Missouri coach Gary Pinkel will take a break from recruiting Sunday and, like much of America, watch the NFC Championship game.
By RANDY COVITZ
The Kansas City Star
Or as he views it, a mini-Mizzou alumni game.
The San Francisco 49ers and Atlanta Falcons feature five players who played at Missouri, including four who were recruited by and played for Pinkel.
“It’s pretty cool, and I feel bad that one set of them is going to go to the Super Bowl and the other is not,” Pinkel said. “I’m rooting for nobody in this one.”
Falcons linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, safety William Moore and tight end Chase Coffman helped lead the Tigers to consecutive Big 12 North titles in 2007-08; and 49ers outside linebacker Aldon Smith starred for the Tigers in 2009-10.
49ers defensive lineman Justin Smith was in the program when Pinkel took over in 2000 but, on the coach’s advice, elected to enter the NFL draft as a junior and was the fourth overall pick by the Cincinnati Bengals.
“You remember the guys when they were 18 years old, 19 years old, and some of the issues we had with them … not bad things, but little things, be responsible, be accountable…” Pinkel said. “They’re men now, making good money … and the three who stayed all four years have their degrees in their pockets … I feel very good about that.”
Pinkel’s not alone in his feelings. Thurston Smith, the father of Aldon Smith, and Paul Coffman, the father of Chase Coffman, are proud papas, too.
So no matter which team wins today, the Kansas City area will be guaranteed at least one representative in the Super Bowl as Aldon Smith attended Raytown High School and Coffman played at Raymore-Peculiar. (Two other Kansas City products, New England wide receiver Brandon Lloyd of Blue Springs and linebacker Mike Rivera of Shawnee Mission Northwest, will play in the AFC Championship game.)
Thurston Smith’s hoarse voice was barely audible this week from all his cheering and screaming during the 49ers’ 45-31 victory over Green Bay last Saturday night at San Francisco.
“To be as close to the Super Bowl, it’s a dream come true,” said Smith, whose son’s team lost in overtime to the New York Giants in last year’s NFC Championship game. “They came so close last year, and I think they’re better for it this year.”
Paul Coffman attended the Falcons’ thrilling 30-28 victory over Seattle last Sunday in Atlanta but stayed home this weekend, saying, “I’m saving for the Super Bowl.”
Coffman, who was a three-time Pro Bowl tight end for the Green Bay Packers during the 1980s before playing for the Chiefs in 1986 and ’87, watched both Aldon Smith and his son on the same football field during a camp at the University of Central Missouri.
“I remember watching him at Raytown High School and thinking, he’s an athletic kid, but I didn’t foresee he would be this good, this fast,” Coffman said. “You look at potential at that age. Aldon has those long arms, he was a fast guy, he got in a system that taught him some technique and put him in position to succeed. When you have the talent, and get some good coaching, then the success will follow.”
Here are the success stories of the Tiger five.
49ers DL Justin Smith
Smith, 33, keeps getting better and better. A year ago, he was the first player to be selected to The Associated Press’ first team at defensive tackle and second team at defensive end.
Smith’s streak of 185 consecutive games played — which ranked third in the league — was snapped on Dec. 23 after he suffered a torn triceps the week before a game at New England. But wearing a cumbersome brace, Smith played 53 of 58 snaps and fought off double teams in last week’s NFC playoff win over Green Bay, and he expects to play more Sunday.
At Missouri, Smith set a school record with 11 sacks in 2000, and Pinkel would have loved to have coached him in his first season at Missouri. But after studying tape and talking to NFL scouts, Pinkel realized Smith was ready for the pros.
“My conversation with Justin and my philosophy is, if you’re projected as a first-round pick, I’m going to encourage you to go … if you’re ready. We came out of that meeting, had a press conference, and he said, ‘Coach Pinkel told me to go,’ which created a little bit of a storm.”
Smith, of Jefferson City, was selected by Cincinnati with the fourth overall pick in the 2001 draft and signed as an unrestricted free agent in 2008 with San Francisco, where he has made four straight Pro Bowls.
“The things I heard about him before he was considering going (to the NFL), you could just tell the guy was remarkably focused on being a great player,” Pinkel said. “It’s hard to project he’s going to be an All-Pro defensive lineman, but without question he was a great pick because of the consistency of play and dedication this kid had, and he’s obviously carried it over to the NFL.”
49ers LB Aldon Smith
Few players have made as much of an impact on a team as Aldon Smith in his two years with the 49ers.
Smith, the seventh overall pick in the 2011 draft, led all NFL rookies in sacks with 14 last year, and he topped that with a franchise-record 19 1/2 sacks this season, breaking the club record held by Hall of Fame defense end Fred Dean, who had 17 1/2 in 1983.
Smith’s 33 1/2 sacks are the most by a player in his first two years in NFL history, topping the 31 by Philadelphia’s Reggie White in 1985-86; and the 30 by the Chiefs’ Derrick Thomas in 1989-90 and Denver’s Von Miller in 2011-12.
“It doesn’t surprise me,” Pinkel said, “because he had some of the same characteristics (as Justin Smith). “He loved playing football, he’s very talented and very driven to be good.”
Smith redshirted as a freshman at Missouri because he wasn’t cleared academically due to some credit technicalities when he moved to Raytown from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Smith was selected a freshman All-American and Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year in 2009 when he broke Justin Smith’s school record with 11 1/2 sacks in 2009.
As a sophomore, Smith came back from a stress fracture in his leg and his 58-yard interception return sparked the Tigers to a watershed win over No. 1 Oklahoma.
“There was no question he would have played as a (true) freshman,” Pinkel said. “It was no fault of anyone’s, but he wasn’t cleared until four days before the first game. He had missed a bunch of practices. In hindsight … maybe we should have done it.”
Smith, selected to his first Pro Bowl this season, was voted NFC defensive player for the month of November when he recorded nine sacks in three games, highlighted by a 5 1/2 sack performance against Chicago on Nov. 19.
Curiously, Smith has gone four games without a sack, starting with the Dec. 16 game at New England, when Justin Smith was injured. But 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio is not concerned, saying the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers was getting rid of the ball quickly.
“I don’t look at it as a drought,” Fangio said. “It’s just that they were throwing it fast. (Smith) came loose a few times, and the ball’s gone. I think he’s rushing good. Teams have respect for our rush. It’s not always stats.”
Falcons S William Moore
Moore, who is from the Missouri bootheel town of Hayti, is always around the ball.
Moore, the Falcons’ second-round draft pick in 2009, started this season strong by making 12 tackles and intercepting a pass in front of friends and family in Atlanta’s opening-day win over the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium.
He followed that up by intercepting a Peyton Manning pass and returning it 33 yards to the 1, setting up a touchdown that sparked the Falcons’ win over the Broncos. (He also had a sack of Manning).
Moore missed the last four games of the regular season because of injuries but returned for the playoffs and had six tackles in the win over Seattle.
“William matured through our program,” Pinkel said. “He had a lot of difficulty his first couple of years, because of the demands of attention to detail and discipline we have in our program. It took him a while, and the light started going off his sophomore year, but his redshirt junior year, he went wild.”
Indeed, as a junior in 2007, Moore intercepted eight passes, breaking the school record of All-American and Pro Football Hall of Famer Roger Wehrli’s seven picks set in 1968. And of Moore’s 11 career interceptions at Mizzou, he returned four for touchdowns, another school record.
Moore, to this day, wears No. 25 in honor of former teammate Aaron O’Neal, who died during the summer of 2005.
Falcons LB Sean Weatherspoon
Weatherspoon, the Falcons’ first-round pick in 2010, has always been a tackle machine and a talking machine.
Weatherspoon ranked second on the Falcons with 114 total tackles this year despite missing three midseason games because of injury, he had three sacks and his first NFL interception. And he loves to gab while he’s doing it.
“Spoon is a little different,” Pinkel said. “He’s a remarkably positive guy. I remember before they were going to draft him, the Falcons called and said they were worried about the guy talking all the time. They heard at the Senior Bowl he kind of took over the team. I told them, if you tell him to keep his mouth shut, he’ll do that. He won’t say a word. He’s a team player.”
Weatherspoon, who is from Jasper, Texas, was credited with 413 career tackles at Missouri, 12 1/2 sacks and four interceptions, two for touchdowns.
“We evaluated him athletically out of high school as a receiver,” Pinkel said. “He was a two-star guy or something. We saw a guy who could run, who was physical and a great kid. A guy like him makes your whole football team better.”
Falcons TE Chase Coffman
Coffman, the NCAA’s all-time reception leader for tight ends and 2008 Mackey Award winner, took the hardest route to the NFC Championship game.
A third-round pick by Cincinnati in 2009, Coffman, a better receiver than blocker, never fit in the Bengals system, eventually was waived in 2011; went to training camp with Tampa Bay this season and was cut before spending the first 10 weeks of this season with Atlanta.
Coffman appeared in five games with the Falcons during the regular season, catching one pass for 11 yards, and his 16-yard catch down the sideline set up a touchdown in the Falcons’ playoff win over Seattle.
“Chase found a place that put him in position to succeed and utilize his skills,” Paul Coffman said. “That catch proves something that he can do it. It was a vintage chase Coffman catch. He’s made them since junior high like that. He doesn’t necessarily have to be open for you to throw him the ball. He’ll catch it.
“It’s just one, but hopefully it will be the start of something big for him.”
To reach Randy Covitz, call 816-234-4796 or send email to email@example.com. Follow him at twitter.com/randycovitz.