COLUMBIA, Mo. — Strange but true: The Missouri Tigers, 7-0, beasts of the SEC East, fifth in the Bowl Championship Series standings, are rallying around, of all things … a former Jayhawk.
That would be Don James, the legendary coach at Washington and Kent State, the Tigers’ unofficial football grandfather and longtime mentor to Mizzou coach Gary Pinkel. Before he took the Golden Flashes to a Mid-American Conference title, before he was winning Rose Bowls with the Huskies, James, who passed away Sunday at the age of 80 after battling pancreatic cancer, received his master’s degree from the University of Kansas.
These days, blood runs thicker than Border Wars.
“That’s our family member,” Tigers center Evan Boehm said Monday when asked about James. “He’s a part of the Missouri family. And even though he’s connected with Kansas a little bit, and we really don’t like those Kansas people, he’s connected by family to us. And that’s something that we can rally around.”
James’ fingerprints are everywhere around the Mizzou Athletics Training Complex, seen and unseen. If Pinkel is the Tigers’ Obi-Wan Kenobi, James — who recruited and coached Pinkel as a tight end at Kent State and then kept him on his staff for 13 years with the Flashes and Huskies — is Mizzou’s Qui-Gon Ginn. The man behind The Man.
“You could really tell how down Coach Pinkel was about it,” Boehm continued. “We emphasize the family here, and he’s a part of our family, just like everybody else connected through Missouri is part of our family. When something like that happens, we’re going to know about it, and we’re going to pray. And we’re going to go out there and we’re going to play for him.”
As a coach, James was as firm as he was intense. He was the kind of CEO that his former players learned to appreciate more as they became adults. He didn’t care if you liked him; that wasn’t the point. The point was to make you a man. He demanded loyalty and returned it in kind.
In times of crisis, when the wagons needed circling, nobody circled them like The Dawgfather. When you ask Mizzou players about 2012, about a 5-7 record and about the criticism being flung at Columbia from all corners, they recall Pinkel offering the same kind of protection, the same insulation. The same faith.
“Whenever we were down last year, he (believed) in us,” Boehm said. “And if he believes in us, then why can’t you believe in yourself? And that’s the big thing with Coach Pinkel, you know, and I love (that).”
Pinkel quoted his old coach, consciously or unconsciously, for years. In days of better health, James would visit Columbia to witness, firsthand, the beast that his pupil had built. When the Tigers hit the skids last fall, a campaign that was marked by Pinkel’s activities off the field and a rash of injuries on it, the coach’s response was to pour concrete along the tent poles, to retrench his players in the program’s mantras, its core beliefs — core beliefs that he had inherited from James in the first place.
“We needed to get back to the foundation of what we are,” Pinkel explained.
Freshmen were re-schooled in The Don James Way. Upperclassmen and seniors, too. No stone was left unturned, no detail left to chance. In good times and bad, James was a details man. If you’re not interested in pulling the same rope in the same direction, there’s the door.
Pinkel has enough James stories to fill a book. Or five. He shared some of his favorites Monday, including his mentor’s last words to him at the Washington football offices before Pinkel flew east to take his first head coaching job with Toledo in 1991.
“Coach, you have any words of advice?” Pinkel had asked James.
“Yeah, I’ve got something that I should tell you,” James replied.
“What is it, Coach?”
“Well, Gary, when things get tough — and they’re going to get tough — when you focus on waking up in that morning, you focus on your job, hour by hour by hour. In this business, there are so many outside distractions. If you let those in, you will never have a chance to be successful.”
“There was nothing better,” Pinkel said Monday, “that he’d ever told me.”
In August, it was James who had it tough, having undergone two surgeries to try and alleviate gastrointestinal problems. Last month, his family announced that the old coach was beginning chemotherapy. At his press conference the Monday before the Florida game, Pinkel seemed visibly shaken when discussing James and his fading health.
The Tigers’ coach said he’d received word of James’ passing Sunday (“My phone went off 60 times; it just kept buzzing and buzzing,” he recalled), less than 24 hours after a 36-17 victory over the Gators.
The stoic Pinkel admitted that he got emotional when he recounted the news to his kids shortly thereafter. This time, it was Mizzou’s players who started circling the wagons.
“That was the first thing he said at the meeting (Sunday),” running back Henry Josey said. “I mean, we’re family. Why wouldn’t he tell us? We’re going to be there for him. If he needs us, he has us.”
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org