It has been 13 seasons since Gary Pinkel left the University of Toledo to become the head football coach at Missouri. Time flies.
“How about that? Six grandkids later,” Pinkel said Tuesday from his office in Columbia.
He is UT’s winningest coach. During a decade of service, he was at the helm for arguably the biggest victory in Rocket history at Penn State in 2000 and for Toledo’s only unbeaten season in the last 40-plus years in 1995. He was inducted into the Varsity T Hall of Fame in 2009.
On Saturday, at venerable Faurot Field, it will be Toledo vs. Missouri.
Given the passage of time and the tunnel-vision of coaching, I didn’t expect Pinkel to get too very mushy about the whole thing. I was both right and wrong.
“It’s my job,” he said. “It’s the next game and a big game against a team for which I have a healthy respect. I know the history of the type kids in that program and how they have always played out of conference. My team is just trying to get better and Toledo is the next opponent to try and do that against.
“But if you sit back and look at it, that was a big, big part of my life. I’ve been at three places — Washington [as an assistant], Toledo, and here — in the last 35 years, which is unusual in this business. So being the coach at Toledo was about one-third of my professional life. There were so many great people and great memories.
“We had good times and tough times, but more good than tough. I made a lot of lifelong friends. I had a lot of players there I still hear from. That side of it is still very real, very meaningful to me.”
The time lapse is illustrated by Toledo coach Matt Campbell saying that he and Pinkel are not acquainted.
“All I know is of coach Pinkel,” Campbell said. “I certainly know the legacy that he left here. He had one of the most tradition-rich tenures of any coach associated with this program.
“When you talk about that tenure it wasn’t just about winning football games. There’s everything else that came with it, like the discipline, attitude, and effort he created here. His legacy, I think, is what a coach hopes to leave behind.”
Pinkel said it was “very nice of [Campbell] to say those things. You always want to build a program that is respected, that develops good players and good people, that graduates its players. That’s very important to me, then and now.”
The old Toledo coach may know more about the new one than Campbell might imagine.
One of Pinkel’s assistant coaches is his nephew, Alex Grinch, who played safety at Mount Union for three of the same seasons that Campbell starred on the defensive line for the Purple Raiders.
“So I know Matt comes from a rich tradition of winning, and I know he’s obviously a very, very good young coach,” Pinkel said.
The ties between Toledo and Mizzou actually go far deeper.
Pinkel has six staff members who coached or played (or both) at UT. They include defensive coordinator Dave Steckel (1993-94 at Toledo), running backs coach Brian Jones (1992-2000), defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski (1992-2000 after a 1987-90 UT playing career), cornerbacks coach Cornell Ford (1996-2000), and offensive line coach Bruce Walker (1996-2000). Also, four-year UT starting center Nick Otterbacher, who played for both Pinkel and Tom Amstutz, is Missouri’s recruiting coordinator.
“You’d think they would get tired of looking at me,” Pinkel joked. “They’ve been with me a long time, and every one of those guys has had an opportunity to leave. For whatever reasons, they haven’t. That continuity has really been a big plus for us.”
Pinkel has a 91-61 record at Mizzou and a 164-98-3 mark overall. Three of his Missouri teams have won 10-plus games, and eight have played in bowl games, including seven straight before going 5-7 last year in the Tigers’ first season in the Southeastern Conference.
Speaking of the SEC, the weekly coaches teleconference is today, and the lineup includes Nick Saban, Les Miles, Steve Spurrier, Mark Richt, and Gary Pinkel, among others.
I asked Pinkel what he would have thought had that list been suggested to him in early 1991, when he landed in Toledo.
“Wow, I don’t know,” he said. “You know I’m not into talking about myself too much. I guess hearing my name with those is very flattering. At the end of the day you want to be respected for what you do and have some significance in people’s lives. And in this business, you have to win games to do that.”
The next game and, Pinkel hopes, the next win, would come against a brand he still holds near and dear.
“I have always been and always will be a Toledo Rockets fan,” he said. “I will root for them forever. Not this week, though.”
Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6398.