Mizzou's Pinkel set for one last battle at Faurot Field
COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Every garden variety senior day is rough on Gary Pinkel, who for 15 years at Missouri has hugged players coming out of the tunnel and wept openly.
Imagine, then, the emotions that'll surely flow Saturday when the Tigers wrap their home schedule against Tennessee. The coach in many ways was the prime force in the school joining the Southeastern Conference, and now he has a chance to bid a formal farewell.
Tributes have flowed in from all over. Alabama coach Nick Saban played alongside Pinkel at Kent State and remembered him as a "great teammate"
"He's been a good friend for a long, long time," Saban said. "He's always done things the right way."
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Way closer to home, linebacker Michael Scherer recalled when his mother was hospitalized over the winter. Pinkel called her and asked Scherer in person or texted almost daily to see how he was doing and how the family was holding up.
"He cares about us more than just football players, and it really means a lot," Scherer said. "For almost a month, he asked about her."
During team meetings on Thursdays, Pinkel dispenses what players call "fatherly advice."
Freshman quarterback Drew Lock said the 63-year-old Pinkel taught him to "really just be a genuine guy, how to handle myself, knowing there's going to be stressful times ahead."
"It's cool that I actually got a year with him," Lock said.
Though the Tigers (5-5, 1-5 SEC) have at least one more game left after taking on Tennessee (6-4, 3-3), there'll be a note of finality to this one. Plus, since it's a 6:15 p.m. CDT kickoff, Pinkel will have had all day to think about saying good-bye to 21 seniors.
"Obviously, it's my last game," Pinkel said. "I don't know what to think about that. I'll find out when that happens."
He's already told the 21 outgoing seniors to embrace the occasion, but not for too long.
"You've got to get back quick," he said. "When game time comes, you've got to get your head right."
Pinkel has been trying to keep the focus on the team, which is coming off what he calls its best game of the year in a neutral-site victory over BYU. That triumph capped by a joyous, on-field celebration, came a day after the news broke that Pinkel has been getting treatment for non-Hodgkins lymphoma at the Mayo Clinic since May and would be retiring at the end of the season.
"The postgame, I'll remember the rest of my life," Pinkel said. "It's one of those moments you'll always go back and look at. You're so proud of the team, all the things that went down, and they stayed focused."
If Missouri can retain momentum and qualify for a lower-tier bowl game, the school can stretch the good-byes. It has fallen far off the pace in the SEC East after winning the division each of the last two seasons, and Tennessee is about a touchdown favorite.
"We are well aware of how the environment is going to be," Tennessee wide receiver Josh Malone said. "It is going to be very unique."
Tennessee has won three straight and is bowl eligible the earliest since 2007. The Volunteers are 0-3 against Missouri since the Tigers joined the SEC in 2012.
Things to watch for in Missouri vs. Tennessee:
FROZEN TUNDRA: Temperatures could be in the low 30s, making it Tennessee's coldest game since Nov. 29, 2003 when the Vols beat Kentucky 20-7 in 30-degree chill. Since 1950, Tennessee has played in just four games when the kickoff temperature was colder than 30 degrees.
Linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin said he doesn't care how cold it is, he's still not going to wear sleeves.
"You really just don't feel it once you get going," Reeves-Maybin said. "You get cold on the sidelines but once you're on the field, you have other problems to worry about than how cold you are."
VOLS RETURNERS: Tennessee has scored on three kickoff returns and two punt returns this season, and it had two more punt return touchdowns nullified by penalties. Evan Berry is averaging 40.6 yards per kickoff return, putting him on pace to set an FBS single-season record. Cam Sutton and Alvin Kamara have each scored on a punt return, and Sutton ranks third in the FBS with an average of 18.9 yards per punt return. Last week, North Texas neutralized the return game by kicking it high and short, forcing players to call fair catches and using rugby-style punts or sky-high efforts.