Ahead of the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1 against Minnesota in Orlando, Fla., Missouri coach Gary Pinkel took a rare moment to reflect on the growth of his program.
He took over a Tigers team in 2001 that had made only two bowl appearances in the previous 18 years and had averaged only 3.7 wins during 1984-2000.
“I remember,” Pinkel said. “There were a lot of struggles. You’re building a program and you’re changing attitudes, and that’s the most difficult thing to do, getting people to believe in what you’re doing.”
Pinkel’s teams won nine games those first two seasons, but MU improved to 8-5 and played in the Independence Bowl in 2003.
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A five-win season followed in 2004, but Missouri went to seven consecutive bowls beginning in 2005 and now has won five divisional championships and reached at least 10 wins in five of the last eight seasons.
Still, those first few years wore on Pinkel.
“We went through a lot of growing pains,” Pinkel said. “I often questioned why I came here during those first couple years. But we just kept working hard and, slowly but surely, kids started trusting. That’s the most important. They start trusting that you know what you’re doing and that you care about them. As soon as that happens, you get some ownership, and then slowly it changes.”
Most recruits the Tigers talk to these days only know about the program’s renaissance.
Missouri is a consistent winner, regularly churns out NFL talent, including a boatload of first-round picks, and also ranks near the top of the NCAA with its academic record.
Pinkel still holds those first few teams, which helped lay the foundation for brighter days, in high regard.
“I’m very indebted to all the players that stuck with us in the very beginning, in 2001 when we started building this program,” Pinkel said. “A lot of guys left the program, but some guys hung in there and kept battling. Finally, in 2003, we went to our first bowl and it slowly started changing.”
Pinkel admits he probably doesn’t take enough time to enjoy MU’s rise to prominence. He never watches replays of games, including the 2014 Cotton Bowl win against Oklahoma State.
“Right now, I know what’s going to be hanging up there,” Pinkel said, pointing to the east wall of the Devine Pavilion practice facility.
He knows by the spring there will be a 2014 SEC East division championship banner and a 2015 Citrus Bowl banner.
“I’m already thinking about what are going to do on that next slot up there,” Pinkel said. “I stay out in front of everything. I don’t really look back at stuff very often.”
Still, he’s appreciative and grateful for the time with the Tigers and is pleased with what he and his staff have accomplished in the last 14 seasons.
“I feel very fortunate,” Pinkel said. “I’ve had opportunities to leave, but I just want to be here.”