COLUMBIA, MO — Here stands Gary Pinkel, signature visor atop his head, characteristic sound bites spilling from his mouth.
“I’m responsible for this program,” he says, probably for the thousandth time. “I took this job over to make Missouri a great team. Am I driven? That would be an understatement.”
In less than three weeks, Mizzou kicks off its second season as a member of the Southeastern Conference. That newness contrasts with the length of Pinkel’s career. This will be his 13th season in Columbia, his 23rd as a head coach.
And therein lies a potential rub.
The Tigers got chewed up and spit out in their SEC debut. They were injured more than any squad Pinkel has every fielded, and they finished 5-7 with just two conference wins.
Because the SEC is big and bad and brand new, calls for change rang out. Change assistants. Change schemes. Change plays. Change something. Anything.
Pinkel originally rejected the idea of switching assistants. When former offensive coordinator David Yost resigned, he promoted Josh Henson from within. Later, he slightly tweaked the Tigers’ fall practice schedule to limit injuries. Other than that, he has stiff-armed any mention of an overhaul.
There seems to be a fine line when it comes to change. Those who adapt at the drop of a hat can sacrifice success by switching directions every time dark clouds form on the horizon. Those who ignore too many signs risk clinging to a sinking ship. Pinkel is one who tends to ride things out.
“He knows what he is doing, and he believes in what he’s doing,” Henson says. “He’s not going to change course. Things don’t go the way you want them to sometimes. That’s in everyday life. But you do things the certain way … Coach Pinkel does things the way he does them because he has sat down and it was thought out. It is his experience over time. It’s proven. It’s tested. The proof is in the stats. The way we practice, the way we do things, it works. Our program works.”
“It starts with the plan and the system that’s in place,” defensive coordinator Dave Steckel says. “You never want to deviate from your system, because it is a proven, working system, you know?”
Base it on 2012 and it sounds crazy. Look back through Pinkel’s career, and it starts to make sense. Pinkel, 61, has an overall record of 163-98. More important, he has had back-to-back losing seasons just once. They came in 2001 (4-7) and 2002 (5-7), his first two seasons with the Tigers.
Every other Pinkel-coached team that finished at or below .500 got back on the winning side of things the next year. His Toledo group that went 5-5-1 in 1991 finished 8-3 a year later. A 4-7 finish there in 1993 was answered with a 6-4 mark in ’94. And the same Missouri Tigers who went 5-6 in 2004 recovered to go 7-5 the following year.
Maybe Pinkel is steering his program into an SEC he can’t overcome. But he is steadfast, and history appears to be on his side when it comes to his chances of weathering a storm.
Follow Ben Frederickson on Twitter (@Ben_Fred), or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.