COLUMBIA, Mo. – Gary Pinkel watches the energy grow before him, an eager mix of screams and high-fives in the end zone a few yards away. A program’s evolution is found in moments like this, on a practice field at the start of a session in building toward a new beginning, and the veteran coach prepares to lead.
It’s a recent Friday morning, and Pinkel jogs toward the opposite end of the field with his players close by. For the 12th-year Missouri coach, there is comfort in the routine another season provides. He has fielded questions about the Southeastern Conference transition since last November – Will the Tigers be competitive? How much of an adjustment will there be? – but now his program stands one month from its new reality.
“There are a lot of things we haven’t done, haven’t accomplished,” Pinkel says. “This year, it’s magnified a little bit because we’re going to a different league. We’ve got a lot to prove, and we need to focus on what we need to do, and all that will take care of itself.”
The mission has a dual focus. Much attention has been paid to challenges players will face in Missouri’s first SEC season, but Pinkel will confront an adjustment in the next three months as well.
He has guided the Tigers to 48 victories in the past five seasons, seven consecutive bowl berths and at least a share of three Big 12 North titles since 2007. But the SEC move represents a test in his growth as a leader.
Some around the Don James protégée call him the program’s “CEO,” a strong observer and a meticulous man of preparation who manages with a top-down approach. He will rely on past habits to guide Missouri into the future.
“You’re always on the cutting edge of trying to make yourself better,” Pinkel says.
Work is ongoing. Pinkel weaves through stretch lines at the recent practice, scanning players through thin sunglasses. Strength coach Pat Ivey shouts commands, and Pinkel watches the collection of talent scattered before him that will shape Missouri’s early SEC reputation.
“Cross it over,” Ivey says. “Begin!”
Pinkel finds excitement in beginnings, a feeling that has remained unchanged since he served as a rookie coach at Toledo in 1991. Earlier in the recent week, before the Tigers’ first preseason workout, Pinkel told his daughter, Erin, that he carried the same enthusiasm for the fall – now 158 victories into his career – as he did as an unproven leader in the Mid-American Conference.
There are parallels between early obstacles Pinkel faced and the situation the 60-year-old lives as an SEC newcomer. This offseason has included a sense of renewal within his program: New uniforms were showcased, new turf was spread at Memorial Stadium and a new theme has been prominent in the Tigers’ workouts before their season opener against Southeastern Louisiana on Sept. 1.
Pinkel and his assistants have worn T-shirts that read, “RESPECT” below an SEC logo. Many pundits have pegged the Tigers as middling SEC East finishers. Some have slotted them as low as sixth in the seven-team division.
“Our players have a lot of pride in who they are,” Pinkel says. “You hear a lot about the SEC and what a great league it is, which it is. I think they feel challenged a little bit. I don’t think you have to say a whole lot.”
Leading by action rather than words has been a trait of the Pinkel era. Junior quarterback James Franklin says consistency will be part of any success Missouri achieves in its first SEC season. To him, the Tigers must keep what made them one of the Big 12’s top contenders during the past half decade – a flashy, spread offensive threat and a group that relies on an aggressive defensive front to create pressure.
Franklin smiles as he talks. He knows Missouri must preserve its identity.
“We’ve got a lot of questions like, ‘Hey, we’re a spread-offense team, but are we going to switch to the Power-I once we’re in the SEC?’ I think the challenge for (coaches) is going to try to remain the same as a spread offense – and on defense, keep doing their defensive schemes,” Franklin says. “But for the most part, (the challenge is) staying the same of how we have been and making adjustments accordingly.”
Senior wide receiver T.J. Moe considers Pinkel ready for the task. An O’Fallon, Mo., native, he grew up a Tigers fan and followed the program’s rise under the coach. Missouri had one season of at least eight victories in Pinkel’s first five years in the Big 12, before beginning a streak of six consecutive campaigns with at least eight triumphs. Consider: LSU, Oklahoma, USC, Virginia Tech and West Virginia are the only other programs in BCS automatic-qualifying conferences to match the feat.
Moe says the coach’s steady demeanor will continue in the SEC. Evolution has been part of life under Pinkel, and the reputation could extend with a new conference home.
“He has built this program from the ground up,” Moe says. “He has stayed pretty consistent. We always evolve and do things as we learn to get better. … I wouldn’t say he has changed in any which way.”
Perhaps Pinkel’s ability to stay true to himself will be the most revealing part of his leadership during the upcoming campaign: Will he keep an approach that became the program’s identity in the Big 12? Will he adjust if the Tigers suffer a midseason slide? Will he develop a completely different style by the end of the fall?
For now, evolution continues in Missouri’s season of new beginnings, but Pinkel insists his approach will remain constant. He walks from the field after the recent practice, with his white “RESPECT” T-shirt damper than it was at the start of the session. He insists nothing about him will change.
“I just go through every year the same,” he says with a slight laugh.
It’s a year that offers opportunity as well as challenge. It’s not unlike the season Arkansas faced in 1992, when it went 3-7-1 in its first SEC campaign. Or the 5-6 record that South Carolina posted the same year as a new SEC member. Neither program won more than seven games in a season until the Razorbacks went 8-5 in 1995, and the Gamecocks failed to win at least eight in a single year until going 8-4 in 2000.
“Football is football,” former Arkansas coach Jack Crowe told FOXSportsMidwest.com during a conversation about recruiting in January. “Don’t spend your time proving you can match what they have in the SEC. If you’re going to be in the SEC, you better be in the SEC.”
Despite that tall task, some around Pinkel see potential. Offensive coordinator David Yost followed the coach to Missouri from Toledo before the 2001 season, and he compares the staff’s SEC move to beginning their tenures in Columbia, Mo., with each returning player from their previous stop.
That fact offers some comfort. Yes, Pinkel will experience change in this season of firsts with a schedule that includes powers like Georgia and Alabama. But a new era’s foundation already is seen in small moments this month, like a cluster of players chatting under a tent after the recent practice.
“In your career path, you say, ‘I’d like to coach at that level,'” Yost says of the SEC. “Well, we get to do that without having to change jobs, because we get to take all our players with us. It would be like coming here from Toledo and taking all our players from Toledo. It’s a lot easier transition that way than it is going in and trying to fix all the things because you’re coming in to take over a program.”
And how will Pinkel’s leadership style affect the transition?
“He coaches the coaches,” Yost continues. “That’s his deal. He empowers his coaches to do their job at the highest level there is. He’s not a micromanager. He expects that I’m going to coach the quarterbacks to the best of my ability as good as anybody in the country. I feel, from him, that’s my job to get that done. That’s what drives me to work in the offseason to become a better coach and all the things we try to do to become better teachers, better coaches, better people for our players to follow.”
Missouri will follow wherever Pinkel leads. There are many things the Tigers haven’t accomplished, but there are just as many reasons to evolve in their first SEC year.