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Gary Pinkel vs OU, Texas, Don James and history (Part One)

Despite the disappointment of the last couple weeks of the 2008 season, it's clear by now that the Chase Daniel Years will be considered a high point in Mizzou history.  Hopefully there are plenty more great years to come under Gary Pinkel, but when you cycle from one group of recruits to another, you never know for sure that success will follow.

Of all the success of the Chase Daniel Years, there's an interesting dichotomy in Mizzou's record from 2006-08, one that was driven home mercilessly this past weekend:

Chase Daniel versus Oklahoma and Texas: 0-5 (last two years: 0-4).
Chase Daniel versus everybody else: 29-6 (last two years: 21-2).

Missouri lost to both Oklahoma State and Kansas this year, and while both of those losses were painful and unexpected, it's clear that over the last three years, Missouri has been better than just about every team it played...except Oklahoma and Texas. Two me, that brings up two questions: 1) Can Missouri ever truly compete consistently with OU and Texas, and 2) If not, what should be expected of Gary Pinkel (or any other Missouri coach)?  We'll cover Question 1 today, Question 2 hopefully tomorrow.

Can Missouri ever truly compete consistently with Oklahoma and Texas?

Let's re-visit a post I made back in May, called "Culture vs Caliber."

I had a theory a while back--and I never had the time/non-laziness to prove or disprove it--that building a sustained power is cyclical.  And few programs from the mid-level of D1 (that would include, historically, us) have the resources, length of rope, or luck involved to actually crack through to the upper echelon and stay there.  Think about how many not-historically-successful programs have emerged and threatened to break into that USC/Ohio State/Florida/Oklahoma/etc level over the past 10-15 years.  There's Virginia Tech, and then there's...well...that's it.  I guess you could count Kansas State (though they've obviously taken about 8 steps backwards in recent years), and I guess you could maybe count West Virginia or Louisville if you really wanted to, but only VT and K-State have cracked that Top 10 echelon in more than one recruiting cycle (meaning, the 4-5 years that a special, 'breakthrough' class of players attends a school) under the same coach (or branch of the coaching tree), and only VT is still there (I guess).  Otherwise, that's about it.


Honestly, it seems that the only way a program can jump to the upper echelon and stay there is in cycles.  You recruit some kids who believe in what you can bring them, they succeed as upper-classmen, you parlay that success into higher-caliber recruits, you endure a down(ish) year or two when the last class cycles through and the high-upside youngsters are cutting their teeth, then you achieve even higher heights when those kids are upper-classmen...which leads to higher-caliber recruits, smaller down-periods, higher upside, etc.  Sounds great, but honestly it just doesn't happen very often.  Again, the list after Virginia Tech and K-state is pretty much nonexistent...and even then, Tech hasn't gotten back to a Title Game like they did in the Michael Vick years (though I guess they, like about 23 others teams, came relatively close last year), and K-State fell off of the relevance map as soon as Bill Snyder retired (actually, about a year or two before that--his recruiting had plummeted, and the writing was on the wall).

As with a lot of coaches, Gary Pinkel's recruiting cycles can basically be broken up into QB eras.  The "Brad Smith" recruiting cycle brought Missouri back to bowl games, and the "Chase Daniel" recruiting cycle made Missouri a Top 25 program.  The next cycle, be it the "Blaine Gabbert" cycle, the "Blaine Dalton/Ashton Glaser" cycle, or whatever, probably won't see as seamless a transition as the last one.  There will likely be a drop-off of anywhere between two and four wins in 2009, but there will almost certainly be strong improvement in 2010 and 2011.  Then comes another cycle, an so on.

To see how the idea of "cycles" works, look at Bill Snyder.  Here are the 3-year moving averages for wins for Snyder.

Moving averages for K-State under Bill Snyder
3-year span
Avg. Wins
Avg. Win %
1989-91 4.3 .394
1990-92 5.7 .515
1991-93 7.0 .632
1992-94 7.7 .671
1993-95 9.3 .792
1994-96 9.3 .778
1995-97 10.0 .833
1996-98 10.3 .838
1997-99 11.0 .892
1998-00 11.0 .846
1999-01 9.3 .737
2000-02 9.3 .718
2001-03 9.3 .700
2002-04 8.7 .667
2003-05 6.7 .541

First of all, you can really sort of see the "cycles" in that data.  Second, rarely did K-State make a severe jump up or down.  Really, starting in 1991-93, once Snyder had laid some of the groundwork, only twice did K-State go up or down more than 1.0 wins--up 1.6 wins between 1992-94 and 1993-95 and down 1.7 wins between 1998-00 and 1999-01.  Most of the time it was just a steady crawl up (and then back down).

(And third of all, in this view you can see that Snyder's biggest accomplishment--the '03 Big 12 title--came when the program was already starting to slide.  Just thought that was interesting.)

Naturally we should look at Gary Pinkel's tenure with the same approach.

Moving averages for Mizzou under Gary Pinkel
3-year span
Avg. Wins
Avg. Win %
2001-03 5.7 .472
2002-04 6.0 .500
2003-05 6.7 .556
2004-06 6.7 .556
2005-07 9.0 .692
2006-08 9.7* .725

* And counting.

First of all, it's certainly neat to see that if Mizzou can beat Northwestern in the Alamo Bowl, Mizzou will have averaged 10.0 wins a year for the last three seasons.  Something to shoot for in San Antonio, I guess.  (And with 8 wins in 2009, they can maintain that 10.0 average.)  Second, despite the 2004 setback, it's important to note that the average win % has either remained steady or gone up every 3-year span.  This is a much better way to look at a coach's progress than any one season's results.

It's also interesting to note how unheard-of the 2007 season was from a long-term standpoint.  Whereas Bill Snyder's average never went up or down more than 2.0 wins, Mizzou jumped by 2.3 wins between 2004-06 and 2005-07 because of the 2007 season.  It will probably be hard to maintain that level over the next few years without at least a slight step backwards, but it's certainly not impossible.

As nice a job as Pinkel has done here, Missouri is playing by a different set of rules, with a different set of standards, than the Oklahoma's and Texas's of the world.  Here are the 3-year averages for Bob Stoops at Oklahoma: 10.3, 12.0, 11.7, 12.0, 10.7, 10.3, 10.0, 11.3.  Gary Pinkel's best average is Stoops' worst.  Bill Snyder's best averages (11.0 twice) would be 5th on Stoops' list.

Mack Brown's averages?  9.0, 9.7, 10.3, 10.7, 10.7, 11.3, 11.3, 11.0, 10.3.  Brown's highest highs aren't quite to Stoops' level, but they're close.  And once again, Pinkel's success would hardly register on Brown's scale, while Snyder's success would have been close to Brown's best success...only Brown has done it for most of a decade, not half a decade. 

In the end, they're playing a different game in Norman and Austin, and as long as Bob Stoops and Mack Brown are there, chances are there will be no sustained drop-off anytime soon.  Mizzou will rarely finish with a better record than either or both of those programs (though they did in 2007), but as long as they're finishing with a better record than their five competitors in the North, it doesn't necessarily matter all that much.  Whether that will continue to happen will depend on the new batch of recruits that began to arrive when the last batch began to succeed.  That's how the cycle works.

We may hope for 12-2 (or better) seasons every year, but that is pretty unprecedented at a second-tier BCS school.  As I've mentioned plenty of times before, it's been nearly impossible for a team to break into that top tier.  What should we expect from Gary Pinkel?  What should we deem a "success" in Columbia?  We'll look at that in Part Two.