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Archive for Friday, November 30, 2007

Commentary: Missouri’s Pinkel changes for better

Coach improves relationship with players, media, comes long way since start of tenure at MU

November 30, 2007

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— No doubt, there's been enough Mizzou-mania swirling around Gary Pinkel this week. So one less phone call to him wasn't a bad thing.

"I talked to him the week they played Oklahoma earlier," said Don James, former Washington coach. "So I decided I wasn't going to call him this week."

That's a coach's way of saying: Superstition or not, if there's a whiff of a chance ghostly forces could play a part in the big game, by all means embrace them.

Saturday night, Pinkel's Missouri team, freshly ranked No. 1 in the country, will face Oklahoma for a shot at playing in the national-title game. Whether the Tigers get there or not, it's a great achievement just getting to the threshold.

The simultaneous ascensions of Missouri and Pinkel have, to this day, a lot of purple-and-gold overtones.

Pinkel, 55, was one of James' most trusted lieutenants during the legendary coach's run at UW, finishing more than a decade of work as James' offensive coordinator. As much as anybody who toiled under James, Pinkel was cut from the same cloth: Buttoned-down, tight-lipped, no-nonsense.

Pinkel went off to Toledo in 1991 and then in 1999 found himself in Barbara Hedges' crosshairs to succeed Jim Lambright at Washington. Pinkel was a finalist along with Chris Tormey, then Idaho's coach, and a certain mystery candidate.

Shazam.

Hedges unveiled Rick Neuheisel of Colorado, igniting a four-year regime flushed by a Rose Bowl victory and incessant controversy.

Pinkel, meanwhile, moved on to Missouri in 2001, where he continued to be the businesslike Gary Pinkel. By his third year, the Tigers went 8-4 with a bowl game. In 2004, though, fortunes went south at 5-6. A Denver Post columnist asked, "Was there a worse coaching job in the country than by Missouri's Gary Pinkel?"

And he found himself where coaches dread: The hot seat. Somehow, forces changed Pinkel. After that 2004 season, nose tackle Lorenzo Williams remembered, "He came to us as a team. He said, 'We've had our ups and downs together, but we really haven't developed the relationship we all wanted. From here on out, we're going to try to develop a players-coach relationship. We're all in this together.'"

In 2005 came the death of young linebacker Aaron O'Neal during a summer workout at Missouri. Pinkel has admitted that's one of the factors that shaped his new persona. Missouri has won 25 games in three seasons since then.

James, who admits he sometimes felt the same tug to be more approachable, said of his protege, "He felt that, a year or two ago, he didn't handle things the way he should have with the press. I think we all go through that. We're so fearful we're going to get fired, you're mad every time something goes wrong. Something goes wrong every day. He's mellowed."

It figures, in a season as loopy as this one, Missouri is No. 1 in the country, but it's a three-point underdog against Oklahoma. No doubt that has something to do with the fact Missouri has beaten Oklahoma just once since 1983, and the Tigers lost to the Sooners 41-31 in their meeting in October.

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