Vahe Gregorian

At 64, former MU coach Gary Pinkel discovers autumn of his life

Former Missouri football coach Gary Pinkel (left) and current coach Barry Odom talked with a recruit in Columbia earlier this year. Pinkel retired as head coach last fall after being diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Former Missouri football coach Gary Pinkel (left) and current coach Barry Odom talked with a recruit in Columbia earlier this year. Pinkel retired as head coach last fall after being diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The Associated Press

In August 1961, 9-year-old Gary Pinkel pulled on football pants for the first time and was embarrassed about how oversized they were.

His knee pads drooped over his shins, and his thigh pads sagged over his knees. So he angrily stepped out to see his parents on the front porch of their home in Akron, Ohio.

Trouble was, the size was by design since money was scarce.

His father, George, was working two jobs to support the family. To make ends meet, his mother, Gay, would do things like buy jeans a few sizes too big figuring their three kids could just roll up the cuffs until they grew into them.

“I can’t go to practice like this,” Pinkel squawked.

Then his father simply said, “Yeah, you are.”

Thus inauspiciously commenced 55 years immersed in the game — including 15 seasons at the University of Missouri before he retired last fall after being diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

His single-mindedness was such, he said Tuesday at the Tiger Club luncheon at the Westport Flea Market, that he never realized leaves don’t just go from green to gone.

“Now, I actually see that they go through a color process,” he said, smiling … but later clarifying that he wasn’t joking. “That’s true; you live in a tunnel.”

If you watched Pinkel resuscitate the program and become MU’s winningest coach (118-73), you saw that insular focus embodied as he took refuge within his headset.

From that cocoon, he might look directly at a friend a few feet away and never see him because he was fixated on game management.

That’s why you can believe him when he swears he never heard the cannon that rattled Memorial Stadium when MU scored — and it’s not that the headphones were soundproof.

So letting go has been a momentous adjustment for Pinkel, 64, who said his last examination a few months ago went well and that he hopes he can be declared in remission at his next one in November.

He felt “somewhat like a caged animal” in the weeks after his final game last year before he got some equilibrium.

But even as he came to appreciate his newfound freedom and the chance to dote on his eight grandchildren, even as he was moved to call each of his three children to tell them he was sorry for having missed so much when they were growing up, reconciling not coaching on game day was its own challenge.

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.

Although Mizzou’s opener was Sept. 3 at West Virginia, he woke up so “wired” that day that his wife, Missy, asked, “What’s wrong with you?”

She knew, of course, so she tried to lighten the moment by suggesting she’d go buy a headset and cut off the wires so he could put it over a visor and walk freely around the house during the game.

That’s also why she had company over for the game and sent her husband out shopping to keep him occupied.

But on his way to and from the Hy-Vee, Pinkel was consumed with what was going on in the pregame routine in West Virginia.

“I’m on the team, you know?” he said.

On his way home, he started crying, hard enough that when he called Missy he didn’t need to tell her.

When he told her anyway, that he’d had “a little bit of a meltdown” she said, “ ‘That’s OK. I knew it was going to happen, and I’m glad it happened.’ ”

The next milepost was the first home game, a week later against Eastern Michigan. In his new role as a fundraiser and ambassador for MU, one he takes seriously enough that he hopes he can help Odom have the resources to win a national title, Pinkel roved around the stadium.

Witnessing tailgate parties was odd, he said, smiling and adding, “Now, I know they have a blast while my life was on the line in there.”

One thing he was not tempted to do was to wait for the team and new coach Barry Odom to enter the stadium on the Tiger Walk.

He’s not going to meddle with his protégé, because he doesn’t want to cast a shadow and wants him to put his own imprint on the program.

At the same time, he’s there for Odom — including when Odom asked to meet with him before the opener because he believed Pinkel was the only one who could know what he was feeling.

As for what Pinkel is feeling now?

It’s strange to not be running something so challenging and demanding and exhilarating, and he misses game day and hugging and disciplining players and the motto he lived by for so long in his work.

“We don’t waste a day,” he said. “That was our theme.”

Just the same, “don’t waste a day” has taken on a different meaning since he was diagnosed with cancer 16 months ago.

He drove home that day in disbelief, staring at his face in the rearview mirror with no words for the sudden feeling of mortality.

As he tried to process the illness that wasn’t made public until November, in stray moments on the practice field he’d look around and ask himself, “Am I using my time right?”

Even as he stressed in November and says now there are many people who have worse forms of cancer than he does, he couldn’t get away from the question.

So as much as he misses “the grind” that improbably started 55 years ago on his front porch, he knows he’s found the right answer to that question when he plays with his grandchildren in Kansas City, Sedalia and Columbia and hears the cannon and sees leaves changing color.

Vahe Gregorian: 816-234-4868, @vgregorian