The Bad Season checklist: The media joins in, right on cue

Bill Carter

The links post is forthcoming, but let's begin Black Friday with one specific link.

Last week, star linebacker prospect Nick Ramirez announced that he was decommitting from Missouri and opening up his recruitment. Whether this turns into an actual loss (as in, he signs with another school), or whether this is an Evan Boehm, The Sequel situation (in which he takes other visits, then commits to Mizzou all over again) remains to be seen. But it was, in effect, part of the Bad Season Checklist. When you have a disappointing season, certain developments are virtually inevitable, and "Recruiting class comes under siege" is part of that. Next up: The Media turns on you.

I get it. I do. To be a major columnist in a decent-sized market, you are all but required to a) be an unbelievable writer (the rare Posnanski, in other words), or b) be willing to not only jump on and off of bandwagons, but be the first, and loudest, to do so. Bernie Miklasz is a well-known, respected mainstay in the St. Louis sports universe, and while he certainly isn't a bad writer, he has established a good portion of his career through (b). When your local team of choice is doing well, he is the first to write a glowing, "Things have changed, and it's a great time to be a ___ fan" piece. You love him when your team is doing well. You also probably hate him when things go south, even temporarily. Through the years, I have come to respect Bernie a lot more than i did when I first began paying attention, and I'm pretty sure I would very much enjoy having a chat with him about Mizzou, et cetera, if the opportunity ever came to pass. But there is absolutely no question that he can be very, very (b), and very, very frustrating, especially when he takes shortcuts in logic.

In this sense, we should probably be happy that so much time passed between anti-Pinkel columns. It proves that Mizzou has had things going well for quite a while. Alas, the streak ended yesterday. Bernie provided us with exactly the color-by-numbers job that one would expect from a columnist who decides, "I think it's time to write a 'Has Pinkel gone stale?' column. Let's see what evidence I can find." Granted, Bernie has always been excellent with the mea culpas, which is both endearing (because it separates him from, say, the Skip Baylesses of the world) and infuriating (because it doesn't stop him from doing other color-by-numbers hatchet jobs at a later date). And if Mizzou suddenly goes 11-2 next year, he will be the first to effusively praise Gary Pinkel and talk about what a great rebound that was. But since it's been a while, let's celebrate the occasion by responding.

Mizzou wouldn’t be in the SEC without Gary Pinkel. His dogged turnaround of the dismal MU football program rates among the best coaching jobs we’ve seen in the last 25 years.

It’s easy to forget the sorry state of Missouri football from 1985 through 2000. Coaches Woody Widenhofer, Bob Stull and Larry Smith combined to lose 115 of 179 games, and posted only two winning seasons (both by Smith) in 16 years.

It took the methodical Pinkel a while to get things moving in the right direction. He arrived from Toledo in 2001 and went 22-25 in his first four seasons, but clicked off seven consecutive winning seasons (and bowl trips) from 2005 through 2011.

The Tigers were ranked No. 1 in the nation for a week late in the 2007 season, and that didn’t seem possible. I don’t take those things for granted. Like many of you, I remember too many horrific Saturday afternoons in Columbia before Pinkel resuscitated MU football.

In those bad old days, it was incomprehensible to envision Mizzou having a program worthy of being recruited by the SEC. Pinkel pulled off a remarkable transformation, and his legacy at Missouri is secure.

Totally reasonable, right? Pinkel's legacy is secure -- like Greg Schiano at Rutgers, Missouri does not score its conference upgrade without Gary Pinkel. Even if the Tigers fail in the SEC with him (and it should go without saying that the jury is very, very much out on that), he built the Mizzou program up enough to make a move to the SEC that wouldn't have even been a 5 percent possibility a decade ago. Now let's let the anvil drop.

As Pinkel winds down his 12th season as Mizzou’s coach, the program has stalled. The Tigers are 5-6 as they head to Texas A&M for what likely will be a season-ending loss. One of their wins came against Southeastern Louisiana. Two other wins were bagged against Kentucky and Tennessee, which soon fired their head coaches.

You can blame Missouri’s miseries on the injuries to starting quarterback James Franklin and the wreckage of the team’s offensive line. But that doesn’t change the reality: Missouri’s momentum has slowed, and the excuses don’t really hold up when viewed from a broader perspective.

He never explains what "a broader perspective" actually means, and that bugs me. I read the rest of the article with the sole purpose of finding out what the "broader perspective" was. This season has absolutely been a disappointment, and I say that while acknowledging that you could make a very easy case that Missouri is one James Franklin MCL from 7-4 and, then, a Sheldon Richardson suspension from 8-3. That Missouri is actually 5-6, not 7-4, not 8-3, obviously matters. But bad seasons matter. Mark Richt survived a 6-7 season at Georgia in 2010 and, two years later, has his program No. 3 in the BCS standings, two wins from a berth in the BCS title game. Hell, Pinkel's mentor Don James went from No. 2 in the country in 1984, to three years of 7-8 wins from 1985-87, to 6-5 in 1988. He won a national title three years later. I'm pretty sure columnists in Atlanta and Seattle were both writing "His program has gone stale" columns in 2010 and 1988, respectively. In fact, I read many such columns about Richt.

But again, what is the broader perspective here? I'd love to hear it. With no injuries whatsoever, Mizzou was probably going to be limited by slow growth in the receiving corps and a solid upgrade in competition in the trenches. With perfect health, there wasn't going to be an SEC East title in the works this season, and we would be talking about the need for improvement in that regard. Throw in the worst season of injuries I can remember, and ... voila! A 5-6 season. Everybody involved knows a rebound is necessary in 2013, and honestly, the schedule alone should provide that. Everybody involved knows the program needs a momentum shift -- that's what happens when you go 5-6 or 5-7. But there's no questioning that injuries held this team back, whether you take a narrow or broad perspective on the issue.

The Tigers went 5-4 in their final season (2011) in the Big 12...

They also went 8-5 with a sophomore quarterback, just like they did with Brad Smith in 2003, Chase Daniel in 2006, and Blaine Gabbert in 2009.

...and they’re 2-5 in their first expedition through the SEC. Over the last three seasons, the Tigers have a conference record of 13-11, and 11 of the victories came against teams with losing records.

To make this seem like an extended downward trend, he pulls in the 2010 season, which saw Missouri go 10-3 and beat the No. 1 team in the BCS rankings. Hell, he might as well have pulled in 2009 to make his case better if he was going to pull in 2010, too.

Since Missouri fared as well in 2011 (with a schedule much tougher than what Daniel or Gabbert faced in 2006 or, especially, 2009), it was fair to think Mizzou was on a familiar trajectory as it was then, when the Tigers surged in each quarterback's second year. That means this is officially the first truly disappointing, off-trajectory season in quite a while (since Smith's junior year).

Not counting two wins over blood-donor opponents Western Illinois and Southeastern Lousiana, the Tigers are 11-11 since the beginning of the 2011 season. A loss to the Aggies would make it 11-12. And MU completed its home schedule by blowing a lead and losing to Syracuse, falling to 3-4 at Faurot Field this season.

This isn’t exactly what the MU administration had in mind when aggressively maneuvering the football program into a place in the SEC. After all of the hype and buildup, after an ambitious fundraising drive that included an increase in ticket prices, the SEC launch was a dud.

As we've said many times here, this was a very, very ill-timed bad season. But it was also the first bad season in a really long time.

Wait, was this the "broader perspective"?

When Missouri jumped to the SEC, the standards were raised. Mizzou made an obvious statement: we’ve arrived. We are good enough to take on the best. We belong in the most elite conference in college football. We can win in the SEC. We’re not the same old Mizzou.

I love that attitude. Mizzou should aspire to greatness, instead of settling for simply being decent, or good. But when you take on that challenge, it creates pressure and expectations and there’s an obligation to play to a higher standard.

It does bear mentioning, by the way, that Missouri led both the current No. 3 (Georgia) and No. 4 (Florida) teams in the third quarter, and the Tigers came really close to sending Florida to overtime in Gainesville. Granted, coming close is very much not the goal, but it is pretty much the definition of competing or being "good enough to take on the best." Mizzou got smoked by Alabama and South Carolina, but guess what: with this beaten-down roster, Mizzou would have gotten smoked once or twice in the Big 12, too.

A sequence of .500 seasons won’t cut it.

One is not a sequence.

If Mizzou didn’t want fans and media grumbling over lackluster results, then the university should have kept the expectations at a lower level.

Because ... Mizzou fans ... Mizzou fans ... wouldn't have "grumbled over lackluster results" had Mizzou just stayed in the Big 12? Mizzou fans? All these years, Bernie, and I'd have thought you'd have interacted with a Missouri fan by now (especially during the "Matt Painter is a done deal" saga, ahem). Do I need to introduce you to the "Fire Yost" brigade? The "Fire Eberflus" brigade? The "Fire Dave Christensen (who was so bad at his job that another team gave him a promotion)" brigade? The "Fire Pinkel and Hire Gary Barnett" brigade? The "Fire Mike Alden and Hire Anybody Who Will Let Us Hire Bob Huggins" brigade? You think Missouri fans only started paying attention and lashing out after losses this year? Seriously? Of all the sentences in this column, this is the most mind-boggling.

But when you decide to take on the big boys, the coach automatically faces more scrutiny, and feels more heat.

Again, because Gary Pinkel did not face any heat after the disappointing 2004 season (which came just one year after the "Pinkel is our savior" season of 2003). Gotcha.

College football is a business. That’s why Pinkel is being paid more than $2 million per year. This is the game. And Pinkel is in the game. The game can make you rich, and the game can tear you apart. If you can’t stand the game, then walk away.

Unless Pinkel chooses to retire from the job — which wouldn’t shock me — he’ll likely get the benefit of the doubt. This was a transition year. I don’t think anyone believed it would be easy to walk into the SEC and start piling up the wins.

But ... you just said...

Pinkel deserves a chance to make this right, and to get Mizzou back on track in 2013.

Are you sure? Because it sounds like he clearly isn't going to cut it with these new-fangled, "grumbling" Mizzou fans with "expectations."

But we have questions:

• Has Pinkel been affected by the turmoil in his personal life? He’s had a difficult 12 months. There was the messy arrest (and subsequent guilty plea) for driving while intoxicated last November, followed by the end of his 39-year marriage. It’s easy to say that Pinkel’s personal life is just that: his business and no one else’s. Well, it’s not that simple. If a coach is distracted by havoc in his private life, then it’s an issue. If the off-field turbulence reduces Pinkel’s effectiveness as a coach and a leader, it’s a problem.

This absolutely isn't any of our business, and we're never ever going to know (nor should we) the impact the turmoil in Gary Pinkel's personal life had this season. (However, we should probably stick to the divorce. He was arrested over a year ago. His team responded to this turmoil by going 3-0 in 2011 after his arrest.) But honestly, if you're a fan of the program, don't you almost hope this has had a negative impact? I say that for two reasons: 1) It would be completely and totally understandable. 2) It would be temporary. People eventually move on after a divorce. We've long read about "football wives" and the behind-the-scenes role they have in keeping a football program moving forward. For the first 21 years of his head coaching career, Pinkel's wife was by his side, helping to prepare meals for players, helping to host recruits, et cetera. Now he's had to go it alone. That would have an impact. But next season, it won't be new anymore. If this has had an impact in 2012, it will have less of one in 2013. In theory, at least. But again, we're never going to know the answer to this. It's always just going to be guesswork.

• Has Pinkel gone stale? Pinkel is a good coach, but he’s 60 years old, and he’s been in this job for 12 years. We’ve seen plenty of good coaches stagnate if they stay in one place for too long. It’s hardly unusual in coaching.

It's just a waste of time to ask a question like this, and for one simple reason: asking it will not get us to an answer any faster. If Mizzou goes 10-3 next year, the answer's no. If Mizzou goes 5-7 again, the answer is yes.

• Does Pinkel still have the full support of director of athletics Mike Alden and the Missouri administration? That became an open-ended question after Alden came down hard on Pinkel in the aftermath of the DUI arrest. Pinkel was suspended for a game. He had to donate one week’s pay to the MU Wellness Center. Pinkel had his salary frozen for a year, and Alden took away the coach’s bonus (around $300,000) for getting the Tigers to a bowl game. Pinkel was ordered to write a letter of apology to MU fans and perform 50 hours of community service.

I’m not suggesting that Alden was out of line. But I also believe that when Alden brought the hammer down on Pinkel, the balance of power shifted. Until then, Alden had done nothing but lavish Pinkel with unreserved praise and multiple pay raises.

Pinkel’s annual salary of $2.35 million makes him one of the highest-paid coaches in the industry. But the DUI prompted Alden to truly confront Pinkel for the first time, and Alden hit him hard. When the AD publicly flogged the coach, I have to believe that something changed.

When you ground your child, and your child totally deserves it, that doesn't mean that "something changed." Pinkel completely, and publicly, accepted his punishment. Alden has said, approximately 1,340 times in the last 12 months, that Pinkel has his complete and total support. This was an awful incident, and Alden, the boss, reprimanded Pinkel, the employee. But again, Mizzou went 3-0 to finish the season, then signed the No. 1 recruit in the country. If something "changed," then it probably "changed back" shortly thereafter.

• Can Pinkel’s spread offense work in the SEC? Or will it continue to sputter against the faster, stronger SEC defenses? That’s been a topic of frequent discussion and debate. Mizzou installed the offense before the 2005 season and averaged 31.1 points per game against Big 12 opponents. That ranked fifth in the Big 12 over the seven-year stretch, and the Tigers never averaged fewer than 25 points per game in conference action during a season. This year, Mizzou is ranked 11th among the 14 SEC teams with an average of 20.9 points per game in conference play.

And Texas A&M is averaging 543 yards per game. The spread can work. Generally speaking, that question has been answered. Let's move on with our lives. And to avoid acknowledging quarterback and offensive line injuries here while passing along Mizzou's 2012 stats is kind of insulting.

• Will Alden demand a shakeup of Pinkel’s staff? Only three of Pinkel’s assistant coaches have left during his 12 seasons at Mizzou. Is it time to freshen the staff by bringing in some fresh blood, and new ideas? If Alden decides to push for changes, will Pinkel comply or push back? Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Pinkel said there would be no staff changes before 2013. We’ll see about that.

Honestly, this is almost the only question that actually matters. The only way that Alden's relationship with Pinkel gets significantly damaged right now is if Alden is pushing for staff changes behind the scenes, and Pinkel publicly announced that there would be no changes. That's pretty clear insubordination. We obviously heard on Tigerboard (!) this week that Alden was not only pushing for changes, but that a couple of assistants had already been told they were going to be let go. If true, Pinkel could be in trouble. But ... a) even though that came from a semi-reliable, "in the know" poster on Tigerboard, it came from the Internet; and b) demanding massive changes behind the scenes isn't really Mike Alden's m.o., is it? It would seem a bit out of character if true. Within Alden's first couple of years at Mizzou, he was this type of athletic director, supposedly pushing changes on Larry Smith (hello, new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit) and supposedly forcing Norm Stewart to retire. But he hired Pinkel in late-2000, there has been almost none of this. And if he didn't force changes on Pinkel after 2004, why would he now? I realize the expectations are different now, but ... I would still be pretty shocked if Alden was forcing changes on Pinkel.

Still, this is the one scenario that could result in a messy split between Alden and Pinkel. IF Alden is trying to get PInkel to hire new assistants, and IF Pinkel decided his best plan of action would be to go public with his refusal, then we've got issues here. But nothing in this double-if scenario has been confirmed as true. Not even close.

• Can Pinkel and staff recruit better athletes that will make Missouri more capable of competing at a higher level in the SEC? I’m not talking about the occasional blue-chip prospect, like wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham. The Tigers require more across-the-board athleticism.

We'll see if it falls apart because of the poor season, but as it currently stands, Mizzou's current list of commits comprises one of Missouri's better recruiting classes. Mizzou hasn't had an in-state haul this good (if Nick Ramirez comes back aboard, anyway) since probably the 2004 class that had Tony Temple, Chase Patton, et cetera. I really like the long-term plan Mizzou seemed to establish this offseason -- hitting up the in-state kids hard to commit early, hitting Atlanta hard, et cetera. If this class doesn't fall apart, and if Pinkel and staff are still holding their jobs for a while, it could pay off. Make no mistake: Mizzou isn't going to start landing Top 15 recruiting classes. But Bobby Petrino didn't at Arkansas, either. With Mizzou's record of player development, the Tigers don't need regular Top 10-15 classes to succeed, which is good, as I don't think there are many coaches in the country who could pull that off here. The natural base of talent is not strong enough, and besides, the Top 12 or so teams (when it comes to recruiting) almost never change, no matter who is coaching where.

• At this stage of his career, what is Pinkel’s upside? Here’s why I ask: even during the best of times, MU struggled to beat ranked teams. In his 12 seasons Mizzou is 80-29 vs. unranked opponents, and 10-31 against teams ranked in the Top 25.

Almost everybody struggles to regularly beat ranked teams. Because ranked teams are typically very good. But in compiling this stat, Bernie almost certainly noticed that this 10-31 record included 0-4 this year (when Mizzou isn't very good), 0-3 in 2009 (ditto), and 0-7 in Pinkel's first two years. Mizzou also went 7-6 in 2007, 2008 and 2010. The good version of a Pinkel team can hold its own just fine. So the question, then, is whether you think Pinkel can produce a good team again. Perhaps that's a debate worth having, but it's only been two years since this "good" team existed. It's not like it's been a decade or something.

Now, let’s boil this down a bit to concentrate on recent seasons. Since 2005, Pinkel is 9-20 vs. Top 25 teams and 59-15 against unranked opponents. The Tigers are 6-17 since 2005 when pitted against a ranked conference opponent. I suppose all of this can change for the better, but I don’t see a genuine basis for optimism.

Since it's changed for the better, worse, better and worse just since the 2005 sample you took, I'd say it could certainly change again. And then change again after that.

Pinkel’s body of work warrants another chance. It would be callous to abruptly run him off after a couple of mediocre seasons.

Mizzou played at a Top 25 level against one of the toughest schedules in the country in 2011. We can hope for better, but that was not mediocre. This season? Mediocre. But one is not a couple.

But for the first time since Pinkel took over the Tigers, there are reasons to take a hard look at the state of the program.

One should probably always take a "hard look" at the state of the program. It also should be a fair look.

When Mizzou made the move to the SEC, Pinkel called on the Mizzou administration to deliver with more funding, and called on the fans to deliver more support. That’s fine. It was appropriate to issue that challenge, because everyone involved with Mizzou had to raise their game.

There’s only one problem with that: Pinkel didn’t deliver on his end.

While dealing with an unprecedented number of injuries and a schedule that, after Saturday, will have included five Top 10 opponents (and a 5-2 record against opponents outside of the Top 10).

The Tigers didn’t raise their game to the SEC level. A dozen years into the job, the coach has to prove himself all over again.

Agreed.

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