COLUMBIA, Mo. - The new head football coach at the University of Missouri had just launched a good-looking iron shot to a par-3 green at Columbia Country Club, the ball soaring, catching a mild breeze and tracking the cup very nicely, when his ever-present cell phone rang.
Gary Pinkel never made it to the green, then skipped the next hole entirely as he concentrated solely on the phone call, coming from a young man in a small town a couple hours to the southeast.
The young man happens to stand about 5-11, weighs about 190 pounds, is chiseled like Popeye after a couple cans of spinach and runs the 40-yard dash in something just under the speed of light. A high school senior this fall, he appears near the top of every major college football recruiting list and just so happens to have narrowed his choices to Michigan, Tennessee and Missouri.
For a full 15 minutes, Pinkel puts the full-court press on the running back. He massages him, cajoles him, calls him a difference-maker, the kind of kid who can clasp hands with Pinkel and march the Tigers back into national prominence. He tells the young stud to think of his mother and how she can easily make it to Faurot Field for every game during his four years in college.
He begs the young man not to go somewhere where he's merely a number, just one of a couple dozen prep All-Americans, but to go somewhere where his jersey might someday be retired, to hang from the rafters next to Kellen Winslow's No. 83. Pinkel challenges the kid to trust him. He tells him that every night, after he says his prayers, he should repeat “I love coach Pinkel more than anyone” until he falls asleep.
Finally, Pinkel flips the phone closed, takes a deep breath, grabs his driver and walks up to a tee.
“The good news,” he says, “is that the kid called me.”
In Columbia, and throughout the state of Missouri, the good news is Gary Pinkel.
Five years ago they ripped up the artificial turf and laid real roots at Faurot Field. They spent millions sprucing the place up in '97, and a whole lot more for a press tower with 35 private suites that opened in the fall of 2000 and was, ironically, patterned to a large degree after the tower at the University of Toledo's Glass Bowl. The Dan Devine Pavilion - an indoor practice facility with offices, locker rooms, a dining hall and a weight-training center - and the state-of-the-art academic and sports medicine departments that branch off of it, opened in 1998.
So Mizzou has the facilities, about $50 million worth in just the last four years.
The Tigers were lacking just one thing - a coach who could make everyone believe that those facilities would translate into victories.
So the University of Missouri looked to Toledo for more than a press tower blueprint. It looked for a man who could draw up the plans for a top 25 football program. In December it hired Gary Pinkel as its architect, as its new head football coach.
Pinkel spent 10 years at Toledo producing exactly what Missouri covets.
When Pinkel joined UT in the spring of 1991 from the University of Washington, where he had been offensive coordinator, one of the first things he did was post his pyramid of success on the locker room wall. The bottom level dealt with being responsible, attending class, working harder than the guy at the school down the road. The higher up the pyramid, the higher the goals. Conference championships, bowl games, attaining a degree. And at the top, the final piece of the puzzle, was being nationally ranked.
“People laughed,” Pinkel said. “People from both outside and inside the athletic department laughed. But in three of my last six years we were in the top 25.”
Pinkel compiled a 73-37-3 record at UT. His teams won divisional championships, conference championships, led the Mid-American Conference in all-league academic selections and represented a program that played strictly by the rules. True, the Rockets appeared in just one bowl game, a win that capped an undefeated season in 1995, but Pinkel was operating in the basement of Division I-A, in a league with just one bowl affiliation during those years. Fact is, Pinkel coached eight bowl-eligible teams in 10 years at UT.
That's what Missouri athletic director Mike Alden saw when he began interviewing candidates to replace the fired Larry Smith.
Pinkel had been through the process before, for jobs he wanted and didn't want.
“Leaving Toledo wasn't easy; in fact, leaving the players there was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life,” he says. “I'd always said that if I ever left UT I'd only go to a place where I was confident I could build a national program, a top-25 program.
“Missouri is a different place than it was, and if that wasn't the case I wouldn't be here. People were always talking about the potential here, but they never had the resources to reach that potential. Now they do. I'm excited to be a part of it.”
To say Mizzou fans are excited about Pinkel would be an understatement. On the job since December, Pinkel has already shored up a serious recruiting void, has made public appearances at a staggering rate and has season tickets moving at a record pace.
Missouri once had a proud football program and a tradition its alums and boosters relished. The Tigers won a handful of Big Six Conference (the predecessor to what is now the Big 12) championships in the late 1930s and early '40s under longtime coach Don Faurot, then went 93-37-3 and played in six bowl games under Dan Devine (1958-70). Sporadic success mixed with the occasional bowl trip continued through 1983.
Then the bottom dropped out. The school shut down its commitment to football at the same time other league members upped the ante to either become or remain nationally prominent. Facilities fell into disrepair, recruits looked the other way and even traditional doormats Kansas State and Kansas stopped providing automatic wins.
Mizzou went 13 seasons without a winning record before the Tigers rallied under former Arizona and Southern Cal coach Larry Smith, a one-time star at Bowling Green, who led the school to back-to-back winning seasons and lower-tier bowl appearances in 1997-98.
But Smith could not sustain that momentum and was fired after two straight losing seasons. One factor that reportedly cost him his job was an inability to improve the program's image in the St. Louis area, considered the state's recruiting gold mine.
Several days after Pinkel accepted the Missouri job, his staff at UT flew in to join him. But instead of flying to Columbia and setting foot on campus for the first time, the assistants deplaned in St. Louis and piled into a van for a short trip to the Missouri high school coaches clinic in East St. Louis. In the van were stacks of Mizzou coaching shirts, shorts and baseball caps. The coaches changed into their new garb and walked into the clinic.
“The high school coaches were impressed, I think,” Pinkel says. “They listened. Most importantly, we listened.”
Pinkel's first Missouri recruiting class included three nationally-recruited players from St. Louis. Tyrone Roberson and Damian Nash are running backs. A.J. Kincade is a cornerback who was reportedly headed for either Illinois or Kansas State before calling Pinkel one day and asking if a scholarship might still be available.
We'll find one, Pinkel said, pinching himself.
The class also included two major talents from the Dallas area, cornerback Marcus King and wide receiver Thompson Omboga, who was supposedly all but signed, sealed and delivered to national champion Oklahoma before meeting Pinkel.
Top players from around Missouri have noticed. Thus, in the middle of a round of golf, Pinkel's phone rings and he turns his attention to that in-state recruit who likes Tennessee and Michigan, probably would not have considered Missouri a year ago, but has Pinkel's cellular number and, suddenly, opts to call it.
Missouri's fans have noticed too.
Pinkel has two country club memberships as part of a compensation package at Mizzou that pays him in the neighborhood of $900,000 per year. But he had been so busy that seven months into his employment he was making his first trip to Columbia Country Club for a rare day of R&R.
People in the pro shop, the grill and from around the practice green drifted over to introduce themselves and say hello. One group parked its cart on one fairway and walked over to the one Pinkel was playing to greet him.
“It's funny,” he says. “I was in Toledo for five years before it was at the point that wherever I went people would say `Hi, coach.' I figured it might take a couple years here. How about a couple days. It's just an awesome college town. People have been great. Of course, I know my business pretty well. I know I'm still undefeated. I know it can all change.”
Still, watching people fawn over Pinkel, you sense that they think he's the real deal. He has been on TV and radio shows throughout the state, he's spoken to every gathering larger than a bridge club. He's selling hope, and people are embracing him and his message.
“I tell them our vision, our plan for the program. I tell them I've been in the business for 22 years and have had one losing season. I know how to win.”
He also knows that winning at Missouri isn't going to be easy, not in a league with Oklahoma, Nebraska, Kansas State and other powers.
“I recognize that it's a great league,” Pinkel says. “But that's a motivation, not a deterrent. You respect your opponent, then you start building.
“All I focus on is the building. We have a plan. There are things we believe in, and around those things we'll build and we'll be successful. I don't really care about the past. It has a mental and emotional impact on our players, perhaps, and I have to recognize that and deal with it.
“But other than that it doesn't matter. The past is the past. Now we're facing the present and building the future.”
There isn't one aspect of the program he hasn't touched, including redecorating the offices, hallways and locker room. This wall will be for pictures of all-league players, this one for bowl teams, etc.
And yes, Pinkel's pyramid of success already has a home. But changes have been made.
The top triangle, the one that made being nationally ranked a goal at Toledo, now deals with winning the national championship.
It may be the Show-Me State, but so far nobody in Missouri seems to be laughing.