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Gary Pinkel’s final season coaching the University of Toledo football team began with a thrill that changed the perception of the small program and ended with a chill that altered a flawed college postseason.
It all happened in 2000, a year that supposedly would signal change in the world and a year that did change Toledo football. The Rockets, coming off a disappointing 6-5 campaign, opened with perhaps the biggest win in program history, dominating Penn State 24-6 in Happy Valley.
Empowered by one of the top defenses in the nation, Toledo rolled to a 10-1 record, shared a division title, and closed the regular season ranked No. 25 in both major polls. The fun ended abruptly. The Rockets were shut out of the bowl season and lost their coach after 10 years to a bigger school.
“It is hard to express what was going on at that time,” said quarterback Tavares Bolden, an All Mid-American Conference selection that year.
The triumphs and anguish of that 2000 season come into focus today as the Rockets prepare to play at Missouri, where Pinkel is in his 13th season since leaving behind a hall of fame career at Toledo. The teams have never met before.
Pinkel said this week the bitter end to 2000 had no bearing on his decision to leave. There were 25 bowls that season involving 50 teams. Seven teams finished the regular season 7-5, five at 6-6, and another went 7-6. The MAC earned just one bid — to the Motor City Bowl, its only guaranteed slot — which went to league champion Marshall, whom the Rockets throttled 42-0 in October.
The next year the MAC picked up a second bowl in Mobile, Ala., and the conference has never again placed only one of its teams in the postseason. The conference established a personal high in 2012, sending seven to a bowl. There were 10 more bowls than in 2000.
“We would have gone to many more bowls if that would have happened when we were there,” said Pinkel, the winningest coach in Toledo history. “There’s a lot of great things that have happened in that league since.”
Pinkel, whose unbeaten 1995 team won the only bowl he coached with the Rockets, added “we built that program [thinking] that we might be there forever.”
His team cursed Pinkel when he left but those feelings dissipated over time with the benefit of perspective. Players viewed Pinkel through various lenses. Some called him a player’s coach. Others said he was unapproachable, a CEO type. All of them, however, agreed Pinkel and his staff did an outstanding job preparing their team for battle, something they believe was paramount to the 2000 success.
“Preparation was out of this world,” said receiver Donta Greene. “We had something called 48-hour preparation. Thursday to Saturday everyone was locked in and focused. I believe that set us apart.”
The 94,296 people inside Penn State’s Beaver Stadium on Sept. 2, 2000, was the biggest crowd at the time any Toledo team had played in front of. Bolden, who threw a third quarter touchdown for a 24-0 lead, said a handful of Nittany Lion supporters applauded the Rockets at the end of the game.
Toledo controlled the ball for 40 minutes and received 141 yards from running back Chester Taylor, who went on to enjoy a prosperous NFL career. A defense that would finish the season third nationally in both yards allowed and points allowed, held Penn State to 30 rushing yards on 27 attempts.
The Nittany Lions, who finished the year 5-7, scored their six points on a third-quarter touchdown. It was one of only two touchdowns and 13 points the Rockets surrendered in the third quarter that season.
“There was no way we felt inferior to that football team,” said safety Andy Boyd, who now covers Toledo as a radio analyst. “That confidence accelerated when we hit the field.”
A special season was under way. The following week Toledo destroyed Weber State 51-0, pitching its first of three shutouts. A scare came seven days later from Eastern Illinois, but the Rockets withstood a 414-yard effort from future NFL star quarterback Tony Romo to win 31-26.
The lone setback came in Week 4 when the Rockets fell behind 21-0 at Western Michigan and lost 21-14.
“We knew who won that game would pretty much win the [division],” Greene said. “They had a powerhouse team that year.”
The rest of the season was studded by one rout after another, as Toledo outscored its final seven opponents 280-72. A 38-24 win at Northern Illinois was the only game resembling a scare. “The preparation and discipline coach Pinkel demanded from that program is what drove that team,” said linebacker Tom Ward.
Taylor, who rushed for 1,470 yards and 18 touchdowns, was among eight Rockets named All-MAC. As was defensive lineman DeJuan Goulde, who recorded eight sacks and 15 tackles for loss. Taylor (offense) and Goulde (defense) finished runner-up MAC players of the year, a consolation prize akin to a bowl selecting another team over yours or a coach choosing another program over yours.
Boyd said the team was “dejected” when Pinkel left and took many of his assistants. Greene likened the departure to breaking up with a girlfriend. Bolden took it a step further, saying he felt he lost a father.
No one still harbors those feelings. Pinkel left the Rockets with a foundation to win the MAC title a year later under coach Tom Amstutz, whose final seasons from 2006-08 mark the only lean period since Pinkel left.
“He’s a high character guy who believes in his players,” Greene said. “You get a guy like that and you’ll have guys who want to play for you.”