|10-07-2007, 10:02 AM|
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Posnanski: MU’s Pinkel succeeds after he opens things up
MU’s Pinkel succeeds after he opens things up
C OLUMBIA | Here we are watching Missouri torch Nebraska on a Saturday night with a blinding barrage of passes and reverses and flea flickers and fake field goals and savage hits, and it’s the most impressive Tigers victory since anyone can remember, and it’s worth going back to the beginning for just a second.
Three years ago, the Tigers were going nowhere. They had another losing season. Nobody seemed especially fond of coach Gary Pinkel. Excitement was registering a 0.1 on the Richter Scale.
That’s when offensive coordinator Dave Christensen walked into Pinkel’s office.
“I want to ask you something about the new offense,” Christensen said.
Pinkel sighed. He had decided, after many sleepless nights, to go to a wide-open passing offense. The decision had not been easy for him. Pinkel had grown up with gritty football — he was from Akron, Ohio, for crying out loud, the heart of old-fashioned football. He was a tight end. He played college football with Jack Lambert. He had been raised to believe that you won games by not losing them, by not turning over the ball, by not committing penalties, by not making mental mistakes, by not tiring at the end.
Now, Pinkel was having his team play some sort of supersonic new offense. Receivers everywhere. Trick plays galore. Razzle-dazzle. He called defensive coordinators all over the country and asked them to talk him out of it. He talked to old friends in coaching to see if he was doing the right thing. He finally decided the Tigers needed to play this new offense. “We needed an edge,” he would say.
Now, Christensen was in his office to talk about it.
“Coach,” Christensen began, “we have this idea.”
“Yeah,” Pinkel said.
“What if we went no-huddle?”
“You mean sometimes?”
“No,” Christensen said. “I mean we never huddle.”
Pinkel talked about that seminal moment last week just days before Missouri destroyed Nebraska on Saturday night and announced its presence to America.
“My chair spun around five times,” Pinkel would say.
That was the moment when Pinkel let go just a little bit. And letting go, I think, is just about the toughest thing for a football coach to do. It’s easy to celebrate now, Saturday night, as Missouri beats Nebraska by five touchdowns in front of the largest crowd ever to gather in the reconfigured Memorial Stadium. Quarterback Chase Daniel throws for more than 400 yards for the first time in his career. Receiver Danario Alexander makes a spectacular catch and run that he will remember all his life. The Missouri defense packs more big hits into one game than they have had all year combined.
And there’s a telling moment in fourth quarter, when Missouri, already up 34-6, runs a perfectly staged fake field goal for a touchdown. At the instant when Martin Rucker crosses the goal line, Pinkel lets out a huge smile, certainly the biggest smile of his Missouri coaching career. It’s a party now.
Yes, it’s easy to look back now and say that Pinkel did the right thing. But that does not begin to describe how gutsy it was, and how hard it was for him to do. Understand, Pinkel had wanted to be a head football coach at a major university pretty much all of his life. He wanted to run his own program, match up against the best teams in America, coach in big games, make his players into men. He wanted all that more than he could explain.
Then, explaining has never been his thing. Pinkel has one of those demeanors — he just naturally looks serious, like a doctor studying x-rays. People have interpreted that stoicism many different ways, but maybe it just comes down to this: Football is very serious to him. He’s every coaching cliche you know wrapped up into one. He cannot sleep more than three hours in a row because his body jolts awake as he thinks of a new way to configure the offensive line or some new drill to prevent penalties. He has found it hard to show affection to his players. He has struggled having fun. Football is serious. When asked how he sees himself, he will say he’s “problem solver” or “decision maker” or even a “business leader.”
When asked about the key before the Nebraska game, he says: “Distraction control.”
Pinkel will spend impossible energy on the smallest things. Every week, he will spent hours preparing the talk he gives to his team 48 hours before game time. It’s unlikely that Abraham Lincoln worked harder on the Gettysburg Address.
Losses, of course, destroy him.
“I stab myself after losses,” Pinkel said. “I stab myself over and over and over and over.”
And it’s in this setting that you realize just how hard it was for him to go to this circus offense, with a quarterback throwing the ball all over the field, with a running game that comes from a million different angles, with a goal-line offense that starts in the deep shotgun. This had to be the toughest thing Pinkel has done in football. Few people have the courage to make that big a change, to commit to it. Usually, when things get tough, people bury themselves deeper in what they know.
“You just can’t stand still,” he said. “Your foundation, you don’t change that. We haven’t changed that. But you can’t just sit there and let everyone else pass you. The last one to change is usually lost.”
The big change eventually led to Saturday, to Missouri’s 41-6 victory over Nebraska (the biggest beating of the Cornhuskers in 60 years). The game was never close, Nebraska was overmatched, the crowd was so taken by the Tigers’ dominance that they did not even consider tearing down the goalposts after this game. It would have been like tearing down the basketball goal after beating your little brother in basketball.
The Tigers have a real identity now; they are freewheeling, they make great catches in traffic (especially those tight ends Chase Coffman and Martin Rucker), they are close to unstoppable on third down, they are about to move into America’s top 15. They look nothing at all like that Missouri team did three years ago. Nobody would have believed that Gary Pinkel’s team could look like this.
There are, of course, many more steps for this team to take, starting this week at Oklahoma. The Big 12 North suddenly looks tougher than it has in years. Kansas State won at Texas. Kansas won at Kansas State. Colorado won at Oklahoma. There’s a lot of work left to do for Missouri to win its first Big 12 title.
But this was a watershed victory — and maybe it will make everybody look at Gary Pinkel a whole other way. A lot of has been made about how Pinkel seems much looser now, much more open to suggestions, much more likely to smile … and that’s true. Friends have always said that he’s a good guy who didn’t want people to know. It’s good to see him open up.
But the real change for Pinkel happened in his office three years ago, when his coach suggested that they never huddle, and he did not fire the guy on the spot.
Instead, he made the switch. The Tigers never huddle.
“I like it,” Pinkel said, and he almost smiled.