|Pinkel knows Missouri needs to upgrade if it wants to be competitive in the rugged SEC. (US Presswire)|
COLUMBIA, Mo. -- The big paw reached between the closing elevator doors. At the height of his power, Bear Bryant perhaps could have parted seas. For Gary Pinkel, this simple act was impressive enough.
"All the sudden a hand went up ... and he walked in with a couple of entourage people," Pinkel said, remembering a day more than 30 years ago. "I introduced myself to him. He said, 'You're one of Donnie's boys.'"
At that moment, the man who would eventually become Missouri's coach felt like he had become one of Bear's made men. The chance meeting came at the coaches' convention where annually the great, near-great and anonymous mix in a cauldron of lobby waving, schmoozing and clinics.
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As a 29-year-old University of Washington assistant for Don James, Pinkel hit the bump-into jackpot. He was made aware of an inner circle that he never knew existed. Champions roll with champions.
"We never called Coach James 'Donnie,'" Pinkel said. "We went up two floors and it stopped. He walked out, turned around, looked at me and said, 'Make sure you tell Donnie, the Bear said hello.'"
A few months later Bear Bryant had passed, but the moment hadn't.
"It was the last convention he went to," Pinkel said solemnly. "I got to shake his hand."
Three decades later, the words on an office paper weight still recall that chance meeting.
I ain't nothin' but a winner -- Bear Bryant
Before last fall, Pinkel's paper weight might have gone unnoticed. Now it is a reminder that Missouri is in college football's inner circle. The grand transition to the SEC has begun. The state school from a Civil War border state is in the process of cutting ties with the Big 12, a conference in which it has played in some configuration since 1907. This week's Big 12 basketball tournament marks another stage in that long, sad -- at times contentious -- goodbye.
If nothing had happened in the realignment merry-go-round, Missouri still has never been hotter. Enrollment is booming. The basketball program is in the top 10. The signing of the nation's football No. 1 recruit -- Dorial Green-Beckham -- sent a couple of messages. A potential star, sure, but already a sign to the rest of the SEC that Missouri has come to play big-boy football.
"We're getting [recruiting interest from] the best in the nation now," Pinkel said.
As tough as the decision to leave was, this is the way the end had to be. A whole lot of hell before bliss. Missouri has made a lifetime decision to go South and East for what seems like a forever marriage.
Six months from the kickoff of the first season in the SEC, Pinkel knows there is a standard to meet. The stadium will eventually have to grow and get prettier. The 80-yard indoor facility must be expanded to 100 yards. He would like a stand-alone football office.
The city itself might have to build more hotels to accommodate big-boy football. That's based on the early ticket interest for the Georgia and Alabama home games. Some of those SEC standards were made clear to the administration when they asked the coach's opinion of the move.
Great, Pinkel said, but either go strong or go home. A man who shares Midwestern sensibilities with his constituents, made his bones on the West Coast with James and shares a non-BCS alma mater with Nick Saban (Kent State), must change homes. Quickly. Successfully. Now.
"This, to me, is Missouri's shot," said Pinkel, now 59. "You want to be significant in that league? There's never been a better opportunity to make the move. Now we have to do it."
For the Missouri Tigers, their paw has reached between the doors. The elevator to the top of the best football conference in the country awaits.
Football drives the bus
Leaning back in his office chair, Pinkel is saying it without saying it. None of this would have been possible without success in football. His success. The greatest coaches in Missouri history are considered Dan Devine and Don Faurot. Faurot put the school on the map by playing a series of high-profile guarantee games for financial reasons in the 1940s and '50s. Oh yeah, he also invented the Split T formation.
Devine, the future Packers and Notre Dame coach, won 92 games here in 13 seasons, including 77 in the '60s. During that decade, Mizzou was the only program in the country to lose no more than three games in a season.
If Missouri succeeds in the SEC, Pinkel will leave a legacy that could top both local legends. In his 12th year, Missouri is back to enjoying consistent success. Since 2007, it is 48-19 -- a better record in that span than Auburn, South Carolina, Arkansas and Georgia. Since 2006, Missouri is one of six BCS schools to win at least eight games each season. The only SEC program on that list is LSU.
In '07, the Tigers were ranked No. 1 for a week and came within a game of playing for the national championship.
So the potential is there, just as it is for stagnation. There have been seven consecutive bowls. Pinkel (85 wins at Missouri) needs just 16 wins to overtake Faurot's school record of 100. The program has been more than competitive with the SEC, going 19-8-1. Its only losing record is against Kentucky and Georgia.
But the program hasn't won an outright conference title since 1960. They're calling Mizzou the SEC's new Arkansas -- competitive and proud, but not dominant.
The question they're asking from Gainesville to Fayetteville remains: Does Missouri know what it is going into?
'He was defending me so much'
Pinkel is referring to his boss, athletic director Mike Alden. The coach took over a program in 2001 that had two winning seasons in the previous 17. The late Larry Smith laid somewhat of a foundation, but it was crumbling when Pinkel took over. Example: There was one cornerback on scholarship.
"I can go on and on," Pinkel said.
So he does, reaching into his files for his job evaluation from Alden after Year 2. The Tigers had completed a second consecutive losing season since Pinkel had arrived from Toledo.
Gary Pinkel inherited a program that has had very, very limited success in the sport of football ... There is no question the competitiveness and talent level that he inherited was below average.
"He was digging, man," Pinkel said. "He had to find something positive."
Missouri coaches trace the turnaround to 2005, against an SEC program. Missouri came from 21 points down to defeat South Carolina in the Independence Bowl. The Tigers beat Steve Spurrier and beat back some demons. Since that day, the Tigers have won 70 percent of their games.
That compares favorably with Alabama. In the same six-year span, the Tide have been marginally better overall (76 percent). So, yeah, Pinkel knows his program's place in this conference migration.
"The only reason we're in that league is football," he said.
Missouri considers its spread option offense unique. The quarterback stands a distant seven yards behind the center. The idea is to get the ball out of the quarterback's hands as soon as possible, a direct challenge, it would seem, to those SEC D-line freaks.
It is not smash mouth, but it works. Beefy offensive linemen -- a lot of them homegrown Missouri boys -- have been a staple. Offensive coordinator Dave Yost isn't afraid to proclaim he may have the best set of tackles in the country -- Elvis Fisher on the left side and Justin Britt on the right.
It is not a one-trick Tiger. Mizzou claims Aldon Smith, who had 14 sacks as a rookie for the 49ers. In his second pro season, linebacker Sean Weatherspoon was No. 2 in tackles for the Falcons.
But offense is how Missouri got to this moment. There is also an understanding there is an SEC man card to be earned. Yost says his scheme was adopted from Urban Meyer during Meyer's time a decade ago at Bowling Green. Over the years the offense has been refined, tweaked. Missouri has become a quarterback factory of sorts. Brad Smith, Chase Daniel and Blaine Gabbert have all graduated to the NFL.
Oregon's Chip Kelly and Dan Mullen, when he was at Florida, have trekked here to study the offense.
"We call it, 'Our Way,'" Yost said.
Yost is Missouri's version of whatever the term "offensive guru" means these days. He's 42 and could pass for 22. His blond, surfer-cut hair always seems to have a set of shades nested in it. You never know when you're going to run into a tasty wave in mid-Missouri.
Since 1997, he has been Pinkel's recruiting coordinator. Four times in the past six years, Missouri has finished in the top 12 in total offense. As one of Pinkel's top lieutenants it will be his job to keep the offense moving, to penetrate the toughest defenses in existence.
"You always hear about how great the SEC is -- and they always have really great teams -- but we played pretty good football in the Big 12 ...," he said.
"You always hear about it. Let's go."
From Big 12 to big picture
It was more of a pep rally when the official Missouri-to-the-SEC announcement came down in early November.
Dick Clark would have loved the American Bandstand feel. Students, alums and officials gathered on campus. Dancing, it seemed, was optional. Everyone was geeked. The school had swung and missed at the Big Ten in 2010. This chance came out of nowhere and quickly.
The Big 12 can argue about Missouri's tactics and loyalty and truthfulness, but it can't argue about the league's instability. Concessions were made, but too late. Nebraska, Colorado and Texas A&M were already out the door in September when Mizzou apparently made its final decision to leave. Texas and Oklahoma flirting with the Pac-12 for a second time was too much.
That November day, SEC commissioner Mike Slive was briefed on Missouri traditions by Florida president Bernie Machen, a St. Louis native. They had trouble locating the SEC helmet to be presented to Alden. Slive pulled it off smoothly, even returning to Birmingham with a couple of frozen Shakespeare's pizzas from Mizzou's landmark eatery.
"Welcome," Slive told the gathering, "to your new home."
That sounded so strange. What do the Mizzou Tigers know of Mike the Tiger or Rammer Jammer or War Eagle? What does it all mean? With 14 SEC teams, it could mean more world domination. It certainly means more game inventory. It means the SEC can now plan for a network of its own. The Big Ten has set the standard with its successful endeavor that could shoot off $4 billion-$5 billion in rights fees and profits by the year 2027.
It means Pinkel was right. Mizzou will have to invest. It comes into the SEC 11th in both revenue and expenses; 12th in the 14-team league in expenses directly allocated to football. (Figures provided by the Birmingham News.)
"Honestly our budget has never been a problem," Pinkel said.
It means Mizzou took the next recruiting step when it landed Green-Beckham last month. Yost was as professionally and emotionally invested in the kid as any he had recruited. They met when Green-Beckham was in the seventh grade.
There is a picture on Yost's phone from Green-Beckham's trip to New York for the December Heisman ceremony. The high school senior is standing next to Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez.
"Which one looks like an NFL player?" Yost asked coyly.
Yost became so close to the Beckham family that on visits he thought nothing of heading to the room of Eliza, Dorial's 7-year-old sister, to watch videos or read. When the time came for the recruit to pick a school, six years of recruiting paid off. Missouri has never won a national championship or and has gone 52 years since sniffing a share of a conference title, but they snagged No. 1 on Feb. 1.
Arguably the biggest recruit in school history is competitive addition by subtraction. By playing for Missouri, he won't play for SEC rivals Arkansas or Alabama, two of his other finalists.
"That was a good day for us," Pinkel said. "It helps our brand name. Going to the SEC, the statement was made. If he's here almost anybody will look at us. Why would they not?"
It means Pinkel is placing more recruiting emphasis in Georgia and Florida. There will be billboards, direct mail. Lots of direct mail -- 30,000 pieces per week in the Southeast, Pinkel said, aimed at high school students, coaches and administrators.
The program isn't cutting recruiting ties with the state of Texas, which has sustained Missouri greatly during Pinkel's reign. It is merely repositioning -- telling those kids what it is telling everyone: Do you want to play in the best conference around?
It also means Missouri is suddenly tied for seventh in a darker category associated with the SEC -- all-time number of NCAA major infractions cases (four).
"Really, if you want to get down to it, the SEC is all about being the best," said Missouri offensive line coach Josh Henson, who spent four years in the league as Les Miles' tight ends coach.
Whatever form "best" takes?
"I'm not going there," Henson said.
For better or worse, Missouri is well on its way there -- South and East in this forever marriage.