Gary Pinkel thinks he can be the guy who returns Mizzou to its glory days. "We changed everything," says Pinkel while discussing how different his program is from his predecessor Larry Smith's. "Attitude, thought, weights -- everything. I run a very disciplined program."
When Pinkel and his team arrived back in Columbia after spending their first week together at camp in Mexico, Missouri, they were greeted by a playing field that was everything but disciplined. The ground crew at Faurot Field had botched the yard-line markers of the east sideline. In a scene reminiscent of the Snickers television commercial, the 15-yard line was designated as the 10, the 25-yard line as the 20, and so on until someone realized the mistake at the 45-yard line and hastily sprayed over the four erroneous yard-line markings with forest green paint that was too dark to match the August-weary grass. The effect was far from satisfactory but it was typically Mizzou -- a half-assed effort followed by an embarrassing result.
Two seasons ago, Smith's team finished 4-7 and was shut out by Kansas, Oklahoma and Kansas State. Coach Smith's wife, Cheryl, leaned over the cyclone fence near the MU sideline as the players hung their heads near the end of their 0-66 season-ending loss in Manhattan, Kansas, and called the Tiger players quitters.
Smith changed his entire offensive playbook last season and vowed to reinstall discipline in a program that saw one of his players arrested last July for driving from Kansas City to Columbia with one hundred pounds of processed marijuana in his trunk. But Smith was canned after going 3-8, and Pinkel was tapped as the man to lead Missouri out of the fog.
"Kids like discipline, they like structure," says Pinkel. "We set a standard -- it is not optional. It's hard to be on our football team if you are not disciplined." Pinkel is not used to losing. He left Toledo as the school's all-time winningest coach, sporting a glossy 73-37-3 record. The past six seasons his teams combined for a 50-18-1 record. No MU coach has been at Mizzou long enough to collect fifty wins since Devine lasted thirteen years.
There are signs in Columbia that Pinkel will be given every chance. Faurot Field looks nothing like the dump that housed its previous teams. A five-story, state-of-the-art press box gives an immediate grandeur to a once-shabby exterior. The weight room was expanded this year and is crammed with more heavy machinery than some NFL gyms. MU calls its three-year-old, $12 million indoor grounds "the finest indoor practice facility in the Big-12 Conference." Guess which former football coach they named it after?
Whether Pinkel has a building named after him depends on his ability to duplicate what he did at Toledo. Ironically, it may be his ability to handle losing that ultimately determines his fate at Mizzou.
Missouri has decent offensive talent sprinkled with some extraordinary skill-position athletes. Justin Gage, the 6-foot-4 junior wide receiver, might be the best offensive weapon in the conference. The Tigers' massive offensive line boasts four seniors and is being called the best in the Big 12 by some insiders. But two unproven junior quarterbacks combined with a defensive backfield that is greener than the Ozarks leaves Pinkel in a place where too many Missouri coaches have gone before.
Pinkel's Tigers should start 2-0, but will have to scratch and claw to win more than three games this season. The Big-12 Conference bears no resemblance to Toledo's comfy MAC. How Pinkel handles getting his ass handed to him every Saturday afternoon will tell us a lot about whether Pinkel is Devine.