A few weeks ago, Pinkel had one last chance to speak with James, who was his coach at Kent State, then his boss at Kent State and Washington, all of which to Pinkel means that it’s basically Don James’ program in Columbia that is ranked fifth in the BCS standings this week.
Pinkel broke down on the long phone message he initially left James, crying and telling him how much he loved him. When James was able to call back a few days later, James’ voice initially was quivering.
“And then all of a sudden, coach James came back: coach James in charge, and the leader,” Pinkel said, smiling. “He asked me about our next game … I got to tell him I loved him when he hung up.”
Sharing those depths of emotions hasn’t always been something Pinkel would be inclined to do. And while this is a unique relationship in his life, it’s a reminder that the loss also comes at an extraordinary time in his life.
Pinkel told his players Sunday about James’ death — most weren’t born when James coached his last game, the 1993 Rose Bowl — but they knew the impact James had on their coach.
“We knew something was wrong because he wasn’t his usual happy self,” linebacker Kentrell Brothers said. “When he told us what happened, we all let him know we’re there for him. … Coach Pinkel loved that guy to death.”
Pinkel said James’ best guidance came when Pinkel left Seattle and headed for Toledo. He asked for one last piece of advice, not knowing he’d carry the answer with him every day for more than 20 years.
“He looked me dead in the eye and said, ‘Gary, when things get tough, and they’re going to get tough, you focus on waking up in that morning, you focus on doing your job hour by hour by hour,’” Pinkel said. “He said, ‘Because in this business there are so many outside distractions that if you let those in you will never have a chance to be successful.’”
Pinkel would never forget those words.
“From a management standpoint and a leadership standpoint, it was the greatest advice I was ever given,” Pinkel said.
James will be remembered as a coach who stressed discipline and a no-nonsense approach. Pinkel often attests that he owes his organizational foundation to James, and he constantly alludes to James when talking to his players.
“Coach Pinkel took (James’) program and everything he was about and installed it into our program,” linebacker Donovan Bonner said. “If he wasn’t in Coach Pinkel’s life, then our program would be a lot different.”
James' impact on Pinkel has been obvious throughout his entire career, and James' degrading health the last two months has been a topic that Pinkel talked about with unease. But even though the "Dawgfather" is gone, his system remains in Columbia.
"I learned the Don James System," Pinkel said, "that was at Kent State, then went to Seattle, Washington, that won, that went to Toledo, that won, it's come to Columbia Missouri that won. The Don James System. I am a Don James disciple. Through the toughest times ... what we did, we embraced it. We did not make a lot of changes ... We embraced that system. He taught me how to be a head football coach by example."
The clearest example of the Don James System has been mentioned by Pinkel a few times since last season. It's James' advice on how to handle the tough times as a football coach. Pinkel and his team saw those tough times a year ago. This year, there are still tough times, just at the other end of the spectrum.
Losing begets problems. Winning begets problems.
In times of crisis, when the wagons needed circling, nobody circled them like The Dawgfather. When you ask Mizzou players about 2012, about a 5-7 record and about the criticism being flung at Columbia from all corners, they recall Pinkel offering the same kind of protection, the same insulation. The same faith.
"Whenever we were down last year, he (believed) in us," Boehm said. "And if he believes in us, then why can't you believe in yourself? And that's the big thing with Coach Pinkel, you know, and I love (that)."
Pinkel quoted his old coach, consciously or unconsciously, for years. In days of better health, James would visit Columbia to witness, firsthand, the beast that his pupil had built. When the Tigers hit the skids last fall, a campaign that was marked by Pinkel's activities off the field and a rash of injuries on it, the coach's response was to pour concrete along the tent poles, to retrench his players in the program's mantras, its core beliefs -- core beliefs that he had inherited from James in the first place.
"We needed to get back to the foundation of what we are," Pinkel explained.
“It’s hard to put into words how much it hurts to lose a man like Don James. He was my coach, my mentor, my friend, and he had such an amazing influence on my life, both personally and professionally. The program we built at Toledo and here at Missouri is Don James’ program, it’s a tribute to how he developed men and built football teams. This is a tough, tough day, and I’m so sorry for his wife, Carol, and the James family, as well as the entire Washington Huskies family. Coach James was a legend, and if I’m remembered for anything, I hope that it might be that I helped carry his legacy forward.”
Any time you hear about "the process" or hear Gary Pinkel say "We do what we do," know that it comes from Don James. James' tenure was not without flaws -- the Huskies went just 36-21-2 from 1985-89 before falling to go 31-5 in James' final three seasons; plus, James ended up resigning because of sanctions -- but his ability to build wisdom from experience and pass that wisdom to those close to him was something incredible. They say management isn't in the decisions you make, it's in the decisions you make when things go wrong, when your initial decisions go poorly. James succeeded because he failed, and he taught Gary Pinkel how to do the same.