Adapted Pinkel Keeps Faith in 'The Program'

There were times when Gary Pinkel heard the fans calling for his head and the media questioning his ability to win. He took the criticism to heart, turning rigid and harsh as a self-defense mechanism. There were also times when his players didn't buy into his grand plans, and the result was selfishness, which in turn bred mediocrity. Through it all, though, he never strayed from the blueprint.

Pinkel had learned under storied Washington coach Don James, first as a player and later as an assistant coach, following James from Kent State to Washington, where for 12 years he studied the regimented principles James employed to achieve national success.

He then brought James' program to Toledo, which he turned into a mid-major power, and then to Mizzou. Even when there have been tough times – and there have been many – he never doubted the program, which he detailed this Monday when asked what it had taken to bring MU from the middle of the Big 12 to the point where the Tigers are preparing to play undefeated Kansas for a possible shot at the national championship.

"To get all of the dynamics working in the right way was very, very difficult," he said. But "we've stuck with it all the way."

The program, he said, has many detailed facets pertaining not only to on-field football strategy, but also recruiting ideals, social atmosphere, academics and goal-oriented structure. Pinkel and his staff talk about ‘the program' as if it were a tangible possession, like a bus they drove here from Toledo in 2001.

"It's won a national championship, and now we've brought it to Columbia, Missouri," Pinkel said. "I believe in it, and I've always believed in it."

The structure of the program isn't simply an ideal; he has an actual pyramid of achievements he shows his players, building up from smaller achievements to the very top – winning a national championship.

When he introduced his pyramid to his 2003 team, there were slumped shoulders and rolling eyes filled the room. The players found the idea of winning a national title at Mizzou laughable.

"I'm pretty sure guys were looking around like, hopefully we can just make it to a bowl, or hopefully we just get to six wins and get to a bowl," said redshirt senior Lorenzo Williams.

And they did, taking a 27-14 loss to Arkansas in the Independence Bowl. The players, Williams said, were just happy to be there. In their defense, it was an accomplishment at the time for a program that had been posting one losing season after another.

"It was a huge deal. All these guys were excited just to get to a bowl, and I'm thinking we can do more, there's a lot more out there. We can win a championship. And they were like, ‘Don't worry about that. If we can just get to a bowl, it's great. We can get gifts and all,'" Williams said. "Everybody was just happy about getting to a bowl. Now, this year, when we won six games, I don't think anyone was saying anything about us getting to a bowl."

A year later, Pinkel presented the pyramid once again, this time to a group that had garnered Missouri's first top-20 pre-season ranking since 1980. Only this time, disbelief wasn't the only force working against Pinkel's vision; vanity and selfishness had infiltrated the locker room.

Whereas this year's fourth-ranked, 10-1 team seems to pay as little attention as possible to its national standing, that year's club, Pinkel half-joked recently, talked about its ranking before the season, during the season, in class and in the showers. And individually, many of the players were concerned with getting theirs -- their stats, their highlights, their NFL Draft status. By no coincidence, the season became a bitter disappointment, ending in a 5-6 record.

"We had a lot of internal problems relationship-wise between our coaches and players," Pinkel said. "We have a great relationship with our players [now]."

Williams said the same was evident from a player's point of view.

"Just the little things, like when we go to a hotel, coaches sit with us while we eat," he said. "We used to just huddle up in a little corner and all eat together and leave real fast. We didn't even ever really see them. We talk, we joke, we do a lot of little things together that we didn't do when I first got here. So it's definitely a lot different."

"In the past, when we started off really well and then tanked at the end, selfishness was a part. It might not have been talked about a lot, but it was just something that you could definitely tell was there," said likely all-American tight end Martin Rucker, who hasn't blinked once when it comes to sharing touches – and the statistics that come with them – with junior star tight end Chase Coffman.

Both players have been named finalists for the Mackey Award, given to the nation's best tight end, and by no coincidence Mizzou has been steamrolling the competition.

"That's what it takes to get here," Rucker said. "With this team, it doesn't matter who's putting up stats, all we want to do is win. And that's what it takes, guys contributing where they're supposed to and where they can."

Pinkel, by all accounts, is a different personality than he was four years ago. Often resented for his gruff exterior and unwillingness to take criticism, he's become pleasant, even affable, when dealing with fans and media.

"I think that media-wise, I said a few things I regret saying," he said Monday. "We all grow and learn."

A former self-described control freak, Pinkel has loosened up. In the past, he may never have considered giving such freedom to star quarterback Chase Daniel, who has become something of an unofficial member of the coaching staff.

"He's listened to his seniors, really relaxed and opened up to this team," said Daniel, recently named one of the three finalists for the Davey O'Brien National Quarterback Award. "Once the players feel like they have ownership, that's when some great things can happen."

And they are. With a victory Saturday at Arrowhead Stadium, Missouri could move within a Big 12 Championship Game win of a berth in the national title game. Still, Pinkel has done a fantastic job of keeping his players focused, as cliché as it may sound, on playing one game at a time and not becoming distracted by the whirlwind of hype surrounding the team.

"I'm not really concerned about it. Because if we take care of business and we win out, it'll all speak for itself, we won't even have to worry about it. So you can't really think about the BCS and all the bowl games and everything, because if you don't take care of this one, it really doesn't matter," said linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, in a sentiment echoed by his teammates.

"This is the most important game on the schedule right now."

That, of course, is an understatement. But it's safe to say no one in the program is shrugging shoulders or rolling eyes while saying it.
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