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COLUMBIA, Mo. – Don James would be loving this.
The guy who molded Gary Pinkel as much as anyone – his coach, his boss, his mentor, his ideological blueprint – would absolutely be reveling in this wholly unexpected, 10-1 Missouri football season. He would love seeing how Pinkel has turned every crabby critic from 2012 back into a staunch supporter and how he has risen above his driving while intoxicated arrest of 2011. He would get a kick out of Pinkel shutting up everyone who said the Tigers would never compete in the Southeastern Conference.
Pancreatic cancer claimed James, the legendary former football coach of the Washington Huskies, last month. But in many ways he lives on through this Tigers football team, and the man leading it.
"Talk about somebody who is tied to the hip," Pinkel said in his office Wednesday morning. "I'm a Don James guy. This is his program, his deal." The program from James' memorial service is on a shelf behind Pinkel's desk. He spoke at the service, eulogizing the man he played for at Kent State in the early 1970s and coached under at his alma mater and later at Washington.
More importantly, Pinkel spoke on a gut level to James in his waning days, as he struggled through hospice care. Raw emotion wasn't a common part of their discussions over the years, but life literally was too short at that moment to leave anything unsaid.
"I called him about three or four weeks before he passed away," Pinkel said. "I left him a long message and emotionally kind of broke down, told him how much he meant to me. I thought that might be it. But he called me back, about a week and a half later. I came in and they said, ‘Coach James is on the phone.'
"I grabbed the phone, we talked a little bit. I was able to tell him I loved him. He was choking up a little bit, too, and then he got real guarded – that's Coach James. That last time I talked to him was really important."
It was James who gave Pinkel the most important piece of advice he received in coaching. That came back in late 1990, the day Pinkel was leaving the Washington football offices to be introduced as the new head coach at Toledo.
As he walked out of his boss' office, Pinkel turned back and asked, "Coach, got any words of wisdom?"
"Yeah, I do," James responded. "Gary, when things get tough – and they will get tough – you focus on doing your job. You wake up in the morning, and hour by hour by hour, do your job. You don't let any outside influences in. Then you go to bed, and the next day you do the same thing.
"I walked out and thought, ‘Well, that's pretty good advice.' I'm a young coach, I didn't know. It turned out to be the greatest advice I've ever received."
That advice was never more important than during the previous two years at Missouri. Pinkel had done remarkable work at the school, lifting a previously dead program to seasons of 12-2 in 2007, 10-4 in '08 and 10-3 in '10. That success helped make the Tigers attractive to the Southeastern Conference, an attractive landing spot as the Big 12 roiled with uncertainty.
But the Tigers dipped to 8-5 in 2011, losing three games by seven points or less. Late in the season Pinkel was arrested for DWI, an embarrassing moment that led to a one-game suspension and his salary being frozen for a year.
That started some chirping among Mizzou fans about whether 11 years of Gary Pinkel were enough. The chirping turned into howling in 2012, when the Tigers' first season in the SEC turned into an injury-ravaged, 5-7 dud.
That's when Don James' advice from back in 1990 became vital.
"Last year was a tough year," Pinkel said. "We lost half our offensive line, our starting quarterback. It's my responsibility to overcome it. But here's what we didn't do: We didn't come in and start changing everything. I believe in our program and what we're doing. We focused on the foundation of who we are and what we're about.
" Everyone wanted to change everything. Fire every coach, so on. But my background is on analyzing, and if you change things, do it for the right reason. That's my Don James background."
That background came to the forefront. There were some changes: offensive coordinator Dave Yost left – voluntarily, Pinkel says, because "he got tired of [the criticism]" – and now is at Washington State with Mike Leach. Josh Henson was promoted from within the staff. Missouri's wide offensive line splits were tightened down, an acknowledgment that SEC defensive linemen were simply too fast and athletic to give extra room to get into the backfield.
But the biggest change came in injury prevention. For the first time in his head-coaching career, Pinkel did away with two-a-day preseason practices. He eliminated one period of daily practice where the team went full-speed "good-on-good" – offensive starters against defensive starters, with full contact. And he slightly scaled back August conditioning.
"It was all about recovery," Pinkel said. "I was a little gun shy, after a couple years of this. I was doing anything I could to limit injuries.
"Everybody wants me to blame it on the SEC. It's a great league, we're very happy to be in it. But we're healthy up front and we've got a great defensive line. That's the big difference."
The difference has been obvious from the beginning. Missouri started the season with seven straight victories, all by at least two touchdowns. When the Tigers posted back-to-back wins at Vanderbilt and Georgia, people took notice. And when they blew out Florida the following week with freshman backup quarterback Maty Mauk replacing injured starter James Franklin, even the skeptics started to believe.
What followed was a classic Missouri gut punch – a come-from-ahead, double-overtime loss to South Carolina that ended on a missed 24-yard field goal. But the Tigers did not buckle, responding with authoritative victories over Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi.
Now 10-1, they play Texas A&M on Saturday with a chance to win the SEC East in what has become the biggest game in Faurot Field history. Not a lot of people thought that moment would happen this early in Missouri's SEC experience – and after last year, even fewer thought Pinkel was the man to get the Tigers there.
"For whatever reason, people thought we were going to hell here," he said. "I looked at our program and our players and I thought, ‘We have a chance to prove some people wrong.' But we've got to finish now."
Finish Saturday, and it would be the ultimate tribute from Gary Pinkel to his late mentor. Don James would indeed love it.