In explaining the powerful resurgence of Missouri football after a down season in 2012, the most popular narrative would have us believe Tigers coach Gary Pinkel is a changed man.
Obviously there’s some truth to that in an X’s and O’s way. After all, Pinkel has a new offensive coordinator, and Josh Henson has successfully modified Mizzou’s traditional spread attack in a necessary adjustment to Southeastern Conference competition.
The offensive line is compressed, with the linemen positioned shoulder to shoulder instead of going with the wider splits that left the gates open for attacking SEC defenses. The Tigers use their tight ends as blockers. They are more suited to an assertive, downhill running game.
And observers have noted Pinkel, 61, has been more communicative and approachable with players; it seems he has tweaked his personality and his offense.
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I guess I have a different take.
I don’t think Pinkel has changed all that much.
Pinkel is being Pinkel.
Since taking over the forlorn Missouri program in 2001, Pinkel has always been analytical and pragmatic. He has always made adjustments.
This, after all, is a football man trained by the Don James, the legendary Washington Huskies coach who died last month at age 80. And James was a common-sense coach who had no desire to engage in gimmicks or put up a false front to score cheap points with the public.
And if James’ Washington teams had a problem, or a weakness? Don’t whine. Don’t point fingers. Don’t put on a big show. Get to work. Fix it. Improve it. Move on. Let’s go.
That was the Don James way.
And that is the Pinkel way, too.
Many good things have been written and said about Pinkel’s outstanding work in quickly rehabbing the Tigers in advance of their second SEC season. Eighth-ranked Missouri is 9-1 and ex-Washington offensive coordinator Pinkel is being touted, justifiably, as a leading candidate for national Coach of the Year honors.
We are all trying to offer theories on the turnaround, but the person who explains it best is Gary Pinkel.
I was struck by a video interview Pinkel gave to FootballScoop.com, a website geared toward football coaches. When asked about the impact James had on him, Pinkel recalled a defining episode.
Pinkel asked the coach for final words of advice as he departed the Washington staff to become a first-time head coach at Toledo in 1991.
The message was more simple than profound, more practical than dramatic. And it resonates with Pinkel to this day.
“When things get tough, they’re really going to get tough,” said Pinkel, describing James’ words of wisdom. “That’s just how this profession is. You wake up and you focus on doing your job. You get up in the morning and you do your job and you focus every hour on doing your job and then you go to bed, and you wake up and do it again.
“Don’t let any outside influences get to you, because if you do that in this business, it will chew you up. I walked out of that meeting, and as a first-time head coach I was expecting something a little different than that, but it was probably the greatest piece of advice I could have gotten. I don’t know if I would have survived this business if he wouldn’t have given me that.”
From afar, I don’t see a radical transformation of Pinkel the man or Pinkel the coach. I don’t see anything that remotely qualifies as a reinvention.
Pinkel has a career .635 winning percentage. And the good coaches find ways to solve problems.
Sure, I had major concerns about Pinkel after last season, when Mizzou dropped to 5-7 overall.
I wondered if Pinkel had gotten stale. I wondered if he was rusting.
These were fair questions.
Pinkel has answered them. The fire is still there. If anything, it was stoked by the negative reaction to the 2012 season. Pinkel would never admit that, but this is a proud coach.
“I never questioned our program,” Pinkel said earlier this season. “Our program’s good. I know a lot of people have (questioned it). I have no animosity toward that.
“I just want to be respected — and you’ve got to earn it. We’re doing that.”
You see, that is the Don James talking in Pinkel.
Identify the problem. Correct it. Don’t cry about a lack of respect. Go earn respect. Get it done. Be a leader. Dig in. And most of all: Coach.