Dak Dillon-US PRESSWIRE
Change for change's sake almost never works. Whatever Gary Pinkel does (or doesn't do) to his staff or his team this offseason should be up to him and him alone. And there is not a single easy answer.
Fire everybody. As fans, we want clear, visceral proof that our pain is going to get fixed when our team loses. We want someone to pay for our disappointment. So we want change. We don't really discriminate. We just want change.
In theory, that makes sense. We invest time, money and far too much emotion into watching games played by the people whose laundry we identify with the most. And when that laundry plays poorly, we want to know a solution is on the way. Since we cannot sit in on coaches' meetings, and since we have no idea what changes are being made behind the scenes, we demand change we can see and feel.
Unfortunately, that change tends to be a lot easier in our heads than it does in practice.
The 2012 season has been Missouri's most frustrating since 2004. To me, it hasn't been AS frustrating as 2004 -- though the record will almost certainly end up just about the same, the schedule has been infinitely more difficult, and injuries have played a significant role -- but that doesn't change the fact that it has been frustrating, that Mizzou is indeed now likely to finish 5-7, and that Mizzou just wrapped up a 3-4 home campaign in front of more Missouri fans than have shown up for a season of Mizzou football in a long, long time. If nothing else, 2012 represents a missed opportunity to lock in a bigger, more SEC-worthy fanbase, and no future change can do anything about that. It's already in the past.
So we demand change. But what? How? Some massive scheme change? Maybe, but that's really not what people tend to clamor for when angry. They want heads to roll. So let's play a quick game, then: Who would you fire?
Offensive coordinator (and QBs coach) David Yost
Yost has had an incredibly challenging season this year, forced to call plays for an offense that was both rotating between two quarterbacks (and not by choice) and dealing with steady, constant degradation on the offensive line. The line couldn't open running holes in September and has spent most of the last two months struggling to deal with blitzes, especially with stunts up the middle (which killed Missouri against both Vanderbilt and Syracuse). Yost struggled to figure things out in this regard and called some terribly iffy games in September and October.
On the other hand, Yost has done a pretty damn solid job of calling plays in the last three games. His game plan versus Florida was magnificent (and done in by some terribly inaccurate passing). His game plan versus Tennessee was iffy, but both he and James Franklin adjusted and found things at that worked, and Mizzou scored on its last five possessions and seven of its last 10. His game plan against Syracuse looked strong, too, as evidenced by the fact that Mizzou gained nearly 300 yards in the first half and advanced the ball at least 40 yards on six of its first 10 drives. Things definitely got bogged down, and clearly the protections being called in the second and third quarters were not correct. If Syracuse gets that many linemen and linebackers through Mizzou's front five, it's at least partially on the offensive coordinator. Still, Yost has been, if not an elite offensive coordinator, then a very good one over the past three weeks, since the "his job is on the line" rumors truly picked up steam. Oh yeah, and he led a Top 20 offense in 2011 with a first-time starting quarterback, and he signed Dorial Green-Beckham last February. No matter what you think of Yost, he brings as much to this team as probably any assistant does.
Make no mistake: Yost is often frustrating. As mentioned in comments last night, he seems to leave advantages on the table sometimes (why Mizzou didn't run another five screens to Dorial Green-Beckham after the opening drive, I have no idea) instead of milking them for all they are worth, and last night Mizzou lost to a team that milked a single advantage for, literally, everything it was worth. He has his flaws, and plenty of them. But that doesn't mean he isn't good at his job overall, and that doesn't mean Mizzou cannot win with him.
(There have been some "maybe he takes a demotion or becomes co-coordinator with a new guy" rumors floating around for a while. After all, Gary Pinkel himself willingly agreed to do that at Washington before the 1989 season, sharing the role with incoming hot, young coach Keith Gilbertson. This is at at least conceivable, if not 100 percent likely.)
Defensive coordinator (and LBs coach) Dave Steckel
Entering Saturday's game, at least, Mizzou was fielding a Top 25 defense, two years after fielding a Top 15 defense. There have been issues at times this year; South Carolina was relentlessly effective in the short passing game, and Syracuse found a matchup to exploit over and over, and Steckel really had an adjustment for neither. But his adjustments against teams like Arizona State, UCF, Kentucky, Tennessee and, really, even Alabama were nothing short of fantastic. With a depleted, ineffective offense, Mizzou won close games versus both Arizona State and UCF early on, almost solely because of Steckel's defense. Without Steckel's adjustments, Mizzou doesn't beat Tennessee, either. He will catch hell for the fact that, on Syracuse's final play yesterday, Mizzou's defense didn't know what it was running (half were in man coverage, half were in zone), and that's justifiable. But deserving hell is not the same as deserving to be fired, and there aren't many who would seriously consider dropping him after the 2012 season as a whole.
Receivers coach Andy Hill
Andy Hill did not have his receivers playing to their full potential for the first two months of the season. Of that, there is little doubt. But a) he has perhaps the best track record of any assistant on the staff, b) his receivers have improved dramatically in November, and c) he owns Kansas City. The reason Bill Snyder retired from Kansas State the first time around? Because Andy Hill was beating him, repeatedly, for almost every good Kansas City recruit.
This year, Mizzou has offered scholarships to, by my count, six Kansas City-area players: LB Nick Ramirez (Lee's Summit West), DE Jamone Boyd (Lee's Summit West), QB Trent Hosick (Staley), OL Zach Hannon (Rockhurst), ATH Anthony Sherrils (Hogan Prep), and DT Maliek Collins (Center). Three have committed to Missouri (Ramirez, Hosick, Sherrils), one has committed elsewhere (Hannon to Nebraska), and two are undecided but, supposedly, heavily considering Missouri. Hill is not in danger.
Co-Offensive line coaches Bruce Walker and Josh Henson
This has been Missouri's worst offensive line that I can remember. Even when the team was awful in 1999-00, I don't recall the line being the major problem. This has also been the most ridiculously, unfairly injury-plagued unit I can remember. It isn't just that each of Missouri's top six (or six of the top seven or eight, depending on who's opinion of Taylor Chappell you are using) linemen got hurt. It's that they got hurt in such a consistent, evenly-distributed manner that the Tigers have never been able to start the same group of linemen for more than two straight weeks at a time. There has been no continuity, almost no experience, and no hope of linear improvement. I'm not sure much would have been different with the single best OL coach in the country (whoever that might be).
Even if Walker and Henson do bear responsibility for this year's unit (and they do to SOME degree, even if rather minor), they also get credit for the fact that Mizzou's was one of the best offensive lines in the country last year, even despite the loss of Elvis Fisher. That, and Henson has more recruiting ties in the South than any other coach on the staff, due to his time as LSU's recruiting coordinator. Dumping either or both of these men would address Mizzou's least effective unit in 2012, but it might not actually solve any problems.
Running backs coach Brian Jones
In terms of unit coaching, Jones has been as effective as anybody in the last few years, seemingly making the most of his unit's talents, from Tony Temple in 2007, to Derrick Washington in 2008 (pre-injury), to a foursome of interesting backs in 2010, to Henry Josey in 2011, to Kendial Lawrence in 2012. Despite a creative array of injuries, running back has been a strength for a while. At the same time, Jones is not necessarily an amazing recruiter. If you think Mizzou needs to upgrade from a talent perspective, Jones might be one of the more replaceable recruiters on staff. And one of the most capable position coaches.
Defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski
Though he has had a true blue-chipper to work with this year, no single coach has produced more overachievers (production versus recruiting ranking) than "Coach Kul," who is consistently named as a favorite by many recruits. He turned a nondescript junior college transfer (Keith Wright) into a second-team All-Big 12 performer (on a bad defense, no less). He turned three-star C.J. Mosley an all-conference performer and eight-year pro. He turned a skinny-as-hell end (Brian Smith) into Mizzou's career sacks leader. He turned a converted inside linebacker (Lorenzo Williams) into an all-conference performer and the anchor of one of Mizzou's best recent defenses. He turned a no-name from Amarillo (Ziggy Hood) into a first-round draft choice. He turned a three-star qualification risk from Kansas City (Aldon Smith) into a Top 10 draft choice. He has turned another no-name recruit (Michael Sam) into one of Mizzou's most underrated players.
At the same time, last night proved that, without Sheldon Richardson, this line can be neutralized against a good offensive line. And Mizzou will be without Sheldon Richardson in 2013. Kony Ealy is still hit-or-miss, Brad Madison has not had just an amazing season, and Matt Hoch is the only tackle who has been able to take advantage of OLs' attention to Richardson. This has not been his best performance, but he has been one of Missouri's most consistent coaches through the years.
Safeties coach Alex Grinch
Yadda yadda, nepotism, favoritism, yadda yadda. A certain portion of Mizzou's fanbase was annoyed when Grinch was hired, but he has thus far proven to be one of Missouri's most effective early recruiters in the South. It is clearly still very early in that process, but in the 2012 class Grinch has been most instrumental in landing quarterback Eddie Printz (Marietta, GA) and athlete/receiver Donovahn Jones (Hampton, GA). That, and the safeties have been FAR less of a problem this year than I feared. Certain, ridiculous fans will always resent him because Pinkel hired him as safeties coach instead of, you know, Jim Tressel or something, but he has performed as well as any assistant on staff this year, at least to my eyes.
Cornerbacks coach Cornell Ford
Now's where it gets interesting. Saturday night, Syracuse tortured poor Randy Ponder, and Mizzou didn't have an answer, in part because it evidently didn't think it had any better options at No. 3 corner than Ponder, not sophomore Xavier Smith, not redshirt freshman Ernest Payton, and not redshirt freshman David Johnson, who might or might not be on the team anymore (I read that he was gone, but he's still on the roster). That these seemingly good athletes have failed to develop is at least partially on Ford.
For a while now, many have considered Ford the weakest assistant on the staff, and I haven't exactly had a ton of evidence for disagreeing. He has long been maligned for often iffy St. Louis recruiting, so if he isn't recruiting well OR coaching his unit well, he would seem to be expendable.
One problem, however: He is killing it in St. Louis this year. There is obviously time for this to change (there's always a fear that recruits will jump ship during a disappointing season, but it hasn't happened yet), but right now Mizzou has offered seven StL-area players this year. They have scored commits from six: ATH Chase Abbington (Ft. Zumwalt South), OL Alec Abeln (SLUH), DT Antar Thompson (Richmond Heights), ATH Aarion Penton (CBC), LB Eric Beisel (Rockwood Summit) and OL Harneet Gill (Francis Howell). Mizzou won pretty high-profile battles for both Abbington and Beisel in particular. The only miss thus far: Burroughs RB Ezekiel Elliott, who supposedly likes Ford and Mizzou quite a bit but committed to Ohio State. And it is rather difficult to fault somebody for that decision at the moment, isn't it?
So basically, the most dump-able assistant is having perhaps his best recruiting year to date. That makes things awkward, yes?
At halftime of the 2005 Independence Bowl, with Mizzou down 28-7 to South Carolina, I was on the phone with a friend of mine who was telling me about fans chanting "Gary Barnett" in a bar in the first half. Granted, I was STILL horrified at the thought of bringing in Barnett to replace Gary Pinkel (those same fans were screaming to hire Bob Huggins as basketball coach, and, well, there's a reason these people don't actually have any say in things). But with the disappointing effort I was watching, I clearly remember saying the following: "I'm still not going to call for Pinkel's head, but if he's gone after this, I can't really complain." He wasn't, of course (and he probably wouldn't have been even if Mizzou lost that game instead of coming back -- Mike Alden does not have an itchy trigger finger). And that was a very, very, VERY good thing for Missouri Football.
For the last few weeks, I've been thinking something similar, if less extreme. It won't surprise me at all if there are some shakeups on Gary Pinkel's staff this offseason. Maybe a new co-coordinator for the offense. Maybe a couple of new position coaches. Who knows? And if change comes, I won't complain. But there are absolutely no obvious answers, and anybody who pretends otherwise isn't paying enough attention. Every assistant who has fared poorly this year is either recruiting quite well or has performed very well in recent history. Like, last year. If change comes, that might be a good thing. But there is plenty of justification is there are no major changes.
Following the crippling, annoying 2004 season, Gary Pinkel and his staff sat down and decided that a new offense was needed. Without making a single staff change, Pinkel, offensive coordinator Dave Christensen, and the entire offensive staff made the changes necessary for improvement, and guess what: Things improved. Mizzou went from 5-6 in 2004, to 7-5 in 2005, to 8-5 in 2006 (despite a graduation-addled depth chart), to 12-2 in 2007. Change happens in a lot of ways.
Above all else, understand this: whatever change happens, needs to happen because Gary Pinkel decided it should happen. This is his ship. If he fails to make enough change, or he doesn't make the right changes, it's his ass. Not yours, not mine, not anybody else's. We can all moan and complain that he's too loyal, too stubborn, or whatever (complaints that are completely true … except for when they are completely false), but he knows the stakes here, and if he thinks loyalty and stubbornness are the path to success, a) he might be right, b) he might be wrong, and c) if he's wrong, he'll pay for it more than anybody else. Change for change's sake almost never works. The only way it will is if it is both earnest and organic, and it comes from the man in charge. And if he chooses not to make any changes, he will be the one who either reaps the rewards or pays the consequences.