COLUMBIA — An absurd outbreak of injuries, some offensive schemes that had grown stale, a distressed head coach and other transitional issues conspired to make for a deflating debut for Missouri football in the Southeastern Conference a year ago.
By VAHE GREGORIAN
The Kansas City Star
And last December it evidently made a Grinch out of coach Gary Pinkel even though his sister was the one who married into that surname.
Mizzous 5-7 finish, further stained by a 2-6 SEC record, kept the team home during bowl season for the first time since 2004 and left the program at an apparent crossroads about when it could afford it least.
I like all music, but I love Christmas music. (and) Ill tell you one thing: We werent going to a bowl, and I didnt listen to any Christmas music, Pinkel said Monday. I didnt want to feel good. Thats just the way I am.
He hardly was the only one who didnt feel good about where the program was. Pinkels job was widely considered vulnerable, and that wobbly status was validated if you parsed athletic director Mike Aldens repeated references to urgency and accountability in the program.
Me, on the hot seat? You kidding me? Was that out there? I didnt know that, Pinkel said, smiling and prompting laughter at a crowded news conference.
But he added: Ive never, ever worried about that. Ever. I focus on doing my job.
And counter-intuitively enough, thats just the case, or at least the task, for Mizzou at the opposite end of the spectrum now.
As the reborn Tigers sit at 11-1, champion of the SEC Eastern Division and in the jumbled mix to play in the BCS national championship game if they beat SEC West champ Auburn on Saturday in Atlanta, they have to balance the intense emotion of what theyve achieved already with being able to appreciate the enormity of what theyre working to do next but not be overwhelmed by it all.
They have to focus on doing the job, in other words.
If it sounds simple, it isnt. Certainly, it wasnt for MU when it was in a reasonably similar situation in 2007.
Still engulfed in the indescribable high of beating archrival Kansas to vault to No. 1 in the polls for the first time since 1960, the Tigers got skunked 38-17 by Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game.
Theres some parallels to that year, said Pinkel, who on Saturday matched Don Faurots MU record for career wins with 101.
He added: The teams are different in a lot of ways, too. I reflect a little bit on that, but youve got to deal with the team youre dealing with, you know? (And) I think our guys are pretty grounded here. Id be surprised if theyre not.
And for that matter, Auburn would figure to be just as emotionally challenged, if not more so, than MU after it beat Alabama on the last play of the game Saturday to spring from winless in the SEC a year ago to the title-game berth.
But even pondering Auburns state of mind isnt for Mizzou to muddle itself with. Any thoughts beyond that the plays the thing are just clutter and speculation and distraction and wasted time and energy for the Tigers.
Thats especially true when it comes to blocking out the implications of winning the game what scenarios would put MU in the national title game? so only all the more true when it comes to the game itself.
If Mizzou doesnt win, what does it matter what would have happened?
Its all about right here, right now, as senior guard Max Copeland puts it.
I dont care whats about to happen or what just happened, he said. Its whats happening right now.
He added: Honestly, with the energy Im feeling from everyone, last Saturday wasnt good enough. It felt great. But not good enough. Were still hungry for more.
But Copeland being Copeland, which is to say one of the most eloquent and candid athletes youll ever find, he acknowledged the psychological complications of completing what he called a grand quest.
Thats really what this games taught us: With all these eyes on you, it makes your thoughts want to wander, he said. And youve got to keep yourself in a box almost and not let yourself out until its game day. And then you can really let yourself free.
To a degree, anyway.
Standing in what he called the eye of the storm, he said, its going to be important that we dont let the surrounding energies we dont let the storm distract us. We stay in the eye, we stay focused on where we are and not try to fool ourselves that this is somehow a different game.
Copeland will allow himself 10 seconds on Saturday, he said, to honor a promise to his father to look around and drink it in.
For that matter, he hasnt exactly wiped the victory over Texas A&M from his memory yet.
I was trying to think, `Could I have dreamt this up better? I couldnt, he said, rattling off a few of the special memories of the game, including being carried off Faurot Field after his last home game. This is starting to sound fantastical, isnt it? This is like an 8-year-old playing ball in the backyard. That (really) happened.
Which is swell and all.
But back it goes in its compartment now, where best it be kept for the time being.
Im going to cherish it for the rest of my life, but you know what? Im going to do all my cherishing later, he said. This aint the time for cherishing. This is the time to work, the time to seize our mission.
This is the final chapters of our mission, and Im going to make sure theyre written well.
And give Pinkel a reason to blast Christmas tunes this year.
To reach Vahe Gregorian, call 816-234-4868 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @vgregorian. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.