Pinkel faces former team as MU hosts Toledo today

Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel congratulates L’Damian Washington after Washington scored a touchdown during the third quarter last Saturday against Murray State in Columbia.

Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel congratulates L’Damian Washington after Washington scored a touchdown during the third quarter last Saturday against Murray State in Columbia. Photo by The Associated Press.

COLUMBIA — Following the 2000 season, then Toledo head coach Gary Pinkel had a decision to make. It was one some people would say he was crazy for eventually making.

Pinkel had carried on a winning tradition as Toledo’s head coach since 1991. He was the school’s all-time leader in wins with 71 and had built a reputation for knocking off major-conference schools.

But when approached with the opportunity to coach Missouri, it was one Pinkel said he couldn’t turn down.

“It was just the right thing for me,” Pinkel said as Missouri prepared to host his old team Toledo at 2:30 p.m. Saturday (ESPNU-TV). “I had people tell me I was crazy. I had a lot of people tell me I was crazy and that I shouldn’t do it.”

Pinkel left behind a Toledo program that had been a consistent winner in the Mid-America Athletic Conference. The Rockets won the MAC in 1995 with an 11-0-1 mark and finished first or tied for first in the Western Division three other times. He left for a struggling Missouri program that had been to just two bowl games in the past 17 seasons.

“I think it was just a good opportunity,” Pinkel said. “People have talked about Missouri forever being the only Division I school in the state.”

Pinkel, who downplayed the sentimental aspect of playing his old school, said he still has fond memories of his time at Toledo. In fact, many of Missouri’s current coaches were with Pinkel at Toledo, including defensive coordinator Dave Steckel, running backs coach Brian Jones, defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski and offensive line coach Bruce Walker.

“It’s not really sentimental,” Pinkel said. “Toledo is a great place to live. It was a great experience. I’m one of the few coaches who have been in three major places in my career.”

Pinkel got the Toledo job almost by chance.

He was the offensive coordinator for Washington in 1991 when he got a call from then Toledo head coach Nick Saban. Saban, who was Pinkel’s teammate at Kent State in the 1970s, told Pinkel he was taking a job in the NFL and he could get Pinkel an interview at Toledo if he wanted one. Pinkel had already interviewed unsuccessfully for head jobs at Bowling Green and Kent State. But Toledo turned out to be the right fit.

Now he gets to face his old school for the first time, and Missouri players aren’t taking Toledo lightly.

Since 2000, the Rockets own 10 wins against teams from the six major conferences. That trend started with Toledo’s 24-6 upset of Penn State in Pinkel’s final year as Toledo’s coach in 2000. The string of wins has included victories against Purdue, Colorado, Michigan and Pittsburgh, to name a few.

Missouri has had its issues with the MAC at times. The Tigers lost to Bowling Green in back-to-back seasons in Pinkel’s first two years.

“They have done such a great job at Toledo historically there,” Pinkel said. “And I think the players who play there have great pride in who they are and where they’re from and they play well.”

The Rockets are coming off a 24-6 loss at Florida last Saturday. In that game Toledo’s experienced offense, which has nine returning starters, struggled and mustered just two field goals. The Rockets converted just 1-of-13 third down attempts.

Missouri is looking to continue its momentum from Saturday’s 58-14 thrashing of Murray State. Running backs Henry Josey and Russell Hansbrough both rushed for more than 100 yards and James Franklin threw for more than 300 yards.

The Tigers got off to a slow start defensively and trailed 14-13 late in the first quarter. But the Tigers picked it up defensively and shut out the Racers for the rest of the game.

Missouri’s offense could take advantage of Toledo’s lack of experience on defense, as the Rockets have just four returning starters.

“It’s just really being more consistent and focusing the whole game,” Franklin said.

Notes: Today marks the first meeting between the two schools. … Missouri will play at Toledo next season. … Missouri has won its last eight games against teams from the MAC.

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