Mizzou's Robin Pingeton puts family at the center of her life
“No Limits” is the name of Robin Pingeton’s boat, a Sea Ray 250 SLX docked at the Lake of the Ozarks.
The name could have been inspired by many aspects of — or aspirations for — her life, and it’s now a family mantra that husband Rich says they try to apply to everything they do.
Certainly, the motto speaks to how the Missouri women’s basketball coach with an irrepressible will navigated her way from the family farm and salvage yard in Iowa to become coach of the year in the Southeastern Conference a year ago — notably as voted by her peers even as South Carolina and Mississippi State were on course to meet in the national title game.
That mindset says something, too, about how her 15th-ranked program (19-5) keeps making fresh and even unprecedented strides, like winning at least one game in successive NCAA tournaments for the first time in school history as it seeks to establish itself as a tournament threat this season and beyond.
The notion also stands for how she views her true role as a coach, a snapshot of which could be seen last summer when she took the court with players a day after the death in a farm accident of her 79-year-old father, Arlo Becker, an iconic Iowa race driver and frequent visitor to Columbia.
“It’s life, and you’ve got to handle it. And you want to show strength to your players, just because they’re going to go through it at some point, too,” she said in a recent interview in her office, adding, “And probably at that point, I needed them more than they needed me. They’re a part of my family, too.”
All of that is testament to a way of life long in the making.
But none of it quite explains the real meaning of “No Limits” to the Pingetons … and the impact that revelation has had on them.
That spirit was awakened within them in 2011 about a week after she gave birth to their youngest son, Zach, who has born with Down syndrome and now is a kindergartner in the Columbia public school system taking 80 percent mainstream classes.
“Our worlds got rocked for a minute,” she said. “It wasn’t what we had planned for, it wasn’t what we prepared for, and we went to a pretty dark place …And then after about a week, Rich and I took all the information they gave us on Down syndrome and we threw it in the garbage.
“And we said, ‘You know what, nobody’s going to tell us what this little guy is going to be like, and we’re not going to put limits on him.’”
Turns out sweet Zach has made others think about their own previous limits instead.
“I’m learning a lot from him, and that’s good. I need to learn more from him,” she said. “This little guy is an incredible gift, and he’s a rock star.”
In fact, Zach and his older brother, Blake (11), are treated like that by Pingeton’s team of “older sisters” — not to mention the boys’ cousin Cierra Porter, who like injured teammate Bri and brothers Michael Jr. and Jontay on the men’s team are the children of Pingeton’s sister, Lisa.
Cierra has seen a new sort of tenderness the last few years in Aunt Robin, who likes to talk about how everyone has a journey and this season has urged players to be more “vulnerable” so their relationships can be more real and lasting and, sure, translate in their play, too.
“I’ve seen so much growth in my aunt — or my coach — because of him in just the way she sees life, her perspective and the way she has so much gratitude for everything,” Cierra Porter said. “She’s changed because of him, and that impacts every single one of us girls because she teaches us those things. So his impact already has been far-reaching.”
While the Pingetons recognize they have financial resources not everyone does, they also hope others encountering similar special challenges can take heart in what they’ve learned.
“Just because somebody says one thing doesn’t mean you have to agree,” Rich Pingeton said. “Don’t put parameters on anything. There are a lot of resources out there for people to use.”
He added, “It’s a mindset.”
Once they went through a form of mourning and purged their disbelief and looked themselves in the mirror, they came to this:
“It happened for a reason, and the big guy upstairs wouldn’t give us anything we couldn’t handle, and it made us stronger and it made us closer,” Rich Pingeton said, later adding, “We would never wish anyone to have a disability, but there are lot of positives that come out of a situation like this.”
Determined to do all in their power to give Zach every opportunity in life, they soon turned to a multi-faceted therapy approach: physical therapy and speech therapy and occupational therapy and horseback riding, with its numerous benefits.
“Anything and everything we could,” Rich Pingeton said.
Added Robin: “It was stuff you wouldn’t even imagine at that age.”
Like Zach from an early age drinking through small coffee straws instead of regular straws to strengthen muscle tone in his mouth to prepare for speech later, and working on using just two fingers to pick things up to exercise his dexterity.
Like learning to roll him over on his side and apply pressure through his shoulder down to the hip so that it “fires the muscles.”
Like having him listen to music or reading to him, which dynamite big brother Blake is happy to do himself when the two aren’t busy shooting hoops, or playing Wiffle ball, wrestling or just tackling each other.
For the first couple of years, learning how to address all this meant about two-and-a-half hours out of most days when both parents attended therapy with Blake.
To make it work, Robin Pingeton would come in to work extra early and go back to the office late to make up for time missed.
“You just can’t be in this profession and miss two-and-a-half hours of work in a day,” she said. “But it was important that we were learning as he was learning, so we could apply those things at home.”
Home has always provided the foundation for Robin Pingeton, who grew up helping tend chicken, sheep and cattle and working in the salvage shop and traveling with family around Iowa on the racing circuit.
They’d put on demolition derbies and tractor pulls and stock-car races and chant for their father: “Who is groovy? Who is great? Arlo Becker, 88,” Pingeton told me with a certain delight soon after she took over at MU in 2010.
That background helps account for the maturity and versatility and work ethic she had as an athlete (NAIA All-America in basketball and softball at St. Ambrose) who became a 23-year-old head coach at her alma mater, where no task was too big or beneath her on the way to a 194-76 record over eight seasons.
She later revived a struggling Illinois State program (144-81) before coming to Mizzou and doing more of the same (142-105).
But any time you talk to her, from her first year at MU to now, you’re struck by her sincerity in general, and in particular how this job is about so much more to her than results on the court — win or lose.
“I take that responsibility very seriously in terms of showing players you can have it all,” she said. “You can have a career, you can have a family.”
Some coaches preach “family” and relationships, with no volition behind it.
Pingeton lives and breathes that. She always has.
But all the more so since Zach inspired Pingeton and her husband to identify “No Limits” for their own journey.