It was a shock when Dave Steckel was introduced Dec. 14 as the next Missouri State head coach — not because he was tapped to rebuild the Bears, but because somebody was leaving Missouri coach Gary Pinkel’s staff.
“I’ve had five coaches leave, one of which retired (Bruce Walker), in the 14 years I’ve been here,” Pinkel said. “That’s a very unusual number. I would say it’s one of the least in the country.”
Pinkel has endured occasional staff defections — notably defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus and offensive coordinator Dave Christensen, who left for the NFL and to be Wyoming’s head coach, respectively, after the 2008 season.
Otherwise, Pinkel’s staff has remained remarkably intact.
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Five assistant coaches have been with Pinkel since 2001, when he was hired away from Toledo in 2001.
Three of those coaches — cornerbacks coach Cornell Ford, running backs coach Brian Jones and defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski — followed him from the Rockets to the Tigers.
Associate head coach/quarterbacks coach Andy Hill was already at MU, but he’s stuck around throughout all of Pinkel’s tenure.
The other assistant is Steckel, who worked under Pinkel for three seasons at Toledo and re-joined him on the Tigers’ staff in 2001 after a stint at Rutgers.
It’s a rarity in a profession marked by volatility, especially for assistant coaches.
“People in the profession are not as loyal as you would like them to be,” Ford said.
That’s not the case with Pinkel.
“Coach Pinkel treats us as good as anybody can in coaching,” Hill said. “I’ve been around a few guys and I know I talk to some of my friends that are at different places, and we’re pretty fortunate to be where we are.”
Of course, Pinkel has also benefited from the staff continuity. He believes it’s been a key ingredient in turning the Tigers from also-ran into a consistent winner.
It’s helped foster consistency with how the program operates and in recruiting.
“I know what he wants and what he’s looking for, so we’ve been able to establish our program so our kids know what we want,” said Ford, who was first hired as Pinkel’s recruiting coordinator to Toledo in 1996.
“Because of that, we’ve had success. Now, is it always pretty? No, obviously we’re still trying to win a championship, but we’ve had a lot of success and it’s been that way throughout my career with Coach Pinkel. He’s loyal, he’s disciplined, you know what he wants and there’s a lot of structure there.”
Ford, Hill and every other long-term assistant on Pinkel’s staff has had multiple opportunities to jump ship, but it’s been rare for his staff to pull the trigger and give up job security.
“The hard part as a coach when you move anywhere is you wonder how long you’ve got there,” Hill said. “It’s not like an attorney, where you become a partner and it becomes better over time. You’re always wondering if we’re going to win the next football game or how’s the next season going to be. For me, the stability has been very good.”
That stability also had afforded Hill and Pinkel’s other long-term assistants a rare normalcy to their family lives.
“I raised my family under Coach Pinkel, and not a lot of people can say that,” Ford said. “Ask (wide receivers coach) Pat Washington. Pat’s been very successful every place he’s been, but if you’d ask him whether he’d rather have the security that I’ve had and that most of the guys on our staff have had, I think that’s really valued.”
Pinkel talks a lot about family in his program, but it’s not mere lip service.
“One thing that we do here, most of our guys can get home at least by 7 or 7:30 every night and see their kids,” Pinkel said. “Most places are not like that. … We’re family-oriented here, so they get a chance to see their kids and their families and still be successful.”
Pinkel has never stood in the way of a coach’s professional ambition.
“I always want guys to professionally advance if they can,” he said.
At the same time, Pinkel’s staff has the luxury of being choosy about their career path.
Ford said he’s had chances to leave and came close “a few times, but I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve not had to interview for jobs. … I want to get myself in a position where I can be a coordinator or a head coach. That’s what I’m trying to do, but not until that opportunity comes — or the right opportunity presents itself.”
Until then, the right opportunity, more often than not, seems to be the one they already have at Missouri.
“You build it and you kind of feel part of the success, so you don’t want to leave at the peak or close to the peak of the program,” Hill said. “You’re going, ‘Hey, I’ve done all this stuff. I want to be around to finish this deal off.’ That’s part of it, too.”