7-0 start gets Missouri coach way off hot seat (VIDEO)

Like teammates do, St. Louis Rams rookie Barrett Jones playfully boasts the national championships he won at Alabama over the heights fellow offensive lineman Tim Barnes did not reach at Missouri.

Bragging rights was a cinch this summer given the Tigers' highly disappointing debut season in the SEC, when they got banged up early and kicked around by the big boys. The topic of bowl eligibility was ridiculed.

Video

Pinkel shares leadership lessons from mentor Don James

Indeed, expectations were low coming off the school's first losing record since 2004. At the start of fall workouts, Gary Pinkel hadn't forgotten the negativity that accompanied the weekly letdowns and growled that he didn't suddenly forget how to coach.

Along the way, Pinkel promised Year 2 would be better — much better. But one 5-7 season was enough to knock them off the map.

"No one cared about them," Barnes said. "A lot of people just gave up on them, or whatever."

The big move seems very logical now, all of those stadium upgrades, too. The rumors that Pinkel's job was in jeopardy have been quashed.

The resurgent Tigers have taken care of all of that.

Entering a weekend date vs. No. 20 South Carolina, Missouri was ranked No. 5 and sported two perfect records: 7-0 overall, and 3-0 in the league.

Along the way, Pinkel, 61, has bolted his way off the hot seat. He's an early favorite for national coach of the year, and his Tigers are the talk of college football.

"He's been successful in the past, he's successful right now," center Evan Boehm said. "He believes in us, and if he believes in us, then why can't you believe in yourself?"

The sudden success gives Barnes, who is from Longwood, Mo., a talking point or two. He's seen regular duty on Rams special teams this year, and was a three-year starter on some pretty good teams at Missouri from 2008-10.

"It's really good to see," Barnes said. "Obviously, they've got a lot of talent. Who knows, maybe the bar can be set high for a while now."

While Pinkel was a bit crusty heading into the season, players were confident. Some of the more ambitious even predicted an SEC title and a national title chance.

But, besides playing to prove themselves, they were playing for Pinkel. The coach tears up on every Senior Day and it's not for show.

"I'm glad he's happy. Have you all noticed it?" running back Henry Josey said to reporters earlier this week. "I've noticed it, too. It's great."

Josey was touched by Pinkel's attentiveness after his season-ending knee injury in November 2011. The coach spent much of that night in the hospital, too.

"He could adopt me if he wanted to, I think," Josey said. "He just was there."

Pinkel put an end to almost two decades of constant losing at Missouri, making the jump from Toledo. He was a finalist for national coach of the year in 2007, when Missouri was No. 1 for a week, and he finished with a school-record 12 wins.

This is his second 7-0 start. The last was in 2010, when he led to a Big 12 co-North title. An 8-0 start would be the school's first since Dan Devine's 11-0 team in 1960.

Of course, it would mean more recognition, too, which he scoffs at.

"The last couple years, we haven't had to deal with it at as much," Pinkel said. "Focus on this game and not on all the clutter. All that other stuff doesn't help you play well."

In 2011, the Tigers slid to eight wins and the Independence Bowl — and then came the SEC stumble. The offensive line took several major hits, and quarterback James Franklin missed four starts with various injuries.

Pinkel complained about the unfairness. Too much, he says now.

"I probably didn't do a very good job going through it," Pinkel said. "There's no asterisk saying we lost half of our offensive line, lost the quarterback, lost this guy, lost that guy.

"My job is to get them to deal with it and I didn't do a very good job."

Another injury to Franklin hasn't derailed Missouri this year.

The Tigers were 5-0 and No. 25, but still unproven before beating No. 5 Georgia earlier this month. It was the school's first road triumph over a Top 10 team since 1981 — and they finished off the Bulldogs without Franklin. The senior was sidelined with a shoulder injury early in the fourth quarter and with Missouri ahead by just two points. But Maty Mauk stepped in and iced the 41-26 win.

Missouri then defeated No. 22 Florida 36-17 in Mauk's first career start.

"We're going out and getting the job done, and that's important to him," Josey said. "There's nothing for him to stress about."

Pinkel is determined to enjoy this ride. Instead of dealing out stern looks when players were singing before practice last Wednesday, he just smiled.

"(What) the heck's happened to me?" Pinkel said.

He's changed for sure, and look no further than last week. The death of mentor Don James, the Washington coaching great, hit Pinkel hard. Pinkel played tight end for James at Kent State, then coached under James at Washington. In fact, every Missouri team knows all about James, who led the Huskies to a share of the 1991 national title.

"He's had just a profound influence on me," Pinkel said, "my whole life."

When Pinkel informed players of James' death on Monday, he told them he'd try even harder to live up to those standards.

"I mean, we're family, so why wouldn't he tell us?" Josey asked. "I mean, we're going to be there for him."

Without such gaudy success, he says he'd be just as proud of a tight-knit team.

"That doesn't mean you're going to win all your games, either," Pinkel said. "What it means is you're going to have a group of guys that care about each other.

"It's just the chemistry that happens for teams. It's really cool to see."

View Gary Pinkel's reaction to Don James' death here if video fails to load automatically.

Comments

Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Please review our Policies and Procedures before registering or commenting

News Tribune - comments