Missouri coach Gary Pinkel knows what his team’s getting into Saturday as well as any coach who’s brought a team to Toledo’s Glass Bowl.
Pinkel is the Rockets’ all-time winningest coach, going 73-37-3 in 10 seasons from 1991-2000 before taking the Tigers’ reins.
He’ll be on the opponents’ sideline for the first time when Missouri kicks off against Toledo at 11 a.m. on ESPN.
“It’ll be a great challenge for us and it’s a great environment to play in for the Mid-American Conference at the Glass Bowl,” Pinkel said. “We’re going to prepare hard and give it our best effort. … Trust me, they can’t wait — and I would like to think we can’t wait either.”
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Pinkel raised three children in Toledo — all of whom graduated from high school there and two of whom later graduated from university there.
“It was a big part my life and certainly part of my career,” he said. “I’ll always be a Toledo Rocket — not this weekend, but I’ll always be a Toledo Rocket. Great place, great people.”
Of course, it’s not just a homecoming for Pinkel. Seven members of his staff from those Rockets years followed him to Missouri, including three who remain on staff today.*
Defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski began his coaching career as a graduate assistant under Pinkel in 1991 and running backs coach Brian Jones joined Pinkel’s staff in 1992.
Finally, Cornerbacks coach Cornell Ford served on Pinkel’s staff with the Rockets from 1996-2000, while Dave Christensen, Matt Eberflus, Dave Yost and recently retired Bruce Walker also initially came with Pinkel from Toledo.
Defensive coordinator Dave Steckel, who had served as Pinkel’s defensive line coach from 1993-96, rejoined Pinkel in Missouri after four seasons at Rutgers.
* Pinkel said he consulted his mentor, Don James, about the wisdom of bringing so many coaches, particularly young coaches, with him from Toledo to Missouri. “Can they coach?” James asked. Pinkel thought they could. “Are they good recruiters?” James continued. Pinkel said they were. “Well, bring them. Take them. If they’re that good, then do it.” Kuligowski, Jones and Ford remain on his staff today and Walker was with the Tigers for 13 seasons before retiring during the summer.
Each of Missouri’s four assistants who also coached at Toledo can attest to the potential snake pit into which the Tigers are walking.
“When we played there, we played a lot of night games and all the drunks and the rowdies came out,” Steckel said. “It’s a great, great blue-collar town and it was a great, fun environment coaching there.”
Of course, as a visitor now, he hopes for a more subdued environment for the 11 a.m. kickoff Saturday against Missouri.
“Hopefully, maybe they’ll be hung over from the night before and not be as loud because they have headaches or something,” Steckel said. “I don’t know, but Toledo has great fans — great blue-collar fans, which I really like because I’m a blue-collar guy myself. I have nothing but great memories about Toledo’s fans. It will be a fun environment.”
It’s unusual for a school from one of the five power conferences — the SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 or Pac-12 — to play a true road game against a dangerous mid-major opponent.
“It was kind of my decision,” Pinkel said. “They asked me if we wanted to do it at Toledo. I thought really I’d be gone, they’d have fired me by now. I didn’t plan on being here. All kidding aside, that’s not true.”
The chances of an upset, of course, are no joke.
Under Pinkel, Toledo won at Penn State and Navy in 2000 and toppled Purdue at home 1997. The year after he left, the Rockets upset Michigan.
“I mentioned it one time (Sunday) night, and I won’t mention it again,” Pinkel said. “Now, it’s just talking about how we play … (but) they needed to understand what we’re getting into, the situation we’re in.”