Vahe Gregorian

Gary Pinkel has changed, and his Missouri team has responded

Updated: 2013-10-22T13:37:09Z

By VAHE GREGORIAN

The Kansas City Star

— The enterprising question hovered like a piñata over the room: In the 1960s and ’70s, the Mizzou football team routinely unfurled momentous upsets on the road, so why, coach Gary Pinkel was asked Monday, haven’t the Tigers beaten a top-10 team in a true road game in more than 30 years?

A year ago, amid a siege of factors that left him somewhere between distressed and distracted, Pinkel probably would have taken a defensive posture. And maybe even taken a bash at the question.

But not Gary Pinkel 3.0, the man close observers say is immersed in the second reinvention of himself as MU coach, a man who has gone from discombobulated and distant a year ago to a man now exuding fresh intensity and positive energy.

So instead of swatting at the question in some form or another, he grinned and playfully dismissed the query without, in fact, being dismissive.

“You were Googling all day for that stuff,” Pinkel said in a tone more telling than his words. “First of all, I think I’m the only one who was alive in the ’60s and ’70s. … This is a new year, and we’re focused on this football team.”

Then with a comedian’s touch, he concluded the news conference by adding, “Are we good? Thank you, appreciate it.”

And off he walked, reminiscent of the “Seinfield” show’s George Costanza, cracking a successful joke and immediately leaving the room declaring, “All right, that’s it for me,” as he followed advice to always leave on a high point.

Entering his 13th season at Missouri, Pinkel’s ability to walk away on a high point was in doubt after a tumultuous 5-7 season in 2012 that extinguished MU’s run of seven straight bowl seasons and left the Tigers just 11-12 against Football Bowl Subdivision teams over a two-year period.

For all he’d done to resurrect the program from a generation of futility, that was then and this was now:

The Tigers were beginning a new era in the Southeastern Conference, a move predicated on the success of a football program that suddenly was regressing.

Read between the lines of athletic director Mike Alden’s mantra about “urgency” and “accountability” in the school’s most visible program, his subtle notation that MU can’t become accustomed to 5-7, and it was evident that Pinkel’s job was in jeopardy if Mizzou wasn’t rejuvenated this season.

Five games into the season, the complexion of the scene has been made over entirely. MU is 5-0 and ranked 25th entering its game Saturday at No. 7 Georgia, 4-1, which appears more vulnerable than its ranking would indicate after suffering a rash of injuries.

Beat Georgia, and Pinkel will have gone from the most scalding of seats to just being one of the hottest coaches in the nation and, in fact, on the inside track to being voted SEC coach of the year.

We’re getting ahead of ourselves here, of course. It’s important to remember MU is the only SEC team to have played just one conference game, has built its record against unranked teams that are a combined 15-13 and must still play four ranked teams that are a combined 16-4.

The season is a long way from being defined.

But however it plays out, Pinkel has redefined himself in the eyes of those around him after a combination of events had turned him off-kilter a year ago.

Even as he was still coping into the 2012 season with the implications of his arrest for driving while intoxicated in late 2011, Pinkel also was embroiled in a divorce after nearly 40 years of marriage.

Compound that with the demanding transition into the SEC, and a scrambled nonconference schedule. Multiply all that by an unprecedented series of injuries.

And Pinkel, a creature of absolute habit, seemed unmoored even to supporters and those close to him.

But Pinkel was defiant and even seemed in denial after Missouri’s sleepwalking season-ending 59-29 loss at Texas A&M, which had taken a 42-0 lead in the first half. In the postgame news conference, Pinkel clearly startled Alden by angrily declaring, “What we do works, OK? … I’m not about to change anything now.”

Pinkel does himself a disservice by saying that, because he means only that the pillars of the program are set, not that he doesn’t ever make adjustments.

Yet as much as his pride compels him even now to say he didn’t really change anything and Mizzou is prospering largely because it hasn’t been overrun by injuries again, change he did.

Not so much in the sense that the offense was rejiggered under new coordinator Josh Henson, who replaced David Yost, who, despite suspicions to the contrary, left of his own accord.

And not so much because Pinkel dialed back practice intensity some and tweaked other things.

He changed his persona, much as he did after the shattering death of linebacker Aaron O’Neal in 2005, when Pinkel opened himself up more to his team and allowed himself to show a more personal side.

This time, he did it after receiving critical feedback from his outgoing seniors.

Some thought he was disengaged, too intent on coaching the coaches without directly offering players much of himself, and in a postseason meeting they leveled with him.

“We had a very constructive talk with him,” former Tigers wide receiver T.J. Moe said.

Pinkel was surprised by what he heard and probably didn’t like hearing it much. But then he reflected on it. Instead of letting it fester, he sought out more.

“He was as receptive as you could hope for,” Moe said, “and willing to hear some more.”

He absorbed it, took it to heart and by all accounts responded to it.

For months now, long before this team’s fast start, it’s been evident to those who know him best. Between a more settled personal life and a rekindled dedication, Pinkel, simply put, is happy again.

He has been warmer, more approachable and more apt to delegate and listen to ideas. He has been compassionate and willing to make himself vulnerable, even.

It’s resonated with a team that he recently said he “loves.”

And that resounds on the field, where a year after his program seemed to be in a downward spiral, Pinkel’s revived approach has drizzled down and lifted it back to a high point.

To reach Vahe Gregorian, call 816-234-4868 or send email to vgregorian@kcstar.com. Follow him at twitter.com/vgregorian. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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