Gary Pinkel is down to his last season at Missouri. Hot-seat lists are popping up, and there’s a glow on his backside.
Foul-mood fans believe the Tigers’ football program has hit a wall and they desire change, anybody to jump-start the program after a losing season.
So it was in July 2005.
As some of those feelings of despair echo in the present, it’s instructive to remember not only how dire things seemed eight years ago but the response.
The Tigers failed their first Southeastern Conference test in 2012, and their overall record of 5-7 wasn’t as damaging to perception as their 2-6 conference mark.
Four other SEC teams finished at the same place or worse, and like Mizzou, didn’t qualify for a bowl game. All of them — Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas and Auburn — fired their coaches.
But none of those coaches matched Pinkel’s resume of success, and the optimist — isn’t that everybody six weeks before kickoff? — uses that track record to project better times in Columbia.
Pinkel didn’t have that advantage entering 2005. The Tigers had steadily climbed in Pinkel’s early years, breaking through with a bowl appearance in 2003.
Mizzou started 2004 in the polls but quickly crashed. Reshaping Brad Smith from a dual-threat to drop-back quarterback was the strategic error, and as the finishing touches were applied to a 5-6 season, the coach who had made all the right moves for three years wore the dunce cap in the fourth, and enough sentiment on replacing Pinkel had collected that athletic director Mike Alden made the trip to Big 12 Media Days to publicly support his coach.
That offseason, for the first time at Missouri, Pinkel heard the voice of his mentor, Washington’s Don James, who offered an odd piece of advice when his offensive coordinator was about to be hired as Toledo’s coach.
“He looked at me and said, ‘Gary, when things get tough, and they’re going to get tough, you focus on doing your job,’” Pinkel said.
The suggestion puzzled Pinkel, who had been around winning football throughout his career. “I’m thinking, ‘Where the heck did that come from?’” Pinkel said. “Well that’s probably the best advice I’ve ever been given.”
In 2005, with Smith returning to his dual-threat ways, the Tigers capped a 7-5 season with a comeback bowl victory over South Carolina, and the door opened on a golden era — an average of nine victories per season and perfect bowl attendance over the next seven years.
When Missouri stepped up in conference class last season, the Tigers didn’t forget how to win. Things happened that hadn’t happened to a Pinkel team.
Quarterback James Franklin, coming off a solid sophomore season, got banged up early and missed all or some of six games. Among the injury-riddled offensive line, only one player, guard Evan Boehm, started every game at his position.
Even as a discouraging season unfolded without successive victories, wide receiver L’Damian Washington remembered walking off the field several times thinking the Tigers’ generosity played a role in their fate.
“A lot of people are looking at our record and not realizing we competed in a lot of games last year,” Washington said.
Well, kind of. Three losses — South Carolina, Alabama and Texas A&M — were blowouts, and on those days Missouri looked overmatched in its new environment.
But a one-touchdown loss at Florida, and heartbreaking home setbacks to Vanderbilt and Syracuse — Franklin got hurt in the first, and defensive stud Sheldon Richardson was suspended for the second — captured Missouri’s frustration and, more accurately, defined the Tigers.
A victory in any one of those clashes would have kept alive Missouri’s bowl streak, and Pinkel wouldn’t have to tap into James’ wisdom for the second time.
Still, plenty of uncertainty surrounds Missouri. If Franklin is brittle, is Missouri stronger in reserve with Matty Mauk? Who follows Richardson as a heart-and-soul defender?
On the plus side, running back Henry Josey returns, wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham should rise to the promise, the offensive line is deeper and the defense is experienced.
If it doesn’t work — if the Tigers turn another losing record and are a disaster in the conference — Pinkel’s tenure in Columbia probably will end. That’s life in the SEC.
But I don’t think it will happen. Put Mizzou down for 7-5, and flip a coin for the bowl outcome. Don James will be right again.