When Missouri lost at Georgia last weekend, the man who engineered the Tigers’ only football victory over the Bulldogs was taking in a far more exciting game. Gary Pinkel was at Arizona State, where his stepdaughter is majoring in dance, to watch the Sun Devils play Washington.
The stresses of another Mizzou loss, one that dropped the Tigers’ record to a level of darkness Pinkel had rescued the program from, were far away.
“We get out of state, out of mind, those things are going to taper off a little bit,” Missy Pinkel said of how her husband can get wrapped up in Missouri’s struggles, even if only on Saturdays. But for the most part, Gary Pinkel is in Missouri while a program he had control over for so long flounders.
The former coach has lived in Columbia for almost 18 years — about the same amount of time he spent growing up in Akron, Ohio, Pinkel pointed out. So he had envisioned continuing to live here after retirement, but he intends to someday spend more time at his home in Naples, Fla. But first his stepson must finish high school in Missouri, at School of the Osage. Until then, Pinkel’s proximity to a struggling Mizzou football program presents, at least from the outside, a unique and somewhat difficult situation to stomach.
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Pinkel avoided any sense of controversy when asked what constituted a “turnaround,” the phrase his successor, Barry Odom, used to describe the state of the Mizzou program. Odom’s Tigers are 1-5 after finishing 4-8 in his first season last year.
“I don’t really wanna go there,” said Pinkel, Mizzou’s career coaching victory leader, said during an hourlong visit with The Star in his home. “There’s a lot of pressure in this job. It’s difficult.”
With a new perspective, he can’t believe how all-consuming the profession he loved was. Asked how his job might have been different if he were to begin his tenure today, rather than in 2001, he said he “can’t imagine it being harder” to change attitudes about a program than how hard it was for him to do when he arrived at MU — though he acknowledged more pressure might exist because of the increase in money injected into college football.
Pinkel, if this must be said, has no interest in ever coming back. But given his intimacy with the program, Pinkel is “concerned,” his wife said. He cares about his former recruits and Odom, whom he recommended for the job.
“It still runs through his mind that there’s a life on the line today, that there’s kids that are going to go out (to play football), and he hopes that they do well,” Missy Pinkel said. “I don’t think you’re ever going to take the football coach out of him.”’
As though he is still part of the team, Gary Pinkel said he’s “confident, and hopefully we’re going to work our way out of this.”
He now sleeps through the night, but he wakes up wired on Saturdays. Missy Pinkel senses anxiety in him on game days, even in his second year out of coaching. He has to occupy his time with tasks before watching Mizzou play. Sometimes that means using his leaf blower outside his home.
When Missouri played at Kentucky, Pinkel organized a birthday celebration in Columbia for his wife. He hurried her to pack their car so they could drive from the Lake of the Ozarks. He had to pick up food for the party, including a cake he ordered from HyVee. Then they watched the game, which Missouri lost.
“I missed putting my headset on on the sideline, and the referee winding the clock saying ‘Let’s kick this thing off,’” said Pinkel, 65. “I was in a zone for four hours. I was gone. I was absolutely gone, and I loved it.”
It shocked him to see fans in a Memorial Stadium suite enjoy a football game. But his wife has taught him to sometimes drink a glass of wine while watching.
He found it funny to hear so many outside opinions on the Tigers, almost all of which come from people who don’t know what they’re talking about. If people ask him questions during a Mizzou game, he will answer. But he prefers to watch without too much noise or commotion around him, and he looks the same way he often did on the sidelines, with his arms crossed. When the Tigers struggle, Missy Pinkel said her husband will question why certain moments in a game happened.
“He wants everything to be well,” she said. “Praying for Barry, praying for the team to get it together. He still tries to figure out what’s not right.”
Pinkel’s friend, Fred DeMarco, compared the situation to his own. DeMarco was the founding and longtime owner of Déjà Vu, a comedy and nightclub in Columbia that recently closed. He had not owned the business in more than a decade, but the auction that cleared the space out a couple of weeks ago still hurt him.
“When they’re not doing well, it’s hard to watch,” DeMarco said of Mizzou. “It’s just hard for him.”
But Pinkel has no regrets. He said his doctors at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota have told him that he will likely have to undergo treatment again for his non-Hodgkin lymphoma, which is in remission.
He used to brag to his agent, John Caponigro, about getting to spend 10 minutes pushing his grandkids on the swing set when he was Mizzou’s head coach. Now he can see them far more often, with all the eight of them spread out among Columbia, Sedalia and Kansas City.
DeMarco and Pinkel have a longstanding Wednesday dinner date at Murry’s, a jazz club and restaurant in Columbia. During autumns when he was a coach, DeMarco said, Pinkel would say “two words and have a game face on.” Now he is far more engaged.
“I could break away from it (coaching) and be OK,” Pinkel said. “I didn’t need that to complete myself.”
Pinkel used to stand near the weigh-in area before practices two days each week, so he could greet his players, and he said he misses interacting with them the most — “hugging them, kicking their rear end when they needed it kicked and seeing them mature.”
But he declined the chance to have an office on campus, even though he has a job at the university as a fundraiser and ambassador. Instead he uses a desk just past the front door of his home, in a room filled with mementos from his career, including a photo taken behind the SportsCenter desk during a visit to ESPN. Odom stands behind Pinkel.
“I didn’t want to be the ‘hang around’ guy, around Barry, whoever got to be the head coach,” Pinkel said. “I just didn’t want to be that guy.
“Let them breathe,” he added, before reciting a modified version of a signature phrase, “and do what they do.”
When Pinkel struggled with a decision as a head coach, he reflected on his years with Don James, his college coach and later his boss when Pinkel was offensive coordinator at Washington. They rarely talked on the phone in-season. Instead, Pinkel decided what James would have done, and he did that. Pinkel just released his autobiography, “The 100-Yard Journey: A Life in Coaching and Battling for the Win,” and wants to write another book, about the system for building a program that he learned from James.
Pinkel said he has talked to Odom several times this season, but he will “never” make the call.
“He wants that advice, counsel and help to be wanted versus just offering it unsolicited,” Caponigro, his agent, said. “He’s careful to respect those that follow him.”
So, Missy Pinkel remembered, when she suggested her husband could offer to “fix it,” he told her no.
Mizzou football, she said he told her, is now “Barry’s deal.”
Pinkel book signings
Gary Pinkel will sign copies of his book, “The 100-Yard Journey: A Life in Coaching and Battling for the Win,” on at 11:30 a.m. Nov. 28 at the weekly KC Tiger Club meeting at the Westport Flea Market and at 7 p.m. Dec. 8 at the Zona Rosa Barnes and Noble.