University of Missouri

Former MU football coach Gary Pinkel settles into retirement

Gary Pinkel was surrounded by family after a news conference on Nov. 16 to announce his retirement as Missouri’s football coach.
Gary Pinkel was surrounded by family after a news conference on Nov. 16 to announce his retirement as Missouri’s football coach. The Associated Press

Gary Pinkel is in for a shock Sept. 10 when Missouri plays Eastern Michigan in its 2016 home opener at Memorial Stadium.

That’s where he’ll watch the program he nurtured into one of the nation’s best storm Faurot Field without him for the first time in 16 seasons.

Tears might come easily that afternoon, but what he really needs to brace for is “Mizzouka” — the 75-millimeter howitzer, which the Mizzou Army ROTC fires to earth-shaking effect after each score.

Pinkel won more games as the Tigers’ head coach than anyone in program history, which dates back to 1890.

Former Missouri head football coach Gary Pinkel was inducted Sunday into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame during a ceremony in Springfield. He spoke about how things have changed now that he has retired from coaching.

Beginning in 2001, Mizzou went 118-73 in 15 seasons with Pinkel at the helm, including five Big 12/SEC division championships and 10 bowl-game appearances.

Somehow, in 95 home games, Pinkel said he never heard Mizzouka’s bone-jarring report.

“It blows my mind that he never heard the cannon,” Pinkel’s wife, Missy Pinkel, said by phone last week. “Seriously, that thing shakes the stadium. It rocks the whole place, but that’s how focused he was as a coach.”

Gary Pinkel missed more than cannon blasts during 45 years devoted to college football as a player and coach.

Two years ago, when he and Missy were dating — the couple was married last June — she called him to say goodnight one autumn evening.

“The trees here at the lake are just so gorgeous,” she said. “They’re every color you can imagine.”

Gary hadn’t noticed. He never noticed the leaves change color in the fall.

The time suck of recruiting left no time to enjoy winter’s first snow and spring practice prevented Pinkel from appreciating nature’s annual renewal.

Aside from occasional motorcycle rides, he spent most summer days cooped up in an office preparing for another season as life for his family and friends eddied around him.

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“Before you back away from it, you don’t realize how consuming it really is,” Gary Pinkel said by phone last week. “You’re up every day at 5:30 working out, getting coffee at 7 and being in the office by 7:30 for meetings all day long. Then, you do it again. I look back at it and go, ‘My goodness,’ but I didn’t think anything of it at the time. I loved what I did and I was blessed.”

The first few months of marriage were eye-opening for Missy Pinkel.

Her new husband was up every two hours, waking her as he obsessed about football-related minutiae. That didn’t stop immediately after Gary Pinkel retired.

Missouri quarterback Drew Lock, a Lee's Summit grad, was pleased with his performance Saturday in the annual Black and Gold Spring Game at Memorial Stadium in Columbia. Lock completed 9 of 13 passes for 134 yards with two touchdowns, taking most o

“I’ve been changing pillows, thinking maybe it was the pillows,” Missy said. “Now that he doesn’t have to think about all the ifs and buts and whats, he should be getting rest. I bought probably six pillows in the last two months, thinking that would help him get rest. We’ve determined the best pillow for him is extra firm and, boy, isn’t that a shock.”

Now, Pinkel, who announced Nov. 13 that he had follicular lymphoma and would retire, counts new blessings as he embarks on his first spring without football since he was a freshman tight end at Kent State in 1971.

“I miss the players,” he said. “Spring ball was always fun, because you can’t really win or lose. It’s just about getting better all the time. You didn’t have the pressures of the season, but at the end of the day it’s nice being out of the grind.”

Driving along Mick Deaver Memorial Drive between Memorial Stadium and the Hearnes Center, Gary Pinkel would catch himself glancing at the 40-foot picture of him prowling the sidelines that adorned the east-side expansion.

He called Missy one day in January, “I don’t know how much longer that will be up.”

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It was a rough welcome-to-retirement moment a few weeks later when he drove by and noticed it had been taken down, but there also have been wonderful moments.

The Pinkels will plot an NFL tour this summer, so he can catch up with former players who are #MizzouMade — a social-media construct that encapsulates MU’s player-development gains on his watch.

The couple also is feverishly checking off bucket-list concerts.

By his own admission, Gary Pinkel “stood up like a teenager and clapped the entire show” at a recent Paul McCartney performance.

He and Missy also went to see Michael Bublé and hope to catch shows by Lionel Richie, Kenny Chesney and Earth, Wind & Fire soon.

“I even got him to get a facial,” she said. “I told him it was good for his blood flow.”

He’s a shutterbug at his grandkids’ soccer games and an inquisitive parent at stepson Jace’s track meets.

“He even went to (stepdaughter) Mira’s dance competitions,” said Missy, a Mizzou alum from Grandview. “He’s getting a chance to do all these things he honestly didn’t even get a chance to do with his kids. It’s really cool, though.”

Not everything is cool. Picking up dry cleaning is a new experience for Gary Pinkel and he’s already grown weary of doing laundry.

“He throws all the colors in the same load,” Missy Pinkel complained. “That’s such a guy thing.”

Otherwise, Gary Pinkel said he’s adjusting well to retirement — downshifting, as he calls it — even if it was early April before he slept through the night.

“It’s gradual,” Missy said. “There was a lot going on even still in his head, but he’s slowly getting accustomed to retirement. Here’s how I know. The other day he said, ‘Look how green the grass is getting.’ He’s never noticed anything like that.”

Most things still come back to football for Gary Pinkel, who compares awaiting PET scan results to a fourth-and-1 play in the final 30 seconds of a close game.

Missy Pinkel also feels it.

“Your anxiety level, your stress level — it just takes your breath away,” she said. “You’re numb basically. As a fan, you feel it, but intensify that by about 600 times. That’s what it feels like when he’s waiting for PET scan results.”

Pinkel’s next PET scan is scheduled for early May, a few days after his 64th birthday.

Weighed against his health, Pinkel decided to forego the stresses of major-college football, even with perks like a $4 million annual salary.

Last fall was a challenging time for Pinkel. He was reeling from a cancer diagnosis and at a loss to fix a struggling offense, especially after starting quarterback Maty Mauk was suspended for the final eight games of the season.

“He’s GP, but during the season last year I substituted GP as ‘grumpy pants,’” Missy Pinkel said. “He had a lot of those moments this last year.”

Gary Pinkel understands that everyone didn’t approve of his handling of the brief player boycott in November and he’s aware that his name was invoked by a grandstanding senator in the Missouri legislature during funding hearings.

“I don’t want to go into it, but I stand by my press conference,” Gary Pinkel said. “I want to remain positive, so I will not comment.”

Missy Pinkel said her husband has no regrets.

“It’s too bad how things happened, but there are things that happen on every campus,” Missy Pinkel said. “He knows in his heart that he did what he needed to do.”

Between his new fundraising/public relations role, speaking engagements — during which he imparts lessons learned from 25 years as a head coach or gleaned from his mentor, Don James — Pinkel finds ways to fill his time.

He’s even weighing a few offers to work in broadcasting after working as an analyst on the SEC Network during the conference championship and College Football Playoff title games.

Pinkel knows he’ll miss game day, at least until Mizzouka’s first boom gives him an arrhythmia, but “I won’t miss anything that leads up to it,” he said. “I won’t miss anything afterwards either. But, boy, I loved once the whistle blew.”

Tod Palmer: 816-234-4389, @todpalmer

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