An absurd outbreak of injuries, some offensive schemes that had grown stale, a distressed head coach and other transitional issues conspired to make for a deflating debut for Missouri football in the Southeastern Conference a year ago.
And last December it evidently made a Grinch out of coach Gary Pinkel even though his sister was the one who married into that surname.
Mizzou’s 5-7 finish, further stained by a 2-6 SEC record, kept the team home during bowl season for the first time since 2004 and left the program at an apparent crossroads about when it could afford it least.
“I like all music, but I love Christmas music. (and) I’ll tell you one thing: We weren’t going to a bowl, and I didn’t listen to any Christmas music,” Pinkel said Monday. “I didn’t want to feel good. That’s just the way I am.”
He hardly was the only one who didn’t feel good about where the program was. Pinkel’s job was widely considered vulnerable, and that wobbly status was validated if you parsed athletic director Mike Alden’s repeated references to urgency and accountability in the program.
“Me, on the hot seat? You kidding me? Was that out there? I didn’t know that,” Pinkel said, smiling and prompting laughter at a crowded news conference.
But he added: “I’ve never, ever worried about that. Ever. I focus on doing my job.”
And counter-intuitively enough, that’s just the case, or at least the task, for Mizzou at the opposite end of the spectrum now.
As the reborn Tigers sit at 11-1, champion of the SEC Eastern Division and in the jumbled mix to play in the BCS national championship game if they beat SEC West champ Auburn on Saturday in Atlanta, they have to balance the intense emotion of what they’ve achieved already with being able to appreciate the enormity of what they’re working to do next but not be overwhelmed by it all.
They have to focus on doing the job, in other words.
If it sounds simple, it isn’t. Certainly, it wasn’t for MU when it was in a reasonably similar situation in 2007.
Still engulfed in the indescribable high of beating archrival Kansas to vault to No. 1 in the polls for the first time since 1960, the Tigers got skunked 38-17 by Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game.
“There’s some parallels to that year,” said Pinkel, who on Saturday matched Don Faurot’s MU record for career wins with 101.
He added: “The teams are different in a lot of ways, too. I reflect a little bit on that, but you’ve got to deal with the team you’re dealing with, you know? (And) I think our guys are pretty grounded here. I’d be surprised if they’re not.”
And for that matter, Auburn would figure to be just as emotionally challenged, if not more so, than MU after it beat Alabama on the last play of the game Saturday to spring from winless in the SEC a year ago to the title-game berth.
But even pondering Auburn’s state of mind isn’t for Mizzou to muddle itself with. Any thoughts beyond that the play’s the thing are just clutter and speculation and distraction and wasted time and energy for the Tigers.
That’s especially true when it comes to blocking out the implications of winning the game — what scenarios would put MU in the national title game? — so only all the more true when it comes to the game itself.
If Mizzou doesn’t win, what does it matter what would have happened?
It’s all about “right here, right now,” as senior guard Max Copeland puts it.
“I don’t care what’s about to happen or what just happened,” he said. “It’s what’s happening right now.”
He added: “Honestly, with the energy I’m feeling from everyone, last Saturday wasn’t good enough. It felt great. But not good enough. We’re still hungry for more.”
But Copeland being Copeland, which is to say one of the most eloquent and candid athletes you’ll ever find, he acknowledged the psychological complications of completing what he called “a grand quest.”
“That’s really what this game’s taught us: With all these eyes on you, it makes your thoughts want to wander,” he said. “And you’ve got to keep yourself in a box almost and not let yourself out until it’s game day. And then you can really let yourself free.”
To a degree, anyway.
Standing in what he called “the eye of the storm,” he said, “it’s going to be important that we don’t let the surrounding energies we don’t let the storm distract us. We stay in the eye, we stay focused on where we are and not try to fool ourselves that this is somehow a different game.”
Copeland will allow himself 10 seconds on Saturday, he said, to honor a promise to his father to look around and “drink it in.”
For that matter, he hasn’t exactly wiped the victory over Texas A&M from his memory yet.
“I was trying to think, `Could I have dreamt this up better?’ I couldn’t,” he said, rattling off a few of the special memories of the game, including being carried off Faurot Field after his last home game. “This is starting to sound fantastical, isn’t it? This is like an 8-year-old playing ball in the backyard. That (really) happened.”
Which is swell and all.
But back it goes in its compartment now, where best it be kept for the time being.
“I’m going to cherish it for the rest of my life, but you know what? I’m going to do all my cherishing later,” he said. “This ain’t the time for cherishing. This is the time to work, the time to seize our mission.
“This is the final chapters of our mission, and I’m going to make sure they’re written well.”
And give Pinkel a reason to blast Christmas tunes this year.