With the Missouri football players’ solidarity strike concluding Monday, the team got back to the business of preparing to play BYU at 6:30 p.m. Saturday at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City.
At least, that’s what coach Gary Pinkel and the Tigers are trying to do.
Speaking Wednesday on the weekly SEC football coaches teleconference, Pinkel said there was nothing normal about Tuesday night in Columbia.
“There was a lot of social networking of misinformation about our campus last night,” he said. “… It’s my understanding that the campus was very calm, but there was a lot of misinformation. There was one particular person that the police caught that was suggesting some real violent things happen around here. They caught that guy, which is really good. They did a great job.”
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Hunter M. Park, a 19-year-old student from suburban St. Louis, was arrested and charged with making a terroristic threat via the anonymous social media platform Yik Yak, but MU police reported no violence on campus.
Rallies on the Columbia campus continued into Tuesday before things took a turn that evening as rumors of unrest at MU swirled.
Missouri Students Association president Payton Head came under fire for fueling a rumor that white supremacists were roaming the campus, an assertion he later retracted as university police and journalists could not confirm such activity.
Regardless, the fear and confusion that gripped Columbia was real, and Pinkel said he understood why players, black and white, might not feel safe reading the things that were said on social media, even if many ultimately proved unfounded.
“With all the stuff you get on social networking now, you don’t know what’s true and what’s not true,” Pinkel said. “Rumors could be passed around for an hour and you think this ugly thing has happened, and it really hasn’t. To me, that’s the most difficult thing. … With all the things out there, anybody could feel scared and not very secure, so I think most people just stayed in and bunkered up.”
Pinkel planned to address his team about trying to limit the impact such things had on their preparation, acknowledging the myriad distractions swirling around the MU campus.
University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe and MU Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin stepped down Monday amid protests about a climate of racism and other issues on campus.
The Missouri football team announced a boycott of all football-related activities last weekend in solidarity with and out of concern for graduate student Jonathan Butler, who started a hunger strike Nov. 2 aimed at forcing Wolfe’s ouster.
Missouri would have owed BYU $1 million if the game had to be canceled and would have forfeited the $3.5 million it will receive from Arrowhead Events for the game, according to terms of a contract obtained by The Star.
A Missouri spokesman said they currently expect a crowd of 40,000 to 45,000 but hope walk-up sales raise the figure.
The Tigers’ games against Kansas between 2007 and 2009 averaged more than 76,500 fans, and the 2008 Big 12 Championship Game loss to Oklahoma drew 71,004.
Missouri’s last two games at Arrowhead against Kansas in 2010 (55,788) and 2011 (47,059) drew significantly smaller crowds.
Pinkel took part in an at-times awkward interview Tuesday afternoon with WHB (810 AM) afternoon host Kevin Kietzman and canceled all other radio interviews that day, but he seemed composed Wednesday during a 10-minute teleconference.
He said Missouri discussed ways to show solidarity with the student protests that didn’t jeopardize playing BYU, including having the team walk through campus in unity or wearing a helmet sticker in support.
“It was not going to be,” Pinkel said. “These guys were really emotional, and they were scared. It was significant. The only way you can understand is if you were there and you felt it. … We tried to find a couple alternatives. They were very emotional, the players that were with (Butler), and really felt a sense of urgency.”
Pinkel said he spoke with five committed players in the Tigers’ 2016 recruiting class Tuesday night and received a favorable response for his handling of the situation.
“They were fired up. They were excited,” Pinkel said. “The thing I’m getting from them is that, ‘You care about your players. That’s what you told us, this is a family atmosphere and it’s obviously that you do that.’ ”
He added that some committed players said their parents “were very proud of Mizzou for doing the right thing for the kids,” Pinkel said.
Some of Pinkel’s staff heard from parents of current players, too.
“Our trainer got a note from Russell Hansbrough’s mother, and she said that she’s so proud that Russell’s there and that you take care of my son,” Pinkel said. “I think there’s been some others certainly with some other coaches.”
At least one player in the 2016 class, Hinds (Miss.) Community College safety Greg Taylor has indicated he’s sticking with his commitment.
Pinkel said he wasn’t sure how the team will respond to a tumultuous week, but he’s focused now on getting his players prepared to try to snap a four-game losing skid.
“I really trust the leadership for our team,” Pinkel said. “Obviously, as coaches, we’ve got to do a great job. … With all the distractions that are going on, those are the things that I’m more concerned about. We’ll practice well, but can we lock in and focus so we can play our best.”
Other SEC coaches who asked about Missouri’s situation professed unfamiliarity with any details, but several coaches — Vanderbilt’s Derek Mason, Alabama’s Nick Saban and Arkansas’ Bret Bielema — proclaimed admiration and respect for Pinkel.
“Just watching it from afar, I’m really respectful of how that situation was handled by him and his program,” Mason said.