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Mizzou Musings: Gary Pinkel led Mizzou out of the College Football Wilderness.

Updated: Aug 26, 2023

(Photo courtesy of Yahoo Sports)

A well deserved honor was announced on January 10th. Former Mizzou Head Football Coach, Gary Pinkel, will be inducted into the National Football Foundation College Football Hall of Fame as a member of the Class of 2022.

Pinkel has the most career wins at two college programs, Mizzou and Toledo. At Toledo he posted a 73-37-3(.659)record, while at Mizzou he finished with a 118-73(.618) record. Overall, Pinkel's career record of 191-110-3, made him one of only three coaches in Division I to be the winningest coach at two programs. Additionally, he won Coach of Year honors in two Power 5 conferences.

But I don't just want to use this piece as a vehicle to repeat Gary Pinkel's accomplishments at Mizzou. There were many. No, I hope to articulate just how special Pinkel's accomplishments were at Mizzou.

First you need to understand a little background of the Mizzou Football program before the arrival of Gary Pinkel.

Before the Wilderness Years

I became a fan of Missouri Football in the latter years of the Dan Devine era. In those days, Mizzou was a power in what was then the Big 8 Conference. Devine won two conference championships during his tenure at Mizzou and compiled a record of 92-38-7. From the time he arrived in 1958 until his departure in 1970, the Tigers went to six bowls winning four, including the 1968 Gator Bowl in which Mizzou demolished a Bear Bryant coached Alabama team 35-10.

Devine also had the distinction of being the last Mizzou coach to beat Oklahoma in Norman during the 1966 season. Devine's 1960 team reached No. 1 in the AP poll, before losing to Kansas in the regular season's final game. In all Devine's teams finished in the AP's top 10 five years and the Top 20 two other years.

Dan Devine left after the 1970 season for the Green Bay Packers, he was followed first by Al Onofrio and then Warren Powers. Both had decent teams and some notable victories, but never came close to reaching the heights of Dan Devine.

Onofrio, who was one of Devine's top assistants, went 38-41 and went to two bowl games.during his seven year tenure as Mizzou's head coach. Warren Powers followed, and went 46-33-3 during his seven year hitch at Columbia. Powers went to five bowl games, winning three, but still didn't reach the levels of the Devine Era. After posting his first losing record in 1984, Powers was let go and Mizzou went looking for the next Dan Devine.

The Wilderness Years of Mizzou Football.

If Mizzou fans were frustrated with Al Onofrio and Warren Powers for not achieving the level of success of Dan Devine, then the following 17 years taught us just how much worse it could get.

The Administration first turned to former Pittsburgh Steeler Defensive Coordinator and Mizzou player Woody Widenhofer. The "Woody's Wagon" Era was noted for being some of the worse in Mizzou Football history. Widenhofer was let go after four years and posting a 12-31-4 record.

Next up to the plate was Bob Stull, who had successful runs at UMass and UTEP. The Stull Era didn't turn out much better than Woody's Wagon. Bob Stull was let go after the 1993 season after posting a record of 15-38-2 in five years.

Mizzou next turned to veteran college coach Larry Smith, who had successful runs at Tulane, Arizona, and USC. Smith's experience at running successful college programs was what the Missouri Administration was pinning it's hope on in turning around the doormat Tigers.

In years four and five of his tenure, it looked like Smith had turned the Mizzou program around by posting the first winning seasons since 1983, going to back to back bowl games, and finishing in the AP top 25.

However, it quickly came apart during Smith's last two seasons at Mizzou. After going 33-46-1 in seven years, Larry Smith was let go and Mizzou went looking for their next potential savior.

In Comes Gary Pinkel

Let's look at where the Mizzou football program was when Gary Pinkel arrived after the 2000 season.

-In the 17 seasons prior to his arrival, Mizzou won 33 % of their games, had two winning seasons, and two bowl appearances.

-had not beaten traditional rival the Nebraska Cornhuskers since 1978, a streak of 22 straight games.

-had only finished in the AP Top 25 twice in the last 17 years.

-had not a AP Top Ten finish since 1969.

-Not any type of championships to it's name since 1969.

-No New Year's Day Bowl appearances since 1970.

-Only one 10 win season in it's history.

It wasn't easy for Pinkel in rebuilding the football program at Mizzou. He was facing facilities that needed upgrading and recruiting issues, especially in St. Louis. He didn't have his first winning season and bowl appearance until 2003, and had losing seasons in three of his first four years.

Nevertheless, with patience and a hard working staff, Gary Pinkel turned the program from a perennial loser to one of the top programs, in first the Big 12, and than the SEC. By the time he retired after the 2015 season:

-the Tigers had won 5 division titles, three in the Big 12 and 2 in the SEC.

-10 bowl appearance, winning 6.

-5 top 25 appearances in the season ending AP Top 25 poll. Two of which finished in the Top 5.

-In 2007, after beating the Kansas Jayhawks, the Tigers reached the No. 1 ranking for the first time since 1960. This team eventually finished No. 4.

-the Tigers had made two New Years Day Bowl appearances.

-5 ten win seasons in two Power 5 conferences(three in the Big 12 and two in the SEC).

-39 of Pinkel's players were drafted by the NFL, including 9 in the first round.

-and finally, broke the Nebraska Cornhuskers 25 game winning streak against the Tigers in 2003.(Mizzou also won in 2005, 2007, and 2008).

Gary Pinkel never out recruited programs like Oklahoma or Alabama. What Pinkel and his staff could do is 'find diamonds in the rough', so to speak. Get a two star or three star recruit and develop into a good college Power 5 player, and in many cases, the NFL. Just some of the names that were unheralded recruits but ended up the NFL are Brad Smith, Sean Weatherspoon, and William Moore.

Some Final Thoughts about Gary Pinkel

I had the opportunity to meet Gary Pinkel once early in his Mizzou tenure when the Tiger Caravan came close to where my parents lived. I was struck how he looked you in the eye and gave you his undivided attention while he talked to you. In my personal and professional life, I have always found this trait to be a sign of a successful individual.

This made me realize why he was not only successful dealing with fans, but also dealing with his players. By all accounts, he was highly regarded by his players, because of his loyalty and commitment to them.

Mizzou is no easy place to win football games, just ask Barry Odom or even Eli Drinkwitz. It's not Alabama, Oklahoma, Ohio State, or LSU.

But, nevertheless, Gary Pinkel found a way. No, he didn't win a conference championship, or a National Championship. All he did was lead Mizzou out of the college football wilderness and put the Tigers on the college football map.

Yes, Gary Pinkel is a Hall of Fame coach.

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