Gary Pinkel vs History (Part One)

Photo via Bill Carter.

One of my favorite series I've ever written on RMN was the four-part, "Gary PInkel vs OU, Texas, Don James and History" series I wrote in December 2008.

Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four

In the series, I talked about how Missouri compared to Oklahoma and Texas, how recruiting works for schools without historical success, how second-tier teams get access to the "club" of top-tier programs, and how Pinkel's eight-year tenure compared to that of other Missouri coaches.  With two more seasons -- and definitive proof that Pinkel's success extends beyond simply Chase Daniel, Chase Coffman and Jeremy Maclin -- in the books, I felt it was time to look into what has or hasn't changed in the last two years.

100 Years in 450 Pixels

First, we're going to start with a 50,000-foot view of Missouri football over the last 100 years.  Since I wrote the series two years ago, I came up with an Estimated S&P+ tool that tells us a bit more about a given season than simple W-L record does.  It was the basis for both the summer countdown of Missouri's best teams and my F.O. Top 100 countdown.

If we view things in terms of a team's percentile performance, it's probably the most direct way to see what status Missouri had in a given season.  Here's a chart showing Mizzou's percentile performance over the last 100 years.

(Click on the image to see the full-sized version.)

Missouri has played at the level of the 80th percentile or better 24 times in the last 100 years.  So basically, one-quarter of the time Missouri has been what we would now consider a "Top 25" caliber program.  That is far from amazing, but far from terrible.

What is most striking about this chart to me is how few times Mizzou has seen sustained success.  Gwinn Henry's and Don Faurot's tenures were consistently up-and-down-and-up-again*, and even Dan Devine had a couple of setback seasons.  Tom Osborne famously called Missouri a "sleeping giant," but even when the giant has awakened, it has needed the occasional nap.

* Anytime you need a little bit of perspective, think about what might have happened had the internet existed in the 1940s and 1950s.  When Mizzou went 11-8-1 in 1946-47, it would have been hard to have a normal conversation over the "The game has passed Don Faurot by!" buzz.  And that says nothing of Mizzou's 2-8 season in 1951.  Loyalty and longevity have done great favors to the Mizzou program, no matter how hard we try to forget that.

As it stands, eight coaches have led Mizzou to at least one season at the 80th percentile or higher.  Gary Pinkel is tied for second-best with three such seasons.

Seasons at 80th Percentile or Higher:

  • 7: Dan Devine (1960-63, 65, 68-69)
  • 3: Don Faurot (1939, 41, 49), Al Onofrio (1973, 75-76), Warren Powers (1978, 80, 83), Gary Pinkel (2007-08, 2010)
  • 2: Gwinn Henry (1926, 29)
  • 1: Henry Schulte (1960), Larry Smith (1998)

Dan Devine's work in the 1960s is still the gold standard among all Mizzou coaches, but Pinkel's record has surpassed two others' from the Mizzou golden age that was 1958-83.  Al Onofrio was the engineer of some of Mizzou's greatest ever victories, but his teams couldn't avoid letdowns, and their schedule was just too difficult to ever pile up the win totals.  Meanwhile, Warren Powers' teams suffered from a frustrating inability to close out tight games.

When you look at Mizzou's history in four- to six-year chunks, Mizzou is currently in the middle of one of its best.  In fact, only a few other can even compare.

The First (1939-42)

  • Record: 30-10-1 (.744)
  • Avg. Percentile Performance: .754 (In today's 120-team environment, this is the equivalent to a finish of 29th place, driven down considerably by a poor 1940 season)
  • Record vs Ranked Opponents (and Well-Regarded Military Teams): 4-4 (.500) (Avg. Score: Opponent 10.8, Mizzou 9.4)
  • Record vs Top 10 Teams: 2-1
    W, No. 5 Oklahoma, 7-6 (1939)
    L, No. 8 Fordham, 0-2 (1941 -- Orange Bowl)
    W, No. 10 Nebraska, 27-13 (1939)
  • Record vs Unranked Opponents: 26-6-1 (.803) (Avg. Score of Loss: Opponent 14.8, Mizzou 5.8)

Though Don Faurot's overall level of success was sporadic, there is no arguing the way he put Missouri on the map.  Under Henry Schulte and Gwinn Henry, the Tigers had seen success pre-Faurot, but college football became a truly national game in the early-1930s, and in Henry's final couple of years and Frank Carideo's three-year coaching tenure, Mizzou fell apart.  They went 6-36-4 from 1930-34; as we've mentioned before, and as you can see from the above chart, college football took off and Mizzou got left behind.

Faurot, of course, changed that.  After four years in which Mizzou began to gain its footing -- they went 18-14-5 from 1935-38 -- the Tigers surged forward in 1939 behind Paul Christman, the Orf brothers, and some steady play in the trenches.  The Tigers beat three of four ranked opponents in 1939 (the only loss: versus No. 13 Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl), and Christman established himself as one of the country's best players.

We've linked to this before, but any excuse is a good one.  Here's a short YouTube video about the 1939 season, uploaded by Tigerborn.)

The most noteworthy aspect of this period was not that Missouri won a lot of games or established themselves -- it's that they lost Christman, completely re-tooled their offense, and got even better.  Necessity is the mother of invention, and necessity prompted Faurot to explore concepts that resulted in the creation of the Split-T formation between the 1940 and 1941 seasons.  Bob Steuber ran the Split-T to perfection, and the 1941 team could make a case to have been Mizzou's best ever.  The schedule did not give them much opportunity to back up such a claim (the Big 6 was just not a great conference in those days, and Mizzou did not play many elite teams -- of course, they also didn't lose to many mediocre teams), but after a tight loss to Ohio State to start the season, Mizzou ripped off eight straight wins, scoring 19 points or more (the equivalent of about 35 or more today) seven times.  They continued their momentum in 1942, but the war and its necessities pressed the Pause button on this great string.  When Faurot returned as Mizzou's head coach for the 1945 season, he saw intermittent success but never could reach and/or maintain the level at which Mizzou played in 1941-42.

The Best (1960-65)

  • Record: 46-12-5 (.770)
  • Avg. Percentile Performance: .875 (Today's equivalent: a 15th-place finish)
  • Record vs Ranked Opponents: 5-5 (.500) (Avg. Score: Opponent 10.5, Mizzou 10.3)
  • Record vs Top 10 Teams: 3-5 (.375)
    L, No. 3 Nebraska, 14-16 (1965)
    L, No. 5 Oklahoma, 3-13 (1963)
    L, No. 5 Nebraska, 0-9 (1964)
    L, No. 6 Northwestern, 12-23 (1963)
    W, No. 7 Navy, 14-10 (1960)
    W, No. 8 Arkansas, 7-6 (1963)
    L, No. 8 Colorado, 6-7 (1961)
    W, No. 10 Kansas, 10-7 (1961)
  • Record vs Unranked Opponents: 41-7-4 (.827) (Avg. Score of Loss: Opponent 13.4, Mizzou 5.7 -- that is, if you include Kansas 23, Mizzou 7 from 1960, anyway)

Faurot held on, with varying degrees of success, until 1956, then handed over the reins to hand-picked successor/opportunist Frank Broyles.  Broyles Petrino'd his way to Arkansas after just one season, and Faurot chose his real successor, Devine.  Devine's first two seasons racked up a good amount of experience and, thanks to the bowl rules of the day (Oklahoma wasn't allowed to go in back-to-back years), an Orange Bowl bid in 1959.  Then, beginning in 1960, Mizzou put together their most successful, sustained run.

Depending on how you look at things, Mizzou in the 1960s was either better or worse than you might think.  Mizzou finished ranked in the AP's Top 11 three times in six years and beat three Top 10 opponents; they twice went to what are now considered BCS bowls (Orange in 1960, Sugar in 1965), and the only thing preventing them from six bowls in six years was the fact that teams often elected to turn down bowl bids -- Mizzou did so three times in this period.

At the same time, however, the overall level of success here wasn't truly amazing.  Mizzou took on all comers, but in opportunities against the elitest of the elite, Mizzou did not fare well.  They played four teams ranked in the Top 6 in this period and lost all four games by an average score of 15.3 to 7.1.  (To continue the "If the Internet existed..." theme, DAN DEVINE CAN'T WIN THE BIG GAME!)  This was obviously the golden age for Mizzou football, but a return to this level should be considered at least somewhat attainable.

The Tease (1973-76)

  • Record: 27-18 (.600)
  • Avg. Percentile Performance: .852
  • Record vs Ranked Opponents: 9-9 (.500) (Avg. Score: Opponent 20.0, Mizzou 19.4)
  • Record vs Top 10 Teams: 6-4
    W, No. 2 Alabama, 20-7 (1975)
    W, No. 2 Ohio State, 22-21 (1976)
    L, No. 2 Oklahoma, 0-37 (1974)
    L, No. 3 Oklahoma, 3-31 (1973)
    L, No. 3 Nebraska, 7-30 (1975)
    W, No. 3 Nebraska, 34-24 (1976)
    W, No. 5 Nebraska, 21-10 (1974)
    L, No. 6 Oklahoma, 27-28 (1975)
    W, No. 7 Arizona State, 9-0 (1974)
    W, No. 8 USC, 46-25 (1976)
  • Record vs Unranked Opponents: 18-9 (.667) (Avg. Score of Loss: Opponent 28.0, Mizzou 11.0)

Al Onofrio's tenure shows us how it is almost better not to win big games if you're going to follow them up with terrible efforts.  If he had lost a few more times to Nebraska, Ohio State, etc., but beaten Kansas most of the time, he may have survived to coach here a while longer.  Instead, from 1973-76, Onofrio went 4-3 versus Top 5 teams ... and 3-5 versus Iowa State and Kansas.  There was possibly no time in Mizzou's history more simultaneously thrilling and annoying than this.  The schedules were loaded, and the only things bigger than Mizzou's huge wins were the eggs Mizzou laid following the wins.

Just look at the average score of the losses to unranked teams: 28-11.  In a four-game span in 1974, Mizzou shut out No. 7 Arizona State (one of the most explosive teams in the country), then gave up 59 points to Wisconsin; they responded with an 11-point win over No. 5 Nebraska ... then lost, 31-7, to Oklahoma State.  They began the 1975 season by completely and totally whipping Alabama in the middle of the most dominant stretch of Bear Bryant's career ... and finished it with a 42-24 loss to Kansas.  And of course, 1976 was Onofrio's masterpiece.  Mizzou completely dominated USC at The Coliseum, handing the Trojans their only loss of the season in a game that was really not as close as the 21-point final margin suggested.  Then they lost by 25 to an Illinois team that finished 5-6.  They beat No. 2 Ohio State in Columbus and No. 3 Nebraska in Lincoln ... and finished 6-5 after a 27-point loss (at home) to Kansas.

If the Internet existed in the mid-1970s, Tigerboard would have shut down.

Onofrio's successes doomed him to failure.  In his final season, 1977, Mizzou incredibly went a solid 2-3 versus ranked teams (they beat No. 15 Colorado and No. 20 Arizona State) ... and 2-4 versus unranked teams.  His wins raised expectations, and his failures ran him right out the door.  Mizzou's average percentile performance was outstanding during Onofrio's tenure (1971 aside, of course) ... but wins still matter, and in seven seasons Onofrio was just 38-41.  With selective memory, we look back fondly at this period because of the wins, and we forget the schizophrenia.  That is simultaneously the biggest endorsement and indictment of big-time non-conference schedules.

The Underrated (1978-83)

  • Record: 43-26-2 (.620)
  • Avg. Percentile Performance: .835
  • Record vs Ranked Opponents: 8-14 (.364) (Avg. Score: Opponent 21.5, Mizzou 15.5)
    Record vs Ranked Opponents After 1978: 5-12 (.294)
  • Record vs Top 10 Teams: 3-10 (.231) -- 1-8 (.111) after 1978
    L, No. 1 Alabama, 20-38 (1978)
    L, No. 1 Oklahoma, 23-45 (1978)
    L, No. 1 Nebraska, 13-34 (1983)
    W, No. 2 Nebraska, 35-31 (1978)
    L, No. 2 Nebraska, 20-23 (1979)
    L, No. 4 Texas, 0-21 (1979)
    W, No. 5 Notre Dame, 3-0 (1978)
    L, No. 5 Nebraska, 19-23 (1982)
    L, No. 7 Oklahoma, 22-24 (1979)
    L, No. 8 Nebraska, 16-38 (1980)
    W, No. 9 Mississippi State, 14-3 (1981)
    L, No. 9 BYU, 17-21 (1983)
    L, No. 10 Oklahoma, 7-17 (1980)
  • Record vs Unranked Opponents: 35-12-2 (.735) (Avg. Score of Loss: Opponent 24.5, Mizzou 16.4)

Really, Warren Powers screwed himself too.  Despite the Onofrio-esque losses to Colorado and Oklahoma State, Mizzou's wins over Notre Dame and Nebraska in his first season set a standard that few coaches could maintain.  Lord knows he didn't.  After 1978, Mizzou beat a Top 10 team just once (and their one victim, Mississippi State in 1981, finished just 8-4).  They remained competitive enough -- of their nine losses to Top 10 teams from 1979-83, only two were by more than 12 points -- but they blew too many opportunities.  Under Powers, Mizzou won four of their first five games decided by a touchdown or less ... then went 7-15-3 in such games in the rest of his tenure.  The wins kept rolling in, mostly against unranked teams, and Mizzou went to five bowls in Powers' first six years.  But the missed opportunities caused fan support to wane, and when Mizzou suffered too many close losses and back-tracked out of bowl eligibility in 1984, Mizzou officials decided they needed to make a move to keep fan interest alive.

Powers' dismissal is my most definitive reason why making a coaching change should be the absolute last-ditch option ... and why what I used to call "Glen Mason Territory" (where a team consistently wins ... and consistently fails to win more) is a dangerous, dangerous place.  It was easy to become convinced that Powers was never going to be more successful than he already had been, and on average, he was pretty damn successful ... but that is still quite often better than the alternative.  So do you roll the dice and risk over a decade of becoming a football non-entity, or do you make do with bowl bids and crowds of 40,000?  There honestly isn't a good answer there.

The New (2007-10)

  • Record: 40-14 (.741)
  • Avg. Percentile Performance: .831
  • Record vs Ranked Opponents: 6-9 (.400) (Avg. Score: Opponent 30.5, Mizzou 26.5)
  • Record vs Top 10 Teams: 2-5
    L, No. 1 Texas, 31-56 (2008)
    W, No. 2 Kansas, 36-28 (2007)
    L, No. 3 Texas, 7-41 (2009)
    W, No. 3 Oklahoma, 36-27 (2010)
    L, No. 4 Oklahoma, 21-62 (2008)
    L, No. 6 Oklahoma, 31-41 (2007)
    L, No. 9 Oklahoma, 17-38 (2007)
  • Record vs Unranked Opponents: 34-5 (.872) (Avg. Score of Loss: Opponent 33.2, Mizzou 24.6)

According to AP poll rankings, Mizzou has actually won two of their last four games against Top Three opponents.  This is one of those "stats can be used to prove anything" tidbits, but just remember that one next time you encounter someone employing the tired "Gary Pinkel can't win the big game" argument and breaking out "evidence" like the Insight Bowl.

At the same time, Mizzou hasn't fared as well against ranked teams in this stretch as they did in previous stretches of great play, especially considering a few of their wins have come against teams ranked No. 21-25 (the AP ranked only 20 teams through the other stretches above).  Ironically, Mizzou's strength has been exactly what some consider Pinkel's weakness: they beat the teams they're supposed to beat.  Even if you remove FCS teams from the equation, Mizzou is still 30-5 (.857) against unranked teams in the last four years, and while we can rail against the five losses ... they're only five losses.  In his most successful stretch, Dan Devine still lost seven games to unranked teams in six years, and by an average margin almost identical to Pinkel's).  Everybody loses these games, but as I've mentioned before, when you lose less and less, you remember the losses more and more.  It's never a good thing to lose to the 2010 Texas Tech's and 2009 Navy's of the world, and it should always be seen as preventable ... but it happens.  To everybody.  Even Dan Devine.

---

There is a tense relationship between hopes and expectations.  We can hope for more, we can hope for a team that doesn't lose to teams like 2010 Texas Tech, we can hope for a team that threatens to win national titles every year.  But really, we can only expect things that are within the bounds of history.  Today we looked at Mizzou's history; next, we'll expand our reach.

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