The book isn’t complete on Gary Pinkel’s coaching career, but with two games remaining in an average regular season, his resignation announcement last week because of health concerns was the final plot twist.
Time for a review of his five greatest triumphs.
There have been 118 under his watch at Mizzou, including six bowl victories, more than any other Tigers football coach. The most memorable wins occurred during the regular season, starting with the opening game of his second year.
Pinkel didn’t exactly inspire the masses during his first year in 2001, but the second started with an exclamation point: a 33-20 victory over Illinois as the series was renewed in St. Louis. Freshman quarterback Brad Smith was a revelation, as Mizzou won all six Braggin’ Rights games from 2002 to 2010.
On Oct. 12, 2003, Missouri was headed toward same-old, same-old against Nebraska. The Tigers trailed the 10th-ranked Cornhuskers 24-14 heading into the fourth quarter. Then a remarkable thing happened: 27 fourth-quarter points.
Early in the game, Smith caught a touchdown pass. In the fourth quarter, a gutsy fake-field goal call produced a Sonny Riccio touchdown pass to Victor Sesay.
Pinkel said that week he had one question for his team: “When is Missouri going to start winning some big games around here?” This one sent Missouri into the top 25.
The next huge triumph would make Mizzou No. 1.
Missouri’s first game against Kansas was in 1891, less than three decades after the end of the Civil War. It was the oldest rivalry west of the Mississippi River and college football’s second-longest continuous series. The rivalry peaked on Nov. 24, 2007, when the Jayhawks, 11-0 and ranked second, met the 10-1 Tigers, ranked third.
Top-ranked LSU had lost a day earlier, so the winner of the game in Kansas City would be No. 1. Missouri was ready, jumping to a three-touchdown lead and hanging on for a 36-28 triumph in front of 80,537, the second-largest crowd in Arrowhead Stadium history.
Chase Daniel went 40 for 49 for 361 yards and three touchdowns. The Tigers needed a final defensive stop, a Lorenzo Williams sack of KU quarterback Todd Reesing in the end zone for a safety, that clinched the outcome.
Missouri moved to No. 1 in The Associated Press poll for the first time since 1960 and No. 1 in the Bowl Championship Series rankings.
Beating a top-ranked team in the BCS also proved satisfying.
Oklahoma arrived in Columbia with that tag on Oct. 23, 2010, and Tigers set the tone when Gahn McGaffie returned the opening kickoff 86 yards for a touchdown. A crowd that had been jazzed all day by ESPN’s “College GameDay” making its first appearance in Columbia and by the homecoming parade was at a frenzy level.
Defensive end Aldon Smith, playing for the first time in a month after recovering from a broken fibula, recorded his first career interception and returned a field-flipping 58 yards. Quarterback Blaine Gabbert threw for 308 yards and a touchdown in the 36-27 triumph, ending Mizzou’s seven-game losing streak to the Sooners.
“It was a long time coming,” Pinkel said.
That year marked the last of the Big 12 as a 12-team, two-division conference. Mizzou played one season in the 10-team league before moving to the Southeastern Conference for 2012. Pinkel had created a program that was strong enough to carry Mizzou athletics through Big 12 uncertainty into the new conference. Those who predicted a long transition time were stunned in the Tigers’ SEC season.
On Oct. 12, 2013, Missouri visited Georgia. The Tigers, who finished 2-6 in their first SEC season, had opened 2013 conference play with a victory at Vanderbilt, but seventh-ranked Georgia was the Eastern Division establishment.
After the Tigers’ 41-26 triumph, their first against a top-10 team on the road in 32 years, Missouri felt as if it belonged. A double pass in the fourth quarter provided the game’s biggest moment. Backup quarterback Maty Mauk, playing for injured James Franklin, lateraled to Bud Sasser, who completed a 40-yard touchdown pass to L’Damian Washington.
There were other big triumphs and several disappointing losses, including four in conference championship games. But these five rank high on Missouri fans’ feel-good meter. They were the best of times.