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Mizzou Accomplished
AUSTIN MURPHY
October 29, 2007
With a more relaxed coach Gary Pinkel loosening the reins, Missouri has a newfound swagger, scoring points in bunches and showing it can play a little defense too
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October 29, 2007

Mizzou Accomplished

With a more relaxed coach Gary Pinkel loosening the reins, Missouri has a newfound swagger, scoring points in bunches and showing it can play a little defense too

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I give up, Daniel thought. But the following Saturday, two hours before Mizzou kicked off against Western Michigan, quarterbacks coach David Yost told Daniel, "Hey, you guys can wear your hats."

Such are the tiny increments by which change is measured under Pinkel, whose obstinacy, even in a profession full of hardheaded men, has long stood out. While he remains stubborn about certain things—what's up with Missouri's insistence on running every play out of the shotgun, even on the goal line and in short-yardage situations?—he has yielded in others.

"When I got here," says nosetackle Lorenzo Williams, a fifth-year senior, "guys were more about themselves than they were about the team. Right now [Pinkel's] got 118 guys ready to fight for him every time we step on the field. I wouldn't say he's mellowed, but he does trust this team more."

Gary Pinkel, you stand accused of having softened. How do you plead? "The structure of the program, the discipline—none of that has changed," he says. After a pause, he adds, "I've changed. I've let my guard down. I make it a point to talk to my players more. I hug 'em more, I'm in their world more. And I've never enjoyed coaching more."

The catalyst was a tragedy. In July 2005, Aaron O'Neal, a 19-year-old linebacker from St. Louis, collapsed during a voluntary workout. O'Neal went into full cardiac arrest and died shortly thereafter. "I was never really close to him," says the coach, "and then he was gone. Losing AO made me realize I needed to let my guard down."

To this day O'Neal appears in the team's media guide and on its roster. His death "changed Gary's perception of what a relationship should be between a coach and a player," says media relations director Chad Moller.

"It was like a wall came down," Daniel adds. "He still wants us to be the most disciplined team in the country. But he's chilled out. He's gained perspective."

He gave in, for instance, on the hat issue. What else? Last season he instituted Victory Sunday: When the Tigers win, they don't have to practice on Sunday. He established a leadership council, consisting of players whose input he seeks on matters ranging from discipline to uniform choices. (Black pants or gold?)

Even longtime critics of Pinkel's game management were delighted and encouraged on Saturday by his willingness to take what Tech was giving the Tigers, even if it meant a radical departure from his offensive comfort zone. Tech's "clamping down," in Pinkel's words, on Mizzou's outside receivers, "left some running lanes open." In filling those lanes, the Tigers scarcely missed senior tailback Tony Temple, who aggravated a sprained ankle in Wednesday's practice. A committee of fill-ins took turns gashing the Red Raiders, the most conspicuous being Jimmy Jackson, a 5'9" junior who carried a dozen times for 59 yards and three touchdowns.

Leaving the little room where he addressed reporters, the 55-year-old Pinkel crossed paths with Daniel. The two briefly embraced. "You saw that hug," the junior quarterback said, a half hour later. "He's come a ways."

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