Missouri's Gary Pinkel to resign after season due to cancer
Missouri's game against BYU will by Gary Pinkel's 189th in 15 seasons as coach of the Tigers. It is safe to say none has ever been played after a more tumultuous and trying week.
Pinkel abruptly announced Friday that he has cancer and will resign at the end of this season, ending a tenure in which he revived a program that had largely languished for more than a decade. The 63-year-old Pinkel said he was diagnosed with lymphoma in May and decided about two weeks ago that this season would be his last.
It was a stunning turn during a most unusual week in Columbia, Missouri, that started with Pinkel's players on strike because of racial tensions on campus. Pinkel stood by his players and kept his team unified through a couple of difficult days, but his decision to step down had nothing to do with the team's boycott.
''I felt great going into the season but also knew that I would need to re-assess things at some point, and I set our bye week as the time when I would take stock of the future,'' Pinkel said in a statement issued on the eve of Saturday's game in Kansas City, about two hours away.
Pinkel told his staff and the team Friday that this would be his last season. Athletic director Mack Rhoades said Pinkel informed him of his decision on Oct. 28, two days after the coach had a PET scan.
''I want to make very clear that I'm not doing poorly, and that this is a manageable disease, but it's one that will never go away,'' Pinkel said. ''I don't know how many years I have left, but I want to turn my focus to life outside the daily grind of football.''
Pinkel, a native of Akron, Ohio, is the winningest coach in school history with a 117-71 record over 15 seasons. After winning two straight SEC East titles, Missouri is out of contention this season. The Tigers (4-5) have two more games after BYU to get to the six wins required to be bowl eligible.
On the field, Pinkel's accomplishments at Missouri have been unmatched. The Tigers have had five 10-win seasons under Pinkel and won a division title in in five of the last eight seasons. Missouri's last 10-win season before Pinkel was in 1960.
''With Gary stepping down at the end of the season, we are losing one of the great leaders in our profession at developing and preparing student-athletes for both football and life,'' said Alabama coach Nick Saban, who was a teammate of Pinkel's at Kent State.
Pinkel's career has not been without missteps. In 2011, he was arrested for driving while intoxicated during the season and was suspended for a week by the school, missing a game against Texas. But he will also be remembered as a coach who navigated some uncharted territory for a football program.
Two seasons ago, Michael Sam was playing for Missouri when he came out as gay to his teammates and coaches before the season. The team kept Sam's secret and he praised Pinkel and his teammates for being so supportive. Sam went on to become the first openly gay player to be drafted by an NFL team, though he is currently out of professional football.
''Thank you for everything you have done for me. You gave me a family that I so desperately needed and for that I am grateful,'' Sam tweeted to Pinkel.
Pinkel again kept his team together this week when about 30 players decided they wanted to support a hunger-striking Missouri graduate student by not participating in football-related activities.
The group of black players announced the strike Saturday night, and the next day Pinkel took to social media to declare that the entire team would act as one, even though it would have cost the school $1 million to cancel the BYU game.
It was an extraordinary stand by his players that may have helped spur the resignation of the university system president Tim Wolfe. The players were credited with getting attention for issues student groups had been struggling to advance for months. Pinkel insisted he was only supporting his players' desire to help the hunger-striking student. He said he knew that not every player on the team was totally comfortable striking for the cause, but it was important that they stuck together.
''I did the right thing and I would do it again,'' Pinkel said Monday, hours after the boycott ended with Wolfe's resignation.
Missouri never did win a conference under Pinkel but twice - in 2007 while in the Big 12 and in 2013 in the SEC - the Tigers were one win away from playing for the national title.
''Can't even begin to express all emotions that I'm going through right now,'' tweeted former Missouri quarterback Chase Daniel, who plays for the Kansas City Chiefs. ''Coach Pinkel was a father figure to me....I know he will fight!!''
AP Sports Writer R.B. Fallstrom in St. Louis contributed to this report.
AP college football: http://www.collegefootball.ap.org
Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP