Gary Pinkel got a phone call shortly before 10 p.m. Friday at the Missouri football team’s hotel in Kansas City.
It was assistant coach Andy Hill, “Somebody wants to see you down here.”
Pinkel made his way to the lobby, where Chiefs wide receiver and former Missouri All-American Jeremy Maclin was waiting.
“He came up to me and he looked really sad,” Pinkel said. “He looked at me and said, ‘Coach, are you OK?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’m OK’ and he came over, put his arms around me and told me he loved me.”
Similar relationships Pinkel shared with thousands of other players during a coaching career that spans five decades, including the last 25 years as a head coach at Toledo and Missouri, became the focus Monday during a news conference at Mizzou Arena. Wrapping up his introductory remarks, Pinkel thanked the coaches, support staff and administrators that he’s worked with through the years.
“Most importantly, the toughest thing about this …,” Pinkel stopped abruptly, choking back tears.
“The most important thing …,” he said, starting again before another flood of tears.
“Sorry — it’s my players,” he said, finally completing the thought, “at Toledo and here at Mizzou. I’m going to miss that. I’m going to miss them. I’m going to miss the interaction — being around them, scolding them when I needed to scold them and hugging them and touching them every day. That’s what I’m probably going to miss the most, just being around the players.”
Pinkel announced Friday that he was diagnosed in May with follicular lymphoma and would resign at year’s end or when a replacement is hired. Pinkel said later Monday that he would coach Missouri in a bowl game, however, even if it was scheduled for after Dec. 31.
Lymphoma is the most common type of blood cancer. Pinkel has a non-Hodgkin, B-cell lymphoma that is generally slow-growing and treatable.
After his initial diagnosis in Columbia, Pinkel received all of his treatments at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. He didn’t even tell his assistant coaches about it, fearing if the revelation went public it would adversely impact recruiting efforts.
He planned to inform his staff Sunday of his decision to resign after the season, then tell his players and then the public. Pinkel changed his plan when word of his impending resignation leaked Friday at the end of an already tumultuous week on campus, which included protests against racism that led Monday to the resignation of University of Missouri System president Tim Wolfe and MU chancellor R. Bowen Loftin.
“All the stuff that they’ve had to deal with, that’s about the last thing they wanted to hear or I wanted to tell them,” Pinkel said. “But they had to know first. That was the most important thing.”
Pinkel described the meeting as “remarkably emotional” and “really difficult,” but also expressed pride in the team’s ability to focus and beat BYU a day after learning their coach was leaving.
The Tigers’ football team joined the protest Nov. 7, boycotting all football-related activities until Wolfe resigned and graduate student Jonathan Butler ended his hunger strike.
“Although his on-field accomplishments are numerous, his legacy at Mizzou will not be defined by wins and accolades but rather the profound impact he’s had on the lives of many student-athletes,” said Missouri athletic director Mack Rhoades, who was hired last March and took over for Mike Alden in late April.
Pinkel supported his players’ boycott, which drew mixed reactions from MU’s fan base. Pinkel, who plans to remain in Columbia and also spend time at his lake house, said last week’s unrest on campus had nothing to do with his decision.
“If I didn’t have cancer, I wouldn’t be resigning,” said Pinkel, reiterating that he made the decision during the Tigers’ bye week in late October, when the team was 4-4 and long before the campus was gripped by protests.
Missouri’s players made clear how they felt Saturday after an emotional 20-16 victory against BYU at Arrowhead Stadium, surrounding Pinkel in a raucous dance circle at the conclusion of a live interview with the SEC Network on the field.
“That is a perfect picture of Gary Pinkel and his legacy,” Rhoades said.
Pinkel, who apologized for not being able to reply to all the calls and messages he’s received from around the nation in the last few days, was greeted with a standing ovation by several hundred fans and MU staffers as he took the stage. His 191 career wins rank second among active Football Bowl Subdivision coaches behind Virginia Tech’s Frank Beamer, who is also retiring after the season, and 19th on the all-time FBS wins list.
Rhoades also touted Pinkel’s track record with respect to academics, including a 97-percent graduation for the football team during the last five years.
Pinkel told his players to go to class rather than attend the news conference, which was open to the public. He also instructed his coaching staff to continue working on preparation for Saturday’s game against Tennessee, but Pinkel’s assistant coaches ignored that request.
Missouri, 5-5 and 1-5 in the SEC, needs one more win against the Volunteers on Senior Night (and Pinkel’s final game at Memorial Stadium) or Nov. 27 at Arkansas to ensure bowl eligibility for the 11th time in last 13 seasons.
Rhoades said that Pinkel will remain an asset to the university.
“We’ll make sure he’ll stay close, or as close as he wants, to the program,” Rhoades said.
He said Pinkel will not be directly involved in the search for his replacement, but Rhoades might ask his opinion about candidates he personally knows.
Rhoades said he isn’t sure how Pinkel will be honored Tuesday or moving forward, including the idea of erecting a statue in his honor or naming a facility after Pinkel on the Memorial Stadium grounds.
“We’ll find the right way to really honor Gary and we’ll do that at the appropriate time,” Rhoades said.