Vahe Gregorian

How former Mizzou football coach Gary Pinkel found a fresh sense of purpose

Former Mizzou coach Gary Pinkel finally finding fulfillment after football

Four years after retiring from coaching amid a battle with lymphoma, former Mizzou football coach Gary Pinkel is healthy and has new purpose.
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Four years after retiring from coaching amid a battle with lymphoma, former Mizzou football coach Gary Pinkel is healthy and has new purpose.

Surrounded by memorabilia in his home, Gary Pinkel turned toward a collage of images from the unforgettable 2007 game at Arrowhead Stadium when his Missouri football team beat then-No. 2 Kansas to vault atop the national rankings for the first time in 47 years.

“That was quite a moment. Historically, that was huge,” said Pinkel, noting he’d never point to one game as his favorite memory before adding, “It’s hard to match that game, you know?”

It’s also hard to duplicate the all-consuming adrenaline flow that came with the work that Pinkel immersed himself in for 39 years — including 15 at Missouri before he retired following the 2015 season a few months after being diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Then and now, the fourth season since he left coaching, the winningest coach in Mizzou history had conviction about the decision.

“My biggest concern was if I’m dead in seven years and I was still working 80 hours a week, 40 weeks out of the year, that’s irresponsible” to family and friends, he said. “The biggest thing for me was, ‘Am I spending my time right?’”

But Pinkel, 67, who jokes that he expects to live to be 160 after undergoing new treatment in May when his cancer came out of remission, naturally grappled with the transition that first fall. Suddenly, he was confronted with life outside the cocoon he had been sheathed in on game days for 25 years as a head coach.

When Missouri opened at West Virginia that season, he woke up at 3 a.m., as he typically had on game days. Later, he started crying while out running errands.

At MU’s first 2016 home game, he had a more direct contrast with the feeling he’d long known of just being “just gone,” in a command-mode zone where he wasn’t even cognizant of people in the stands.

Vahe Gregorian

Sitting in a suite, he practically jumped from the rattling boom after an MU score.

“‘That’s the cannon,’ ” his wife, Missy, remembered telling him, noting the ROTC tradition that began in 1895. “‘Now, watch: They’ll do pushups. See them? They do one for every point.’ ”

Over time, Pinkel learned to appreciate life beyond the tunnel vision, and the freedom of spending more time with his three children and eight grandchildren. He’ll tell you now he doesn’t miss coaching, per se, and in a way he was at peace.

Most of us need a particular sense of purpose, though, don’t we? Maybe all the more so when it comes to high-energy people who’ve spent decades always conscious of moving forward.

Missing something

Something gnawed at him. He’d worked for three years as a fundraiser and ambassador for MU, given talks on leadership and teamwork and also enjoyed himself plenty. But he felt shallow and kept thinking, “I’m missing something.”

Upon some “soul-searching,” he recognized what it was: the feeling of taking care of his players, being part of their journey, and a compulsion to try to help others.

So in April, Pinkel launched the GP M.A.D.E Foundation, with its mission to make a difference every day. With input and encouragement from his creative, dynamic and engaging wife, the owner and publisher of L•O PROFILE magazine, it’s built on personal touches that go well beyond the visor he came to be known for and that looms over the foundation logo.

“Little did I know that my career would be remembered for a visor,” he said, laughing.

Gary Pinkel, former University of Missouri football coach, gives a tour of his home in Columbia and the Tigers memorabilia inside from his career.

More seriously, he has poignant reasons for the three-pronged “support objectives” of the foundation: to assist youths with physical challenges, economic and social challenges and facing lymphoma and leukemia.

The first goes back to his Ohio childhood, when his older sister, Kathy, was diagnosed with a rare neurological disorder, hereditary spastic paraplegia, that left her unable to walk by her early 20s. Several years later, when Pinkel was a senior at Kent State, he wept when his mother, Gay, called to tell him his younger brother, Greg, had the same disease.

The development had a profound influence on Pinkel, who was pierced by a form of survivor’s guilt but inspired by his siblings, too.

“I would flip with them in a minute if I could,” said Pinkel, whose brother died in 2005 and whose sister moved to Columbia in 2015 and remains his model for strength and dignity and no excuses. “She is a remarkable woman, and she also married a remarkable man. It’s really a touching story of a really neat family.”

(That includes their son Alex, the defensive coordinator at Oklahoma).

He added, “I understand the type of impact (special needs) has on a family; I understand the type of impact that has on individuals.”

Particularly from his years of recruiting, Pinkel also understands the impact of poverty. Which is why helping those with economic and social challenges is another point of emphasis.

He knows the struggle

Like many coaches, Pinkel could tell you dozens of stories about hardships he saw and felt.

About the homes where lawn chairs and pillows were the furniture, or the television was the only light for the living room. And when the father of a recruit hurried over to him before he sat down to get a gun out from under his seat cushion, and the neighborhoods where a coach might spend a few dollars for somebody to “watch your car” to make sure there were no unfortunate problems.

He could tell you a lot of stories, too, of what happened when those youngsters were given a chance and structure.

Stories like that of L’Damian Washington, the former Tigers receiver who lost both parents by the time he was 15 and lived in abject poverty with three devoted brothers in Shreveport, Louisiana. Washington ultimately flourished at MU, where he earned a degree in psychology, and today is an inspiring speaker serving on Pinkel’s foundation board.

The third facet is the one that became personal to Pinkel in 2015 and resurfaced in May.

This particular form of lymphoma, Pinkel said, “can go in remission, but it will never leave my system. That’s just the way it is.” But he reminds you that there are many forms of cancer that are much worse than his, for which he is examined every six months, and he is acutely sensitive to the reality of children with the disease.

“Can you imagine?” he said.

So he might as well have shrugged when asked about his most recent treatments, which he suggested got more attention than merited. News that his “cancer had returned,” he said, seemed overly alarmist and elicited an outpouring of touching messages that took him weeks to catch up on.

Grateful as he was …

“For the rest of my life, when somebody asks how I’m doing, I’ll say, ‘I feel fine,’ ” he said, smiling and adding, “At least I’ve got an opportunity to fight. So I’m fine.”

Helping out, 365

In its formative year, as the foundation considers the various ways it can work best to serve and sorts out all the accompanying details, fundraising has been the prime directive.

Between the launch at Central Bank of Boone County in April, a golf outing in June and the ensuing exposure, the couple in August estimated the foundation already had raised about $180,000 towards its first-year goal of … $365,000.

“Because there’s 365 days in a year, and it’s making a difference every day,” she said.

That’s with three more fundraisers ahead, basically conceived as “Game Day with Gary Pinkel” at someone’s home or in a larger event space.

“And if we don’t get (to $365,000),” Pinkel said, smiling, “it’s like going 7-5 your first year. Just be 10-2 the next year.”

Even if he’s no longer as “wired” as he was that first season out of football, Pinkel still loves game day and still feels connected to the program.

He’s been invigorated by the recent development of the South End Zone project that was his vision in 2012. Or as Missy put it, every time they drive by, it’s, “Everybody look-look-look. Look at that! Look!”

He’s also appreciated how his successor, Barry Odom, has made a point of making him feel welcome, inviting him for a tour of the new facilities and to scrimmages. With Odom recently reiterating that he wouldn’t have this job without Pinkel and Pinkel calling the program Odom’s “baby” and praising what he’s seen, it’s a dynamic that clearly is more comfortable for each with the passing of the years.

That’s surely in part because Odom has become more established.

And because — even if it’s hard to match the game — Pinkel is finding new purpose in life after football.

“I wasn’t walking around depressed or anything, but I really felt that emptiness inside,” he said. “Now I feel like I’m doing something of significant value. I’m back now, personally.”

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Vahe Gregorian has been a sports columnist for The Kansas City Star since 2013 after 25 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He has covered a wide spectrum of sports, including 10 Olympics. Vahe was an English major at the University of Pennsylvania and earned his master’s degree at Mizzou.