Maybe you’ve been blessed to have someone in your life like this: A teacher, coach or mentor, perhaps all of those things at once, who believed in you before you knew who you were or believed in yourself.
Maybe you’ve had someone like that whose influence became such a part of you, was so present in you, that you frequently quoted them, gushed about them at every turn and wanted to please them even over thousands of miles and years apart.
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As much as family, more in some ways, that person became your audience.
That’s who Don James was to Missouri football coach Gary Pinkel.
And that’s why on Monday, a day after James died from the effects of pancreatic cancer, Pinkel stood over a podium, misted up and had to compose himself as he spoke of being a “Don James disciple.”
“He’s had just a profound,” and here Pinkel paused in pain before continuing, “influence on me, my whole life.”
A few weeks ago, Pinkel had one last chance to speak with James, who was his coach at Kent State, then his boss at Kent State and Washington, all of which to Pinkel means that it’s basically Don James’ program in Columbia that is ranked fifth in the BCS standings this week.
Pinkel broke down on the long phone message he initially left James, crying and telling him how much he loved him. When James was able to call back a few days later, James’ voice initially was quivering.
“And then all of a sudden, coach James came back: coach James in charge, and the leader,” Pinkel said, smiling. “He asked me about our next game I got to tell him I loved him when he hung up.”
Sharing those depths of emotions hasn’t always been something Pinkel would be inclined to do. And while this is a unique relationship in his life, it’s a reminder that the loss also comes at an extraordinary time in his life:
His team is back in the national limelight and, not coincidentally, several close observers note a significant change in him that has made him more emotionally accessible to his team and allowed him to be more vulnerable publicly.
“He’s happy have y’all noticed it?” said tailback Henry Josey, in whom Pinkel has shown great devotion as Josey recovered from a devastating knee injury two years ago. “I’ve noticed it, too. It’s great.”
Or as Pinkel playfully put it on Monday as he considered the fact he was allowing music to be played before practice: “What the heck’s happened to me?”
And now all these worlds seem to be coalescing:
Pinkel’s foundational blueprint from James; the program he has constructed atop that; the tweaks he’s made to the system and in himself since a miserable 2012 season and this 7-0 start that has Mizzou atop the Southeastern Conference East Division with visions of playing in the SEC title game in Atlanta and a BCS bowl.
“Everybody talks about going to a bowl game; who wants to do (just) that any more? Why would you be satisfied with just going to a bowl game. (We) see a bigger picture” in Atlanta, Josey said, adding, “Why can’t we be that team?”
To be that team, in this of all seasons, would be a tribute to James, whose fundamental concepts Pinkel said he emphasized anew after the program and even his future seemed at a crossroads after a 5-7 season in 2012.
He harkened to what James told him when Pinkel left Washington for Toledo.
As he walked out, Pinkel recalled, he looked back and asked, “Any words of advice?” James said yes, as a matter of fact.
“ ‘What is it, Coach?’ ” Pinkel asked.
When things get tough, and they’re going to get tough, James said, “You focus on waking up that morning and focus on doing your job, hour by hour. (There are) so many outside distractions, if you let those in, you’ll never have a chance to be successful.”
It was the best advice he ever received, Pinkel said, something that resonated with him as a way to filter out what he calls “clutter” and zoom in on the tasks at hand. And when it came right down to it as he sought to mend the Mizzou program
“We embraced (James’ program),” Pinkel said. “We didn’t make a lot of changes; we didn’t make any changes.”
Actually, they did and he did.
Even the more open Pinkel just has a hard time expressing this point properly, because he simply is referring to various “anchored-in” pillars of a James program, including stressing attitude and “no excuses” and “team bottom line” and focus from “whistle to snap” not that nothing ever changes.
And that was evident Sunday night, when Pinkel began a weekly address to his team by talking about all that James had for him and meant to him.
“ ‘I hope I can give you this much, just this much, compared to all that I got from him to help me as a better person and coach and leader,’ ” he told them.
And maybe that’s already happening at this fascinating time of growth for Pinkel and MU football.
“It’s the same thing he’s doing here that he was getting coached to get done. He’s being our father and a coach at the same time to us,” Josey said, adding, “If he needs us, he has us.”