In between the hoots and screams of practice, a man on the sideline shouts downs and distances into a megaphone. Helmets and pads crash until the whistle blows. Through it all, a coach stands in the center of the chaos, saying nothing but attracting plenty of attention.
David Yost doesn’t scream or jump during practices. That’s not why the eye finds him. The Missouri offensive coordinator and recruiting coordinator has long hair, professionally lightened to an almost platinum blond, and he wears colorful, reflective sunglasses as a headband.
“A calling card,” he will say later.
Yost isn’t a hippie or someone searching for identity. He’s a coach who understands brand recognition. He’s a man who has, in a game whose numbers and groupings make it difficult sometimes to be memorable, learned how to stand out. He’s different, and that’s the point.
“There’s a lot of people out there that don’t like it,” says Royce Boehm, football coach at Lee’s Summit West and father of offensive lineman Evan Boehm, one of Yost’s top recruits this year. “But you know what? Ask him, and he doesn’t give a crap.”
This year, Yost will garner more attention than ever when Mizzou’s spread option tries its luck against Southeastern Conference defenses. In the past decade, Yost has trained some of the best quarterbacks in the Big 12. James Franklin is his newest prodigy.
But will it translate in the nation’s best football conference? Head coach Gary Pinkel will be the man whose career will live or die with this move, but the question of whether Yost is substance more than style will be the thing that decides it.
He sits in the offensive meeting room on the second floor of the Mizzou Athletic Training Complex, sipping his lunch. Pineapple Paradise. One of his favorites.
Yost moves so quickly — from practice, to the film room, to meetings, rinse and repeat — that a fork-and-knife lunch is almost impossible. So he heads to the weight room each day, and someone purees a few mangos or pineapples, pours the liquid into a white cup and slides in a straw. Here you go, coach, and off he goes again.
He is stationary for a few minutes now, but his brain is still moving. He’s talking about how he became a high-level college coach — a winding, twisting road whose destination Yost himself never considered.
“At that time,” he says, “I thought I knew everything. Now I understand that I didn’t know hardly anything.”
Back in his native Ohio, Yost was no coaching legacy, the kind of kid exposed to locker rooms and game film as a child. All he knew was electric football, that 1980s tabletop game where the sheet-metal field vibrates a set of miniature plastic figures. And he didn’t play in college at Kent State and game the system, desperate to stay near football. No, more than two decades ago, Yost wanted to be a kindergarten teacher. He liked being around sports, and he began working his way up — leading a 9-year-old Little League baseball team, then taking on the 10-year-olds, then 11- and 12-year-olds. Five years of that and spending summers working with swimmers at the pool in Carrollton, Ohio, his hometown.
“Always kind of around in that way,” he says, “coaching and teaching.”
One year he mixed in junior-high football, dabbling in basketball, too, while he attended college classes. Then up to high school as an assistant, and well, Yost figured this life was fine with him. There was something pure about working with youngsters, lifting their hopes and teaching them the right way. He’d keep challenging himself, but if it ever stopped being fun, that’d be the end of the line.
When he was 24, he coached wide receivers at Ohio’s Tiffin University, and a year later, the head coach asked him to call offensive plays. It wasn’t difficult, and if he could do this, why not test himself in Division I?
In spring 1996, one of his Tiffin colleagues begged a man at church to put in a good word for an offensive graduate assistant position at Toledo, where the head coach was Gary Pinkel. Yost’s colleague got the job, a thousand bucks for the season, and when the defensive grad assistant quit later for a real job, Yost’s phone rang.
On the other end was an even voice that wasn’t interested in wasting time.
“Do you want the job?” Pinkel asked.
“Are you going to be committed to us?”
The conversation lasted maybe four minutes. That was plenty.
“See you May 1st,” Pinkel told Yost.
Yost was at an Ohio State football camp one summer, one of the many stops on the recruiting trail. Buckeyes officials preferred coaches wear Ohio State gear. Yost wasn’t interested in that. Bleeding into the background is a recruiter’s nightmare, so Yost left behind the scarlet and grey, instead wearing Toledo’s blue and gold to each session. He added a bright yellow visor.
“I probably upset the Ohio State staff,” Yost says. “ I wanted them to know I worked at Toledo. That’s the reason I was there.”
Yost was the Rockets’ quarterbacks coach and recruiting coordinator, and one job packed as much pressure as the other. After a year as a grad assistant, Pinkel took a chance on Yost as a position coach, and one reason was so the youngster wouldn’t feel compelled to tinker with Pinkel’s baby. Toledo ran Urban Meyer’s spread option — “We’ve stolen from different (teams) throughout the time,” Yost admits with a smile — and Pinkel had no interest in an upstart leaving his fingerprint.
“He knew the way I wanted it done,” says Pinkel, who spent 15 seasons as an offensive assistant. “My way works. I know it works. So I got to mold him a little bit.”
Under Pinkel, Yost paid attention to what was effective. He picked the brains of offensive masterminds and watched game film. When Pinkel was hired at Mizzou in 2001, he brought most of his coaching staff to Columbia.
Yost again worked with the quarterbacks, and Pinkel gave him more freedom. Yost found a star in Brad Smith, an intelligent player who could read defenses, react in an instant, and decide whether to run or pass. Yost later adjusted the scheme to Chase Daniel, a better passer than Smith but without the same ability as a rusher. In 2007, Daniel led the Tigers to a brief stay as the nation’s No. 1 team, and he was a Heisman Trophy finalist. Blaine Gabbert was the best pocket passer of the lot, a future first-round NFL draft pick, and Franklin is a mix of all those skills. Mizzou has had no shortage of talent at the game’s most important position, largely because of Yost’s ability to identify recruits and then coach them to master the Tigers’ system.
“Don’t tell me what they can’t do; tell me what they can do,” he says, “and then that’s what they’re going to do within our system.”
A football team is only as good as its players. Years ago, Yost decided he again needed to stand out to get recruits’ attention. Around his second or third year at Mizzou, he stopped getting haircuts. His hair eventually touched his shoulders, and he’d had it frosted. But he wasn’t finished. He wanted a perm. The problem was that the bleaching had fried his hair so much that the texture wouldn’t stick. So Yost cut his hair and started over.
“Just like you build nice facilities, you do all these things,” he says. “ Whatever it takes in recruiting to make an impression.”
Yost, 42, says he believes the surfer look makes him seem relaxed and younger, maybe more identifiable to prospects. The key, though, is making a mark, because something unusual is unforgettable.
One year at a Nike camp, during a recruiting period in which one phone call is permitted to each prospect, Yost worked the phones. He was one of 50 or 60 coaches there. He just stood there. But when Yost phoned the recruits, he identified himself by his appearance.
“Oh, coach, I remember seeing you,” Yost recalls some of them saying. “I remember seeing your shirt; you’re at Mizzou.”
Practice ends on a Friday morning, and the field is clearing. Players make their way to showers and to cold tubs. Pinkel speaks with reporters.
In the distance, Yost lies on the turf, bouncing one of his two sons on his shins as his daughter wraps her arms around him. His players care for him, too, and he has earned trust with parents and in coaching circles.
“Once you get to know him,” high school coach Royce Boehm says, “you don’t look at the hair anymore.”
Yost was elevated to coordinator in 2009, after Dave Christensen became head coach at Wyoming. Another move up is the next logical step for Yost, and regardless of his plans, this season and Mizzou’s transition to the SEC is important for his career. When Georgia faces Mizzou at Memorial Stadium on Sept. 8, the Bulldogs won’t have seen an offense like Yost’s since Florida won two national titles with it in the last decade. When the games begin, Yost will sit in the coaches’ booth and look down, calling the game the way he taught himself.
“Electric football,” he says, comparing his view from upstairs to that old game, which he still has in a box in his basement.
Yost, of course, says he’s interested to see how the Tigers stand up to SEC competition, and he wonders how he’ll hang with some of the nation’s best defensive minds.
“The top dogs in the profession,” he says. “ It’ll be fun to kind of battle wits against them.”
If it fails, then the SEC loyalists will say that, regardless of history, the spread option is an outdated gimmick. Others will add that Mizzou never belonged here.
But if it succeeds, Pinkel will become one of America’s most well-known coaches, and Yost will earn his share of attention as the man behind the man — the coach who has been with Pinkel now 17 years. Like Christensen four seasons ago, Yost will be a hot name on head-coaching lists, and maybe then the kid from Ohio who never intended to
And that’s where he stops you. He thinks of what’s important to him — those children playing with him on the turf, the quarterbacks he’s hands-on with, the relative anonymity he enjoys — and says he hopes this is the destination that revealed itself to him, years after he never considered where he’d like to end up. Yes, the man who does so much to stand out is content, at least in this regard, to remain in the shadows.
“I have no real desire to be a head coach,” he says. “ To me, I’m at the top of the mountain for what I want to do and professionally want. As long as they’re keeping me at Missouri, I’m good. As long as they keep coach Pinkel here, I’m good.”
With that, it’s almost noon, and an assistant is distributing a lineup sheet on the meeting-room table. Coaches will arrive shortly, and it’s time for Yost to move again. Time to work. Minutes are too precious to waste.
“We’re good football coaches; we’re smart guys,” he says before grabbing his cup and standing. “We’re going to be able to adjust.
“It doesn’t mean it’s perfect every time, and I can’t guarantee you we’ll win every football game, but that we can go compete with anybody on any Saturday; that we have a chance to go out and show that, what we’ve done here is special. And it’s going to continue to be special.”