowns are a lot more terrifying.

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In November 2000, young Missouri athletic director Mike Alden fired Larry Smith after a two-year slide. The 61-year-old Smith had engineered a decent turnaround, ensuring long-needed facilities upgrades and helping Mizzou figure out how to carry itself as a power-conference program.

He raised expectations when he carried the Tigers to top-25 finishes in 1997 and 1998. The problem is that you have to meet the expectations you raise. A slide in recruiting meant that when Corby Jones and other late-1990s difference-makers graduated, there was no one to replace them.

I always say that you never want to make a coaching change unless you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the guy you have isn't going to achieve your goals. The reason is simple: hiring a new coach is a terrifying crap shoot.

You can have all the information in the world, and you can pay a search firm six digits to confirm what you already knew, and you can still fail. You have to both make a good hire and make a hire that's better than everybody else's, and the zero-sum universe assures your chances are about 50-50 at best. Alabama hired Mike Shula before Nick Saban. Florida hired Ron Zook before Urban Meyer and Will Muschamp before Jim McElwain. Michigan hired Brady Hoke before Jim Harbaugh.

Alden's candidates list at the time tells you everything you need to know about how scary a hire can be. Young Oklahoma defensive coordinator Brent Venables was the preference of many Missouri fans, and Florida State offensive coordinator Mark Richt interviewed. Alden interviewed Wisconsin defensive coordinator Kevin Cosgrove (a successful assistant with St. Louis ties) and WMU head coach Gary Darnell (31-15 in the previous four seasons).

Safe to say, Richt would have been a pretty good hire, though his lack of Missouri ties might have drawn him back toward the Southeast at some point. Venables, now at current No. 1 Clemson, still has yet to become a head coach. Cosgrove has taken a couple of steps down the D.C. ladder to New Mexico. Darnell bottomed out, averaging four wins per year at WMU through 2004 -- he was out of coaching by 2007.

On paper, all had pluses and minuses. But only one would have both stayed and won like Gary Pinkel did.

Just about any school is one great hire away from a certain level of success. Pinkel was an almost perfect hire, one who achieved at the desired level, completely redefined expectations, then achieved at an even higher level.

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It's basically an arranged marriage. Your school's athletic director finds your suitor, and you're stuck with him until that A.D., or another one, says otherwise. This man is tasked with representing you well and winning games for you, and it's hard enough to do one of those things.

Even if you find a guy who can do both, he won't always do both. And if he manages to last 15 years on the job, he'll have failed at both a few times.

As consistent as Pinkel has been in routine and mantra ("We do what we do"), his results have been diverse. He engineered three straight years of improvement from 2001-03, then his team blew a series of leads in a 2004 misstep. He was on the verge of getting fired in 2005, then won 48 games from 2006-10. He got arrested for DUI late in 2011 and got suspended, then went 5-7 in 2012, Missouri's first in the SEC. He responded with back-to-back SEC East titles. His final team is 5-5, playing defense as well as ever but fielding the worst offense of his tenure.

Despite what seemed like fine intentions -- he never ran afoul of the NCAA, and his punishment for most offenses trended toward stern -- he didn't bat 1.000 in the "representing you" category. He was slow to punish Derrick Washington after an accused sexual assault in 2008, and Washington was eventually kicked off the team in 2009 after another accusation (and, eventually, an arrest). While there might never have any verified wrongdoings, everything involved with the Sasha Menu Courey case painted the university in a bad light, and justifiably so.

Then there's #MizzouMade. It has become the calling card of the Missouri football program and the athletic department as a whole. Mizzou has produced its share of brilliant student athletes, and the stories and personality of players like Sean Weatherspoon, Jeremy Maclin and Markus Golden are incredible.

The idea behind #MizzouMade is bringing you to your athletic peak and making you a responsible, unique adult. But high personality #MizzouMade stars like Sheldon Richardson and Aldon Smith have paid the price for immature decision making. Fiery Texas high school assistant Mack Breed: also #MizzouMade. All three were allowed to let their personalities blossom in Columbia. That doesn't always result in a spotless record.

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A long legacy is a complicated one. That is all but guaranteed. But Pinkel's ability to persevere and redeem himself, both in how his teams played and how he treated his players, made a lot of the negatives an eventual positive. Long considered TOO STUBBORN!!!!! by a portion of the fan base, he made significant changes.

When Missouri's offense grew stagnant and confused in 2004, Pinkel and offensive coordinator Dave Christensen moved to a spread offense that set records. When a dominant passing game stalled out in both 2010 and 2014, Mizzou shifted to run-heavy, defense-friendly approaches.

And when Aaron O'Neal passed away in an offseason workout in 2005, Pinkel reevaluated what it meant to be the father figure he professed to be. He opened himself up to players more. As former player Lorenzo Williams told the New York Times, "We went from doing what he said because we had no choice to doing it because we didn’t want to let him down."

Within the environment that Pinkel and his longtime assistants created, Michael Sam felt comfortable coming out of the closet to his coaches and teammates in 2013, and those coaches and teammates protected his semi-open secret from the public all the way through a 12-2 season. Two years later, when a few players felt driven to do something to help a group of minority students protesting (and in one case, hunger striking) on campus, to the point of proposing a team boycott, Pinkel stood behind them.

Players and coaches knew that they would have Pinkel's backing in public. As the Columbia Tribune's Joe Walljasper put it , "He never fired an assistant in 15 years. He would rather extend the lifespan of a negative story by weeks rather than simply reveal why a player was being disciplined." He did what he did, and it usually worked. And when it didn't work, he kept plugging away until it did.

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  1. Missouri 33, Illinois 20 (August 31, 2002)
  2. Missouri 41, No. 10 Nebraska 24 (October 11, 2003)
  3. Missouri 38, South Carolina 31 (December 30, 2005)
  4. No. 17 Missouri 41, No. 25 Nebraska 6 (October 6, 2007)
  5. No. 3 Missouri 36, No. 2 Kansas 28 (November 24, 2007)
  6. No. 7 Missouri 38, No. 25 Arkansas 7 (January 1, 2008)
  7. No. 4 Missouri 52, Nebraska 17 (October 4, 2008)
  8. No. 18 Missouri 36, No. 3 Oklahoma 27 (October 23, 2010)
  9. No. 5 Missouri 28, No. 19 Texas A&M 21 (November 30, 2013)
  10. No. 9 Missouri 41, No. 13 Oklahoma State 31 (January 3, 2014)

To me, these are Pinkel's 10 most significant wins at Missouri, ranked chronologically. Others' lists might look different. Looking at them this way shows you the progress of Missouri's program.

The first was a significant upset. The second ended a 25-year losing streak to Nebraska. By the third, expectations were already such that getting to bowls wasn't enough; Pinkel really needed a win in the Independence Bowl and got it in dramatic comeback fashion.

The fourth, fifth, and sixth wins come from 2007, a season that saw Missouri reach No. 1 in the polls and finish in the top five for the first time since 1960. The seventh was the peak of a two-year stretch that broke nearly every record in Missouri's offensive record book. The Tigers scored 69 points against Nevada, then went to Lincoln and put up 52 before calling off the dogs. They could have scored 70.


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The eighth came in GameDay's first trip to Columbia and the perfect Homecoming. Oklahoma was No. 1 in the BCS standings and left town once-beaten. The ninth clinched Missouri's first SEC East title in just its second year in the SEC and brought the Tigers within one quarter of a BCS Championship Game for the second time. The 10th wrapped up a second top-five finish.

Pinkel leaves Columbia with expectations the next coach might struggle to meet and with a level of love from former players that any coach would envy. Like a spouse whose every fault you know by heart, he could be maddening.

His press conferences after losses were cranky, defensive and formulaic. Every answer dripped of "I know our problems better than you guys, and I can't fix them if I'm stuck here talking to you." He wasn't a fan of talking to media (it felt like a pretty big deal when I got 45 minutes this summer). And he showed plenty of in-game quirks.

Actually, let's talk about those for a second. This is the "You never put away your dirty clothes" or "You always tromp mud into the house" list from my relationship with Pinkel, and I will miss them all fondly.

  • I will forever remain convinced that the two-point conversion card in either his pocket or head was off by one column in every scenario. The moments he would and wouldn't choose to go for two rarely made any sense to me. (In 2007, before Mizzou's run to the top five began, the Tigers almost lost a game to Illinois because, for some reason, Missouri went for two up 13-6 in the second quarter. As in, it was 7-6, and Missouri scored and went for two. They led by only six, instead of seven, in the final moments before a Pig Brown interception in the Missouri end zone sealed the win.)
  • Down 20-14 to Iowa State in 2001 and facing a fourth down near ISU's goal line, Missouri sent 10 players onto the field following a time out. The Tigers did not convert.
  • Pinkel's "get points of any kind on your first drive" beliefs led to him kicking a field goal on fourth-and-goal from the 1 against Oklahoma State in 2008, when Missouri's offense was at its most murderous. The Tigers lost by five. Four years later, Mizzou kicked a field goal on fourth-and-1 from the 14 against Vanderbilt. And lost by four.
  • In 2006, Missouri attempted one of the most misguided fake field goals of all time against Texas A&M, running an option to the short side of the field. A&M defenders were yelling, "Fake! Fake!" before the snap. (Missouri lost.)
  • Yes, he iced his own kicker late in a game against Arizona State in 2011. I will always roll my eyes and point out a well-actually: they thought they could get Vontaze Bufict to jump offside, and since the kicker knew there was a timeout coming, he wasn't really being iced.
  • But still, yes, he technically iced his own kicker.

Et cetera. Every Missouri fan has his or her own list. But complaints feel like loving nudges. His record speaks for itself.

When Pinkel moved to Columbia, Steve Spurrier was still at Florida, Lou Holtz was at South Carolina, Mike DuBose was at Alabama, Hal Mumme was just leaving Kentucky, former Mizzou head coach Woody Widenhofer was at Vanderbilt, Tommy Tuberville had just moved from Ole Miss to Auburn, Jackie Sherrill had just won 10 games at Mississippi State ... and none of these were relevant because Missouri was nowhere close to moving to the SEC.

The universe was a completely different place 15 years ago, and Missouri was a completely different program. Missouri fans reveled not in accomplishment but in their ability to handle more torture -- the Fifth Down, the Flea Kicker, a 13-year drought between winning seasons -- than others.

Pinkel picked Missouri fans up, dusted them off, wiped their noses and gave them some self-respect. On rare occasions, you'll still see the self-pitying Missouri fan come out, but it's false bravado. Missouri is not cursed, both because curses don't exist and because Pinkel made it so.

* * *

When I got those 45 minutes with Pinkel in June, he was in the middle of personal upheaval. He had gotten remarried, and unbeknownst to me, he had recently been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The interview unfolded about as I had expected, a relatively cold start, followed by rapid warming.

He eased out of cliches and got downright excited in talking about mentor Don James, his "soldiers" down at Missouri State (former defensive coordinator Dave Steckel was preparing for his first year as the Bears' head coach, and most of his assistants had Pinkel backgrounds) and his early days as a Bowling Green assistant. At one point, he jumped up and ran over to a book shelf to show off an old BGSU media guide, replete with a bio picture of him with long(ish) hair and those old-school trucker/coach hats.

Despite the recent diagnosis, Pinkel spoke in the present tense only, talking about things he and his coaches do, not have done. I doubt he thinks any differently now. He's going to do what he does and live a healthy life as long as possible. The only difference is that he's going to do it with more hours available for friends and family.

Pinkel's final season has been a tumultuous one. He was forced to suspend starting quarterback Maty Mauk for a month, then suspend Mauk again within days of reinstatement. The offense was dormant even before Mauk's absence and has only recently begun to find life. He just last week dealt with a potential player boycott stemming from racial protests. He had decided to tell his team he was retiring after the BYU game, but the announcement got bumped up two days when rumors reached the media.

Saturday, his team gave him at least one more incredible moment. At Arrowhead Stadium, the site of his biggest win eight years before, Missouri surged past BYU for a 20-16 win, its first in more than a month. His team crashed a post-game interview and surrounded him, first making him cry, then making him dance.

Pinkel will have at least two more opportunities at wins, beginning with what will be a crippling Senior Night experience on Saturday against Tennessee.

But if that's his last one, it's pretty much perfect. It happened because of a nearly perfect fourth quarter in mid-November, when his teams were nearly perfect in recent years. It happened in familiar territory, thanks to a combination of locals and diamonds unearthed from the rough in Texas and in the Southeast. It verified the faith he always tried to put in his players. And it proved how much those players loved him.

Photos: Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY; Jamie Squire, Getty; Elsa, Getty