More than a year after his death, Don James’ fingerprints are all over the 2014 SEC Championship Game.
James coached Missouri’s Gary Pinkel and Alabama’s Nick Saban at Kent State in the early 1970s. He also gave both men their coaching starts as graduate assistants with the Golden Flashes.
Both teams have distinct identities, but the pillars of Pinkel’s Tigers and Saban’s Crimson Tide — who meet for the conference title at 3 p.m. Saturday at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta — were learned from James.
“I’m indebted to him forever. … He’s had a tremendous influence on me,” said Pinkel, who spent 17 seasons with James as a player or assistant coach, including seven years as Washington’s offensive coordinator from 1984-1990.
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James — a 1997 College Football Hall of Fame inductee, who led Washington to the national championship in 1991 — died in October 2013, but his influence on two of this generation’s most successful coaches hasn’t waned.
“The program that we put in at Toledo, where I was head coach for 10 years, and that we brought to the University of Missouri is the infrastructure of Don James’ program,” he said. “He’s had a huge effect on me personally.”
Pinkel is the winningest coach in Toledo history (73-37-3) and Missouri history (112-65). He ranks sixth among active FBS coaches with 185 career wins.
Saban, who ranks eighth among active coaches in wins (176 in 18 seasons), told reporters Sunday during the SEC Championship Game teleconference that he may have never even entered the coaching profession at all were it not for James.
“I never really wanted to be a coach,” Saban said. “Coach James asked me to be a graduate assistant. My wife had another year of school, so I decided to do it, even though I didn't want to go to graduate school.”
Turns out, Saban “really liked” coaching and the rest, including four national championships, is history.
Like Pinkel, Saban said much of his program is built upon pillars he learned from James.
“A lot of the stuff that we did way back when I was a player and first started coaching for coach James are still things that we use in our program today,” Saban said. “It starts with how we recruit players.”
From there, James’ influence touches almost all aspects of the Crimson Tide’s program.
“Don was one of the best coaches, to me, of all time,” Saban said. “He was my coach, had a great impact on my life. I certainly appreciate him more than anyone could know for the start that he sort of inspired me to have as a coach. A lot of his influences really affected our coaching career.”
On the injury front, Pinkel said Missouri is in good shape.
“Like everybody, right now you have little bumps and bruises,” Pinkel said. “No question about it. It’s been a long season, but we expect to have everybody that played this past Friday ready to play next Saturday.”
Pinkel revealed that sophomore quarterback Maty Mauk had been dealing with an injured throwing shoulder.
“He tweaked his shoulder a little bit,” Pinkel said. “Nothing really bad, but obviously, if you’re a quarterback and your shoulder’s hurt a little bit, especially your throwing shoulder, it certainly affects you.”
Pinkel also said junior right tackle Taylor Chappell, who left the Arkansas game at halftime with a hyperextended elbow, will be available against Alabama.
Junior running back Russell Hansbrough, who suffered a slight ankle sprain against the Razorbacks, also is expected to practice Tuesday.
Hansbrough leads the Tigers in carries (177), rushing yards (949) and rushing touchdowns (nine). He also has caught 11 passes for 58 yards.
For Alabama, starting left tackle Cam Robinson suffered a sprained shoulder against Auburn and Saban said he’s day-to-day.