Missouri junior linebacker Michael Scherer’s mother, Dori, spent a week in a St. Louis hospital last winter.
“Every day, (Tigers coach Gary Pinkel) was texting me and calling me, asking me how she was doing, how I was doing if he saw me around,” Scherer said. “For almost a month, he asked about her.”
That might be expected of any coach, but Pinkel didn’t stop there.
“He actually got ahold of my mom and told her that he was thinking about her,” Scherer said. “He cares about us more than just football players on the field. It really means a lot to everyone in this building.”
Talk to Missouri players, past and present, and most of them have similar stories about Pinkel’s compassion.
As much as anything the Tigers accomplished on the field during the last 15 seasons, in the players’ minds, that’s what defines Pinkel’s legacy as he prepares to coach at Memorial Stadium for the final time at 6:15 p.m. Saturday against Tennessee.
Pinkel, 63, announced Nov. 13 that he has follicular lymphoma and would resign after the season.
He owns the most coaching victories at Missouri with 118 and ranks 19th in the Football Bowl Subdivision with 191 career wins, including his 10 seasons at Toledo.
The Tigers are a win away from an 11th bowl appearance under Pinkel, who also has won five division titles since 2007.
“I don’t see how they can’t build a statue of him,” Chiefs quarterback and Missouri career passing leader Chase Daniel said. “... I didn’t know that Mizzou was a program before I got recruited there. Now, it’s a national program, it’s in the SEC, everybody knows about Missouri and the program can sort of recruit itself. That’s what Gary built. He didn’t help build it, he built it into the powerhouse it is today.”
Those who remember the lean years after Warren Powers’ departure in 1984 probably best understand the transformation Pinkel embodies.
“To see what he’s done here at Mizzou and kind of changed the whole culture, it’s unbelievable to me,” said offensive line coach A.J. Ricker, who played at Missouri from 2000-2003 and returned to the program as an assistant two years ago. “My last year, we finally went to the Independence Bowl, had eight wins and felt really good about it. But to say you’d be a top program, one of the top programs in the nation, it was just hard for me to believe that.”
Still, focusing strictly on the on-field superlatives misses the point a bit.
“Certainly, that’s part of his legacy, but I think more than anything his legacy has been his leadership for this university — the leadership of young men and developing young men,” Missouri athletic director Mack Rhoades said. “Maybe that’s not as sexy as talking about the wins and losses, but that’s really his legacy and that’s why all of us do this.”
Pinkel’s record isn’t spotless.
Redshirt freshman linebacker Aaron O’Neal’s death in July 2005 during a voluntary workout remains a dark day, as does Pinkel’s November 2011 arrest for drunken driving.
Pinkel was slow to respond after star running back Derrick Washington was accused of sexual assault in October 2008. It wasn’t until another investigation into a separate incident in June 2010 that Pinkel dismissed Washington from the team.
That’s juxtaposed against Pinkel’s handling of the locker room when Michael Sam announced to teammates before the 2013 season that he is gay. And some of his players showed appreciation and affection after he supported a player boycott amid protests against racism on MU’s campus earlier this month.
“I’m going to miss him a lot,” said sophomore safety Anthony Sherrils, a Hogan Prep graduate. “It’s rare to find a coach that cares about his players that much, when he separates the game from the individual relationships. … He’s the man. He cares about the players, he cares about Mizzou and he’s willing to lose everything for it.”
Pinkel’s affinity for Don James stories is legendary. Pinkel played for James at Kent State, spent 13 seasons on his staff at Washington and based his own program off the lessons learned during those stops.
Senior center Evan Boehm and Scherer are among those who candidly admit they’ll be quoting Pinkel tales as liberally as he cites James.
“I know I’ll be telling my kids Coach Pinkel stories,” Scherer said. “I know it. The good old back-in-the-day stories.”
The fatherly advice Pinkel dispensed during Thursday meetings this season resonate with Missouri’s players as much as the dance circle they formed around him last week at Arrowhead Stadium after beating BYU on the day after his resignation announcement.
“Finish — finish everything that you do in your life and do it with enthusiasm, do it with happiness and joy in your heart to go out there and do the things that you love,” Boehm said.
Pinkel morphed from a robotic disciplinarian in his early years at Missouri, but some things never changed.
“It’s still all about discipline, but he’s really opened up,” Ricker said. “... I still respect him just like when I played for him. That’s still Coach to me.”
Some might argue, and with merit, Dan Devine remains the greatest game coach in Missouri football history, but it’s hard to argue anyone was more important to the program than Pinkel.
“He’s won 118 games in 15 years,” Missouri associate head coach/quarterbacks coach Andy Hill said. “The last eight have been pretty special, not only the players we’ve had and the quality of player we’ve had, but the winning and getting guys degrees. It’s a whole new standard. Certainly, it’s going to be difficult for whoever’s going to be sitting in his chair next time to uphold this and repeat this.”
That’s especially true on the recruiting trail, where Missouri and Pinkel are synonymous in the minds of today’s players.
“Coach Pinkel is definitely the face of Missouri,” freshman quarterback and Lee’s Summit graduate Drew Lock said. “You honestly can’t even truly put into words what it means to this program. … When I think of Mizzou, I think of Coach Pinkel, and I think that’s what the majority of the state and even the country will do.”
Truth be told, Pinkel wasn’t ready for the journey to end, but spending time with his family and enjoying the fruits of his labors at Missouri became more important than the grind of football when confronted with his mortality after May’s cancer diagnosis.
“If I didn’t have cancer, I wouldn’t be doing this,” he said. “... I still love it. I loved last week’s game. Obviously, when you win, it feels a lot better. But for all the reasons — timewise, the hours that you put in if you really want to be good at this, you’ve really got to invest — I need a change of pace here.”
After 15 seasons, it’s Pinkel’s turn to go choose a white rock from the painted “M” outside the north end zone and get carried off the field, a Senior Night tradition for the Tigers’ players.
“I don’t mind sharing the spotlight,” senior wide receiver Wesley Leftwich said. “If anything, it makes it a little more memorable. … He should take as many rocks as he wants. He should take the whole thing.”
Tennessee at Missouri
Kickoff: 6:15 p.m. Saturday, Memorial Stadium, Columbia (ESPN2)
Gary Pinkel by the numbers
191 Career wins as a head coach, which ranks 19th in the Football Bowl Subdivision and is second among active coaches (Virginia Tech’s Frank Beamer, 235)
118 Career wins at Missouri, most in program history
73 Career wins at Toledo, most in program history
3 Southeastern Conference coaches with most wins at two programs (Pinkel, Bear Bryant, Steve Spurrier)
.637 Career winning percentage with 191-108-3 overall record
5 Number of 10-win seasons for MU under Pinkel
1 Number of 10-win seasons in MU’s previous 110 years (Dan Devine, 11-0 in 1960)
25 Seasons as a head coach, including 10 at Toledo and the last 15 at Missouri
18 Winning seasons, entering 2015
11 Bowl games, including 10 at Missouri and seven in a row from 2005-2011
7-4 Career bowl record, including a 6-4 mark at Missouri
5 Division championships (Big 12 North, 2007, 2008, 2010; SEC East, 2013, 2014)
2 Conference coach of the year awards (Big 12, 2007; SEC, 2014)
2 Cotton Bowl titles in 2007 and 2013, capping 12-2 seasons
7 First-round NFL Draft picks
32 Total NFL Draft picks, 2002-2015
10 Missouri All-Americans under Pinkel, including Jeremy Maclin, two school’s only two-time All-American
664 Offensive touchdowns for Missouri under Pinkel
5,754 Total points scored by Missouri under Pinkel
78,184 Total offense yards under Pinkel, equaling nearly 44 1/2 miles (roughly the distance from Liberty to Gardner on Interstate 35)