Missouri coach Gary Pinkel answers questions from reporters during the AT&T Cotton Bowl Classic media day on Monday, Dec. 30, 2013, in Arlington, Texas. Missouri will play Oklahoma State in the annual bowl game on Friday.
Nobody cared to listen to Gary Pinkel.
The Missouri coach, a 22-year head coaching veteran, knew that’s how life goes for men in charge of 5-7 teams.
"Last year we went into a new league, and when we were struggling, the injuries, I don’t care how many we had, it didn’t matter," Pinkel said. "It was, ‘The SEC overpowered them.’ That was just the take and everybody ran with it."
The Tigers had won at least a share of the Big 12 North three times since 2007 and played for the Big 12 title in 2007 and 2008. After the 2012 season, Mizzou packed its bags for the SEC. In the inaugural season, Pinkel was home for the postseason for the first time since 2004.
By the end of 2012, Missouri was left with redshirt freshman Brad McNulty at center. Quarterback James Franklin, then a junior, was in and out of the lineup, leaving the Tigers to depend on redshirt freshman Corbin Berkstresser to seize control of the offense.
"Our offensive line was decimated. I’ve never been a part of anything like it," Pinkel said. "And then our quarterback got hurt and he’s in and out. Combination of both and we had trouble getting a first down."
At season’s end, Missouri had lost a total of 23 offensive starts to injury, according to college football guru Phil Steele. Only five teams in America lost more.
"It was probably the toughest season I’ve ever had coaching," Pinkel said. "I don’t care how many injuries we have. I didn’t get it done. But for all the success we’ve had here, it was a very, very difficult year."
For Missouri, none of that seemed to earn much sympathy. In addition to the injuries, three of Missouri’s losses came by one possession, and five of their seven losses came to top 10 teams.
"We were respected nationally, and now all of a sudden we’re not anymore. ‘The SEC overpowered us,’" Pinkel said, with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek.
A year later, Missouri’s earned back respect with an 11-1 regular season and a trip to the SEC title game after winning the SEC East in just its second season in the conference.
It happened because Pinkel wasn’t willing to chalk up poor health to dumb luck and looked closer during the offseason. A slave to practice data, Pinkel and his staff analyzed the hitting periods during fall camp and the season in recent years and determined there might be too much contact in practice. He also cut down on conditioning in August. The biggest change came when he eliminated two-a-days during fall camp to keep his players fresher.
"Sometimes we’d joke around, ‘Oh man, I wish we didn’t have two-a-days,’ but (then he’s) actually suggesting, ‘Hey, what about not having two-a-days.’" Franklin said. "He’s really gone out of his way to accommodate the players this year, and that’s really helped us."
Along with changes in the practice schedule, Pinkel instituted smaller changes like allowing players to listen to music in the locker room before practices and allowing more time for players’ meetings without coaches.
"People enjoyed going to practice this year compared to last year," offensive lineman Justin Britt said. "It’s become more of a fun atmosphere, rather than a workplace."
Being healthy (mentally and physically) isn’t just about being on the field for Saturdays. Pinkel saw his team improve from September to October and then go 4-0 during a pressure-packed November stretch with the division title on the line. His new approach is a big reason why.
"Now did that solve our problems? That was part of it," Pinkel said. "If you go out there and you’re limping around and barely making it through practice just to get to the next game, it’s very difficult to improve."
During that run of three division titles from 2007-10, Pinkel admits he may have taken his team’s health for granted. The lesson of the past two seasons is simple.
"Do everything you can to keep your team healthy," Pinkel said.
The groundwork Pinkel laid while winning 48 games in the five seasons before the 5-7 campaign in 2012 helped the Tigers bounce back and earn the respect they lost upon their SEC entrance and flop during the inaugural season.
"There was this mission starting with the seniors that we’ve got to get Missouri back to where it should be. And not just winning 7 games and go to a bowl game," Pinkel said. "These guys are in. Our veteran guys came back last year and said, âLet’s go, coach. We win.’"
The team responded to practice schedule changes and saw the staff making tweaks without changing the program’s foundation, built on what Pinkel learned from his mentor, Don James, who coached him at Kent State and hired him at Washington, where Pinkel was an assistant in 1976 and from 1979-90.
"We worked really hard and built a lot of chemistry in the offseason. This is probably the closest team I’ve been on," linebacker Andrew Wilson said.
Tweaking the practice routines helped Missouri stay healthy and spawned some of that camaraderie with morale high despite the losses.
"And I think we were also lucky," Pinkel said.
While Missouri stayed healthy, division rivals Georgia and Florida’s training rooms seemed to have more talent in them than the actual depth chart. The Tigers’ only real competition in the division, South Carolina, upset them at home on Oct. 26 to end a perfect 7-0 start, but Pinkel’s team won its final four games to capture the division title.
"We knew our potential as a team, but you don’t really know until you get in games," Wilson said. "We started winning games and confidence and momentum grows and we kept it going."
Nobody expected Missouri to suddenly start winning conference titles after being shut out in 16 Big 12 seasons, but few thought even division titles were possible, especially in Year 2. Next season could be the first that the Tigers are picked to finish in the SEC East’s top three. Missouri didn’t reach the Big 12 title game until its seventh season under Pinkel, but division titles became the norm after it did. In 2013, Pinkel and Missouri showed that could still be the case.
"They built back that respect right away," Pinkel said. "Not two years from now, not slowly, but right away. My guys did it. My players, my staff. They did a great, great job."