During nearly a decade working together under Gary Pinkel at the University of Missouri, Dave Steckel and Barry Odom developed a certain harmony with each other.
So much so that they actually have, well, “a song together,” Steckel said.
One that’s apparently so personal that Steckel doesn’t want to divulge it unless Odom will.
When Steckel heard it the other day, he texted Odom to tell him, “Hey, listened to the song today.”
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Odom responded, “Me, too,” said Steckel, laughing and imitating the voice of a colleague he loves like a brother.
As Steckel prepares his Missouri State Bears for their Sept. 2 opener at Mizzou, he’s cognizant of that friendship among numerous other relationships and mixed feelings he’ll have from the time he arrives at the stadium and does his traditional pregame perimeter walk of the field.
“I just hope the fans don’t boo me like they used to when I was up there,” joked Steckel, entering his third year as head coach at Missouri State after 14 at MU — the last two of which were as defensive coordinator of Southeastern Conference divisional champions.
More seriously, he added, “Will I see people, will I hug people, will I shake their hands? Sure. But there’s going to come a point where it’s ‘Get the hell away from me, I’ve got a job to do.’ And when that ball tees off, I’m a Bear.”
Steckel is 5-17 at Missouri State, where he’s trying to revive a program that hasn’t won more than six games since 1996 and hasn’t been to the FCS playoffs since 1990 — when that level of competition still was known as Division I-AA.
At least for playful public consumption, he says he’s praying every night that after the Tigers score about 100 points or so Odom will tell offensive coordinator Josh Heupel “to back off a little bit here.”
While the message to his players will be more along the lines of give everything you have and let the chips fall where they may, the self-deprecating poor-mouthing is straight out of the playbook of Lou Holtz, to whom Steckel was a graduate assistant at Minnesota early in his career.
But for all the key influences and stops in his career — “I stole from everybody,” he says — Steckel reckons Pinkel’s way has furnished about 80 to 85 percent of his philosophical blueprint.
With at least one stark difference: the persona that it’s delivered through.
Pinkel typically was measured and even subdued, wanting to convey cool control of his emotions.
Steckel radiates the same whirling energy now as he did as an assistant and coordinator.
The point is declared in the prominent display in his office of Popeye memorabilia, including a can of spinach and a plate given him by daughter Amanda that depicts the cartoon character saying, “I yam what I yam!”
“That’s really all I got,” Steckel said, laughing. “It’s so difficult to be me that I can’t be somebody else.”
Being him, actually, is to be engaging, blunt, thought-provoking, funny and sentimental — all long-time traits that he now displays more readily to the media than he did as an assistant coach who was apt to just stare at you if he didn’t like a question.
Now, the media is just another forum through which to get people aboard “The Energy Bus,” per the Jon Gordon motivational book.
“Because at the core of your body is what you believe that you’re doing right for the program,” Steckel said, in a flurry of words adding, “It’seasytotalkaboutthat!”
Welcome to “Stecology,” his own personal code and set of adventures he swears his wife, Mary Beth, is chronicling, a way of looking at the world that is infused with being a former Marine.
That’s duly noted with the same Marine publicity poster behind the desk of his Missouri State office that he kept in his offices at MU, underscored with the words “We don’t promise you a rose garden.”
All of this explains a certain creative energy in Steckel, who looks like he could play for his own team right now because of how faithfully he works out to fend off stress.
That spark explains the gold-painted rock on his desk, which he likes to say was dirty and muddy when he found it in Washington state last summer but turned to gold the more he worked it and worked it and worked it — and now stands for the “gold mine” he’s sitting on.
His animated imagination also speaks to how and why he came up with the catchphrase “Bear Up” that literally is trademarked.
In “honor of my buddy, Cosmo Kramer” from Seinfeld, he said, Steckel for years had used the expression “Giddy Up.”
When he came to Springfield, he figured he’d expand that into “Giddy Up, Bear Down” … only to discover “Bear Down” was an Arizona thing.
Back to square one, he settled on “Bear Up,” a term he uses frequently and apparently has applied with a hashtag to every one of his nearly 6,000 Tweets on the job.
The fundamental message, he says, is to support and encourage — something he saw illustrated in the action of former MU Tiger Justin Britt last week in Seattle when Britt put his hand on the shoulder of teammate Michael Bennett as Bennett sat during the national anthem in protest of racial oppression.
“I strongly believe in this country, and I strongly believe in the military and I strongly believe in that flag — but I also strongly believe in Justin Britt,” said Steckel, saying backing a teammate was the essence of “Bear Up.”
Steckel’s way also remains distinctly hands-on. Try as he might, he can’t be a statue.
“I am the hustle coach,” said Steckel, who recently signed a contract extension through 2022. “I like going around to all of the positions and sticking my nose in there and being a pain …
“I can’t sit back and watch. I try, I try, and then I realize there’s no such thing as a try, and next thing you know I’m in there.”
To get here, Steckel said, it had been “crushing” to say goodbye to his colleagues and players and dear friends in Columbia — where three of his current assistants played: Kenji Jackson, Munir Prince and Jason Ray.
But 57 years old at the time, he felt his “biological clock” ticking on the chance to do this.
“Five opportunities, I was the bridesmaid,” he said. “Mary Beth and I turned down two jobs because the support wasn’t right. So it wasn’t like I wouldn’t have been fulfilled if I wasn’t a head coach.
“But I wanted the opportunity to see if I could build something like (Pinkel) did. And build it like Sinatra, ol’ Frank — can I build it ‘my way?’”
For this week, though, that goes back through a place and people he’s got under his skin.