There was a time when Gary Pinkel wasn’t sure he’d ever get his shot.
It seems silly now, considering Pinkel is in his 13th season at Missouri and 23rd overall as a head coach. But in 1991, he was the offensive coordinator at Washington, someone who had been passed over for the top jobs at Kent State and Bowling Green.
Then he received a call from former Kent State teammate Nick Saban — then the head coach at Toledo — that would change his life.
“I had just gotten done skiing; it was the first part of March,” Pinkel said. “I went into my office to get something, and I got a call from him. He told me he was going to the NFL and asked me if I’d be interested in the (Toledo) job.”
Saban said he couldn’t guarantee him the position, but he could at least get Pinkel an interview. He apparently did well, because when Saban left to coach the Cleveland Browns, Pinkel finally got his opportunity to run his own program. He had his fair share of success, too, as he guided the Rockets to a 73-37-3 record.
So with Pinkel’s past set to meet his present this weekend when Missouri, 1-0, is host to Toledo, 0-1, at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at Memorial Stadium, the Tigers’ coach was quick to remind everyone why he stayed in Ohio for so long.
“It was a great experience ... a lot of great people there and great memories,” Pinkel said.
Interestingly enough, Missouri’s connection to Toledo goes deeper than Pinkel. Four of his Missouri assistants — Dave Steckel, Cornell Ford, Brian Jones and Craig Kuligowski — also coached under him at Toledo.
Even so, by several accounts there hasn’t been much reminiscing in the coaching offices this week. The Tigers have far too much respect for the Rockets and 34-year-old coach Matt Campbell to overlook them like that.
“I think the players who play there have great pride in who they are and where they are from, and they play well,” Pinkel said. “They take it personal, and I think that location has a bit to do with it.”
Steckel said that message has been conveyed to the Tigers.
“The thing that gives us an advantage is that we’ve been there when we played BCS teams and beat them, so we know what they’re capable of doing,” Steckel said. “We obviously portrayed that to our team.”
Senior guard Max Copeland said the message hit home, though he’s less concerned about the staff’s previous Toledo connections and more concerned with taking care of business.
“We’re kind of aware of it,” Copeland said, “but it’s not about where you’re from — it’s where you’re at.”
Pinkel agreed and added that for all the history with Saturday’s opponent, he’s concerned only with improving to 2-0 as the Tigers seek a measure of redemption in their second go-round in the Southeastern Conference.
“I want to continue to build this,” Pinkel said.