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

Part One
Part Two

Earlier in the week, we spent the last couple of days whining talking about the playing field that exists in college football.  Basically, it's as if Major League Baseball had 120 teams--5 Yankees, 5 Red Sox, 100 Pirates...and we'll say about 20 Albuquerque Isotopes

(Yes, that's a bit extreme, but go with it.)

So if Mizzou can't expect to break through on the big-time recruiting scale too often, and if we can't expect to consistently win at the level of Oklahoma or Texas...what can we expect?  Where should the line of expectations be drawn for Gary Pinkel?

A History Lesson

To answer this question, I suggest we look at two things: 1) how previous Mizzou coaches have performed going back to Dan Devine, and 2) how Pinkel's hero Don James performed?  We'll do (1) today, and (2) in tomorrow's final part of this series of posts.

In this case, by "performed" I mean how they did against different types of teams--bad, mediocre, and really good.  It's hard to just compare records because scheduling habits have changed over the years.  The schedules Al Onofrio or Woody Widenhofer faced were much different and usually more difficult than those faced by Larry Smith or Gary Pinkel, right?

So to keep this as simple as possible, we're going to look at things like this: we're going to look at coaches' records (both overall, and in 3-5 year chunks cycles) versus teams in four quadrants: teams with below a .250 win percentage, teams between .250 and .500, teams between .500 and .750, and teams above 0.750.  It's not a perfect method--chances are a 5-6 Big 8/12 team is better than a 7-5 mid-major non-conference opponent--but it's not bad.

Let's see where this history lesson gets us. I'll tell you right now: this got a lot longer than I intended, but I was having fun.  Sue me.

Dan Devine
Span Record vs sub-.250 win% vs .251-.500 win% vs .501-.750 win% vs .750+ win%
First 4 Yrs
Next 5 Yrs 35-12-5
12-0 14-2-1
Last 4 Yrs
6-0 11-6
Total 88-41-7

The first thing you notice is, Devine didn't lose to the truly dreadful teams.  That said, he wasn't just amazing against the 4-6 win teams.  He won 3 of every 4 against those teams, but think about that for a second: Missouri played the following teams with a .251-.500 win percentage: Illinois, Colorado, Baylor, and Kansas State.  On average, Dan Devine would have lost to one of those teams.  Granted, Mizzou thought about losing to Illinois, and they all but tried to lose to Baylor, but it didn't happen.

Against teams with winning records, Devine was solid, winning 3 of every 5.  In 2008, that would have included Nevada, Buffalo, Nebraska, Oklahoma State, and Kansas.  Mizzou went 3-2 against those teams, which would have been the Devine average.  (And yes, I realize that includes games against Nevada and Buffalo, and Missouri didn't play too many Nevada's and Buffalo's in the 1960s--I didn't say this was a perfect means of comparison.)

Against the best of the best, Devine won one of four.  In the last two seasons, Mizzou has played five games against teams with better than a 0.750 win percentage: Oklahoma (twice) and Kansas in 2007, Oklahoma and Texas in 2008.  They won one of those, and Devine would have likely done about the same.

Ironically, Devine's best "cycle" was his middle one, even though the 1960 Orange Bowl season happened in the first "cycle", and the 1969 Big 8 title happened in the third "cycle."  Either way, though, under Devine Mizzou went to six bowl games.  If bowls existed as they did today, they'd have gone to a bowl every season but his final one.  Damn impressive.

Al Onofrio
Span Record vs sub-.250 win% vs .251-.500 win% vs .501-.750 win% vs .750+ win%
First 4 Yrs
0-0 9-7
Next 3 Yrs 16-17
2-0 9-4
Total 38-41
2-0 18-11

Dan Devine left for the greener pastures of Lambeau Field and Vince Lombardi's shadow, and up stepped Devine assistant Al Onofrio.  Uncle Al produced the most unique tenure of any Missouri coach.  While Mizzou's record against teams in the .250-.500 quadrant fell to an unacceptable "winning 3 of 5" level, and Mizzou lost more than it won against decent teams, they maintained just about the same win percentage against the elite teams as Devine had managed.  They won at Notre Dame, at Alabama, at USC, and at Ohio State.

They also lost at home to bad SMU, Baylor, Kansas State, Ole Miss, and Illinois teams.

Oh yeah, and he lost to Kansas six times in seven years.

If bowls existed in the same quantities as they did today, Onofrio would have taken Mizzou to five bowl games in seven seasons (instead of just two), but his tenure does bring up an interesting question: what if we had won at OU last year and at Texas this year...but lost to Texas A&M last year and Colorado and Kansas State this year?  Would that really be better?  That's what might have happened under Onofrio--more exhilarating wins, more inexplicable losses.

Warren Powers
Span Record vs sub-.250 win% vs .251-.500 win% vs .501-.750 win% vs .750+ win%
First 4 Yrs 31-17


Next 3 Yrs 15-16-3
1-0 9-3-2
Total 46-33-3
5-0 26-6-2

After seven seasons, Onofrio was ousted in favor of Warren Powers, a former Nebraska assistant under Bob Devaney and Tom Osborne.  In a lot of ways, Powers was the anti-Onofrio.  He won five of every six against teams with losing records, which was a nice change and resulted in his having a better overall record than Onofrio.  However, he didn't win too many big games.  For all intents and purposes, he was .500 against teams in the .500-.750 quadrant, which isn't terrible, but he only won two games against teams with elite of which was against a 9-2-1 Southern Miss team in the '81 Tangerine Bowl--not exactly a murderous squad.

By record, Powers' best win in his 7-year tenure was a season-opening 28-18 win over a soon-to-be 10-2 Illinois squad in 1983, a season that ended with a dramatic loss to BYU in the Holiday Bowl...

Seriously, how close did they come to breaking up that pass to Young...sheesh...

Anyway, things started to fall apart for Powers in 1984, as Mizzou finished 3-7-1, 0-6 versus teams with winning records.  He was ousted in favor of a young, charismatic former Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator...and needless to say, it didn't work out too well.

Woody Widenhofer
Span Record vs sub-.250 win% vs .251-.500 win% vs .501-.750 win% vs .750+ win%
Total 12-31-1

It was pretty clear that Warren Powers' recruiting had started to falter in his last couple of years (actually, a lot of people theorize that the Powers tenure began to falter quickly once Onofrio's recruits had cycled out of the system--the data doesn't entirely back that up, but it's clear that he didn't leave Woody's Wagon with a full cupboard).  With that in mind, the disastrous 1-10 season in 1985 is somewhat forgivable.  You had a first-time head coach (not including his one year of coaching the USFL's Oklahoma Outlaws) trying to win without much talent, and it was a failed experiment.

In 1986 and 1987, there were signs of progress.  No, really.  Mizzou still couldn't touch the top teams (though it should be mentioned that after a 77-0 loss to OU in 1986, they only lost 17-13 in 1987), but in those two seasons, Mizzou actually went a decent 7-4 against teams with losing records.  That's a sign that they could at least make a run at .500 again.  They fought to 5-6 overall against a murderous 1987 slate that included Syracuse (11-0-1), Oklahoma State (10-2), Nebraska (10-2), and Oklahoma (11-1), and things looked at least somewhat encouraging.

And then Mizzou went 3-7-1 again in 1988, and Woody's Wagon officially lost its wheels.

As a whole, Widenhofer was a victim of scheduling as much as anything else.  He only lost one game to a brutally bad team (K-State in '85), and in his last two years he was 7-1 overall against teams with losing records.  Unfortunately, while Mizzou (arguably) took one step forward from the beginning to the end of Widenhofer's tenure, everybody else in the Big 8 (sans KU and KSU) took about five steps forward.  Oklahoma and Nebraska were untouchable, OSU was peaking with Thurman Thomas and Barry Sanders, and Colorado was starting to put things together.  Plus, Mizzou played rough non-conference schedules that left the Tigers with little to no chance to build momentum--they faced 11-1 Miami, 9-3 Houston, and 8-3-1 Indiana in 1988 alone.

Regardless, he was gone after just four seasons, replaced with a runner-gunner.

Bob Stull
Span Record vs sub-.250 win% vs .251-.500 win% vs .501-.750 win% vs .750+ win%
Total 15-38-2
3-0 10-12-1

Armed with what you have to call a pretty damn talented staff (Andy Reid, Dirk Koetter, Marty Mornhinweg, Dave Toub, Mo Latimore), Bob Stull took over a program that hadn't been too bad for too long...and just never really built any momentum.  He beat one team with a winning record: an 8-4 Kansas squad in 1992.  Of course, he also "beat" future national champion Colorado in 1990, but...yeah, we won't go there. 

Okay, yes we will.

Good times.  Anyway, the win over Kansas in '92 probably secured Stull a fifth season in Columbia, and the '93 campaign started with a rousing win over what was supposed to be a pretty decent Illinois team.  There was at least a hair of optimism in Columbia...and then Mizzou lost 73-0 to Texas A&M the next week.  Mizzou lost 35-3 to a good West Virginia team, tied an awful SMU team, and found wins versus only 3-win OSU and Iowa State teams the rest of the way.  After a 28-0 loss to a 5-7 Kansas team, it was all over for Bob Stull.

In the end, Stull didn't do too much different than Widenhofer, other than put a more entertaining(ly bad) product on the field.  He was 13-12-1 against teams with a losing record, which was pretty much even with Woody's 11-10 mark (though Woody did manage a 10-5 mark after his initial '85 season).  Unfortunately, the talent was just never there--Stull went 1-27-1 against teams with winning records, which almost duplicated Woody's 1-21-1 mark.  (Think about that: from 1985 to 1993, Mizzou went 2-28-2 against teams with winning records.  Ggh.)

His departure paved the way for a hard-nosed, veteran coach who played the game "the right way"--with fullbacks and big offensive linemen who would try to beat you into the ground.  It...sort of worked.

Larry Smith
Span Record vs sub-.250 win% vs .251-.500 win% vs .501-.750 win% vs .750+ win%
First 4 Yrs 18-27-1
Next 3 Yrs 15-19
6-0 10-6
Total 33-46-1

It goes without saying that switching from a run & shoot system to a three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust offense will result in growing pains, and sure enough, Larry Smith's first couple of teams just weren't very good.  In 1994 and 1995, Smith's Mizzou teams went 4-0 against teams in the <.250 quadrant, 1-5-1 against teams between .250 and .500...and 0-11 versus teams above .500.  They were slow and thin, but Smith was laying the foundation for success with guys like Brock Olivo and a lot of big, mean O-linemen from small Missouri towns.

The period of 1996 to 1998 was Smith's (small) golden age at Mizzou.  Mizzou went just 20-15 in those seasons, but a) that was a tremendous improvement over the previous decade, and b) they were competitive.  Mizzou went 4-1 against the <.250 quadrant and 11-2 against the .250-.500 quadrant.  They were beating the teams they were supposed to beat, and it got them back to bowl games.  The biggest change in these seasons (particularly 97-98) came in their 5-3 record against the .500-.750 quadrant.  They still didn't beat an elite team (0-9 versus the >.750 quadrant)...okay, they "beat" one...

...why do I keep doing that??  Anyway, Larry had built a team that beat the bad teams and mostly fought well against good teams.  His team had an identity, and though they were not capable of beating elite teams, they were solid. 

And then the bottom dropped out. 

At some point, Larry stopped recruiting.  There were no ready-made replacements for Corby Jones, Devin West, etc., and the 1999-00 seasons were a return to Stull- and Woody-level problems.  Mizzou was 2-10 versus teams with winning records those last two years (the two teams: '99 wins over 7-5 Western Michigan and 6-5 Texas Tech) and only 5-5 against teams with losing records, and though Larry Smith could have run for Columbia mayor after the 1998 season, he was done just two years later.

Gary Pinkel
Span Record vs sub-.250 win% vs .251-.500 win% vs .501-.750 win% vs .750+ win%
First 4 Yrs 22-25
6-0 12-8
Next 4 Yrs 36-16
7-0 15-2
Total 58-41
13-0 27-10

So now we finally get to Gary Pinkel.  We'll first look at how he's done, then we'll look at how he's done in comparison to what we should expect from a Mizzou coach.

Breaking Pinkel's record into 4-year chunks works out well, as you can see a clear shift.  Mizzou's never lost to a super-bad team under Pinkel (even that bad '06 Iowa State team was 4-8), but in Pinkel's second four years, Mizzou has gone from winning 3 of every 5 against .250-.500 teams to winning basically 9 of every 10.  You never want to lose to a bad team--there's never a good excuse for it--but it happens.  That said, it certainly doesn't happen much with Pinkel.

The clearest shift between his first "recruiting cycle" and his second has been in how Mizzou has done against the .500-.750 teams.  In the last 4-years, Mizzou has been more successful against this group of teams (a .619 winning %) than they have been in the last 50 years.  Not even Dan Devine had this strong a 4-year run of success against these teams.

Overall, looking at Pinkel's win percentages, he's been a better version of Warren Powers.  He wins almost every game he "should" win, he's competitive against winning teams...and he doesn't beat the toppermost of the poppermost, going just 2-13 against the best teams.

What does this tell us?

Okay, what was the point of this long exercise?  It wasn't to relive good times, and it wasn't to say "We've had a lot of bad and mediocre we shouldn't ever expect any better.

First of all, let's put all seven of these coaches on the (roughly) same playing field.  Let's say they all played the same number of teams from each quadrant--one-fourth from each.  What would their resulting "adjusted" win percentage be?

"Adjusted" Win Percentages

1. Dan Devine - 0.649 AdjWin%
2. Warren Powers - 0.598 AdjWin%
3. Gary Pinkel - 0.583 AdjWin% (last four years: 0.661)
4. Al Onofrio - 0.577 AdjWin%
5. Larry Smith - 0.453 AdjWin%
6. Bob Stull - 0.385 AdjWin%
7. Woody Widenhofer - 0.332 AdjWin%

From this viewpoint, Gary Pinkel has some improving to do.  Of course, his last four years have seen unmatched success, so his future success will depend on Mizzou continuing to more closely resemble 2005-08 Mizzou than 2001-04 Mizzou, which isn't too much to ask.

So here's the next question: what's a fair ceiling for a Mizzou coach?  Taking Pinkel out of the equation for a moment, here are the highest coaches' win percentages against each quadrant of team that Mizzou has seen since 1959:

Best Mizzou Records Against Each Quadrant of Teams
vs sub-.250 win% vs .251-.500 win% vs .501-.750 win% vs .750+ win%

In the last four years, Gary Pinkel has met the standard of the sub-.250 quadrant and far exceeded the standard of the next two.  He is still trailing Devine in the "big game" department, but overall that's a net win.  How Mizzou has done from 2005-08 (a 36-16 record) appears to roughly be the best Missouri can do according to precedent.  It's always possible that a couple more really good seasons could lead to recruiting breakthroughs, which could lead to a completely new ceiling, but let's take a wait-and-see approach on that one. 

Right now, we can conclude that it's not entirely unfair to expect the current level of succes to be carried on in the future, but it will be hard work.  Pinkel and Co will have to benefit from the same good fortune in the "landing diamonds in the rough" department, and they will have to figure out a way to replace an outgoing group of players whose success at Mizzou has not been matched.


Tomorrow we'll take a look at Don James' track record, looking at two things: 1) how Pinkel compares to his mentor, and 2) what James' record at Washington might be able to tell us about how Pinkel will do in the future.