COLUMBIA, Mo. – Rumors swirled. Gary Pinkel swung back.
The sun rose Tuesday over Memorial Stadium, and the sky remained free of fire above Missouri’s football program. Despite online rumblings of black-and-gold Armageddon – one bizarre tweet had Pinkel packing boxes and hitting Providence Road on Monday – the coach prepared to enter his most crucial offseason in eight years with the spirit of Rocky Balboa.
On adversity after a 5-7 season, the Tigers’ first campaign without a bowl since 2004: “Any time you go through adversity, you grow and learn. We’ve always done that. You take advantage of it. Some of the best things we’ve done, we’ve accomplished, has been after we’ve had some adversity.”
On if there was indecision about returning for a 13th season at Mizzou: “No, no. I love what I do. I don’t know where all (the resignation rumors) started. I heard that. My daughter called me, ‘I hear you are retiring.’ I said, ‘I am?’ That’s not me. I love what I do. I couldn’t wait to get into work on Monday morning.”
On fan criticism after his fourth season at Missouri with five or fewer victories: “That’s just the business. You understand that, and you recognize that. That’s the arena we’re in. If you don’t like being in this arena, you’ve got to go to another sport or less intense environment.”
This is the environment Pinkel has created: An atmosphere of expectation, a former comatose program that awakened with three seasons that produced at least 10 victories between 2007 and 2010. Yes, a 2-6 record in the first Southeastern Conference campaign went over as well as the Rock Chalk chant at Harpo’s, especially with Texas A&M’s rise in the stronger SEC West. Some cackles are deserved.
But calls for a staff overhaul? Pushes among some to have athletic director Mike Alden swipe the keys from the Don James protégée after one dud of a fall? What is this? Colorado?
“I embrace the foundation of our program when things get tough,” said Pinkel, who’s 90-58 at Missouri.
“We evaluate every single thing we do all the time here, always. That has never changed.”
Pinkel has built enough capital to try to fix this flat tire. Remember the years before him? Remember Woody Widenhofer and Bob Stull and Larry Smith? Remember 13 consecutive seasons without a bowl berth and when 5-7 would be trumpeted as a good year?
Understand, times change. So do standards. This isn’t 2004, when an invitation to spend late December in Shreveport, La., would be reason to throw a tickertape parade on Francis Quadrangle.
Still, let’s be reasonable. Missouri isn’t Alabama or Notre Dame or, heck, even Texas A&M at this point. The Tigers must understand their place within the college football universe. They’re more Osage Beach than Pebble Beach. Pinkel has built a solid program – he ranked third on Missouri’s all-time coaching wins list to start the year – and the architect must show he can recover after a slide.
“I think you approach it the same,” said Pinkel, when asked by FOXSportsMidwest.com if he would approach this offseason with more urgency. “That would mean with success, the offseason would be a little less intense. It’s my job to make sure that everything is operating at a very, very high level all the time. … I think when you go through adversity – I always analyze everything – but I think you probably look at things a little bit tighter.”
Good, because he should. After all, adversity presents more challenge. Pinkel deserves time to show he can make Missouri into a player in the SEC East, but that doesn’t mean a study of him will stop.
He has created this standard, and it will be his task to surpass it. Missouri is 13-12 over the past two seasons. That’s not good enough for a program that began the fall with a theme of earning “RESPECT” in the SEC.
Want to be a contender in the nation’s premier league? You can’t be routed a combined 173-69 by Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama and Texas A&M.
Want to be a contender in the nation’s premier league? You can’t brush off struggles on offense because of injuries to the line and junior quarterback James Franklin. More depth is needed; freshman quarterback Corbin Berkstresser, for one, looked as comfortable as a baked ham on Christmas in Franklin’s absence most of the season.
Want to be a contender in the nation’s premier league? You must prove that 5-7 was a blip, that it was an aberration not a trend, and that the status quo will work in the new era despite concerns otherwise.
So did we see Missouri slide back to 2004? Are there parallels between this offseason and the one Pinkel faced when the program was less mature?
“I don’t agree with that,” Pinkel said, when asked by FOXSportsMidwest.com. “We knew exactly what was out there (in the SEC). That’s not it. … We were still building our program (in 2004). One thing is, we didn’t go to a bowl, and we were disappointed. And we did the same thing now as we did there. We analyzed everything that was going on internally in our program. But I do that every year. … The SEC was everything I thought it was going to be, and it was no different in that way.”
Rumors were chased. Pinkel continued to fight.
What happens next will be most telling of all.
You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at email@example.com.