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

Part One
Part Two
Part Three

In the comments section to Part Three of this series, dcrockett17 raised a very valuable point in regard to taking the "next step" and breaking into the ridiculously exclusive, elite club that makes up the top tier of BCS teams:

Broadening the recruiting base – MU obviously cannot depend on getting the one or two five-star guys that everyone is fighting for, but it probably does need to expand the recruiting base without abandoning what’s been built. Pinkel has been able to keep the lion’s share of in-state elite prospects home. He’s also made significant inroads into Texas, which has raised the overall athleticism of the program. But one possible downside of having zero movement on the staff—again, I’m just guessing here—is that it has to be hard to recruit in regions where you don’t know anybody.

My hope is that Pinkel might take this opportunity, now that there has been some movement on his staff, to really think strategically about a hire or hires that might get him into some places he hasn’t been. I think Pinkel’s recruiting has been a clear strength. I’m just thinking out loud here about ways to make it even stronger.

Here's part of my response:

I think the bottom line is this: it takes years to convince kids you’re a big-time program. Right now, we’ve been winning at a pretty decent clip since today’s high school seniors were about 14. But their perceptions of certain programs (like Sheldon Richardson’s perception of Miami, who he grew up idolizing) were formed when they were about 6. We will continue to be "up and coming" at best until today’s 6-year olds reach high school, you know? That’s when our recruiting base will expand. We have to give a reason for kids from Arizona, or Minnesota, or North Carolina, or Georgia, or wherever, to actually think they want to spend five years in Missouri (which is BFE to most of them) because they’re going to win, and probably win big.

Membership in The Club

This exchange got me thinking, which a) is usually scary and b) usually leads to me creating some tables like the one below.  My thought was this: of that "elite club" of teams that gobbles up a majority of the nation's 5-star recruits--USC, Florida, Florida State, Texas, Miami-FL, LSU, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Michigan, Tennessee, and Notre Dame--most of them have been good or really good for decades.  Most of them have had their down periods--USC in the late-'90s, OU in the mid-'90s, LSU in a good portion of the '90s, the others here and there (more here than there for Notre Dame)--but they have been seen as a top program for most of the last 30 years or longer.

With that in mind, coming up with an example of how you actually do break into that club is damn near impossible.  As a whole, though, the most recent entries into that club have probably been either LSU or the Florida schools. 

LSU has always had the facilities and fanbase, but aside from a couple of seasons in the mid- to late-'80s, they didn't break through and stay broken through until Nick Saban came to town (and then left). 

Miami was built in steps--Howard Schnellenburger won and left, paving the way for Jimmy Johnson, and then Dennis Erickson kept the train rolling for a while until the bottom briefly fell out and Butch Davis rebuilt everything. 

Florida was built much the same--Charley Pell built the structure of the rocket (through somewhat dubious means), Galen Hall built expectations and lit the fuse, then (after a bout with probation) Steve Spurrier guided the rocket into the sky.

Only one of the recent entries (relatively speaking) did all the building with one coach, as we obviously hope to do: Florida State.  So how about we take a detailed look at Florida State's progress under Bobby Bowden?  We'll continue looking at things in the 4-year chunks/cycles that I used in Part Three.

Florida State under Bobby Bowden
Span Record vs sub-.250 win% vs .251-.500 win% vs .501-.750 win% vs .750+ win% Adjusted Win%*
1980-83 32-15
2-0 12-1
1984-87 34-11-3
5-0 17-0-1
1988-91 42-7
7-0 10-1
1992-95 43-5-1
7-0 11-0 21-1
1996-99 45-4
4-0 14-0 19-1
2000-03 38-14
6-0 10-0 18-4
2004-07 31-20
2008 8-4
2-0 2-0 4-3 0-1 0.648
* Once again, "Adjusted Win%" refers to what a team's win % would be if they played an equal number of teams from each of the four record-based quadrants of teams listed here.

Bobby Bowden was able to pretty quickly field a pretty good team at Florida State, and that's one of the reasons he's considered one of the greatest coaches ever, but it's important to keep in mind a couple of things:

  1. In his first 11 seasons at Florida State, Bobby Bowden only managed to have a winning record against that top quadrant of teams once--1980, when he beat 10-2 Nebraska and 11-1 Pittsburgh.  In his first eight seasons, he was just 3-9 against those teams.  That's a better mark than Gary Pinkel's 2-13 record, obviously, but not tremendously so.  And while the Adjusted Win % of 0.704 in his second four-year cycle is better than Gary Pinkel's 0.661, again, it's not tremendously better.  In other words, it took Bowden a while to consistently field a truly elite team, even though they shot out of the gates with pretty good records when he was there.

  2. When Bowden was building a winner in the mid-'70s, Miami and Florida were virtually nonexistent on the national scene.  The fact that three programs from the same state were all able to emerge as national powers within about 10-12 years of each other is both impressive and confusing (where was all of that Florida talent going to school before these programs emerged?), but the fact is, there were not as many national powers in the mid-'70s.  Teams like Nebraska, USC, Ohio State, Texas, Oklahoma, Michigan and Alabama were all big-time, and I'm honestly probably forgetting a couple more, but the map was different in the '70s.

  3. Even with the eventual surge of Miami and Florida, FSU obviously resides in a much hotter hot-bed of talent than Missouri does.  Tom Osborne may have always called Mizzou the "sleeping giant," but they only got that claim because the sleeping giant in Tallahassee woke up.

I don't know if it's possible or impossible nowadays to build a consistently outstanding product from scratch like Bobby Bowden did in the '70s, but the lesson to take away from all of this is a) it takes a lot of time, and b) it takes a lot of luck.  If it were easy to do, then more than just one team (LSU) would have earned entrance into The Club in the last 15 years.  Even when we talk about the miracle that Bill Snyder pulled at K-State, it didn't last very long, and he never truly got entrance into The Club--K-State was never elite for a sustained period of time (i.e. more than a decade).

One more thing to note: [ back-pat ] I just stumbled across this "quadrants" method of evaluating teams, but...isn't this a pretty neat idea?  I'm really enjoying this type of analysis.  I will probably be doing more of it.  You've been warned.  [ /back-pat ]

Anyway, let's shift gears and move on to where I was going to go with this post before I got distracted by Bobby Bowden and his gol-durn, aw-shucks accent.

What Can Don James Tell Us About Gary Pinkel?

We've more-or-less concluded what it takes to join The Club--1) Brains, 2) Skill, 3) a miracle, 4) oh yeah, and 50 years of history on your side doesn't hurt--and while the odds are always against a Gary Pinkel (or anybody else) taking a school like Mizzou to that level of sustained heights, what can the career of Pinkel's (and Nick Saban's) mentor, Don James, tell us about how Pinkel's program might continue to mature?

Don James at Washington
Span Record vs sub-.250 win% vs .251-.500 win% vs .501-.750 win% vs .750+ win% Adjusted Win%*
3 Yrs
0-4 0.386
First 4 Yrs
7-0 8-4


Next 4 Yrs 38-10
12-0 12-3
Total 64-29
19-0 20-7

As a refresher, here's a look at Gary Pinkel's Mizzou tenure in the same light.

Gary Pinkel at Missouri
Span Record vs sub-.250 win% vs .251-.500 win% vs .501-.750 win% vs .750+ win% Adjusted Win%*
2 Yrs
First 4 Yrs
Next 4 Yrs 36-16
Total 58-41
* I chose the two years Pre-Pinkel instead of three because of the unique and accelerated downfall of the end of the Larry Smith tenure. How the program did in 1998 had nothing to do with how it looked less than three years later when Gary Pinkel took over.

Like Bowden, James started faster than Gary Pinkel did.  How much of that is "Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas State, Oklahoma and Texas were all quite well-established in the Big 12 when Pinkel took over, so it took a while," and how much of that is "Bowden and James are better coaches than Gary Pinkel," I'll let you decide.  I have the feeling opinions will differ significantly on that one.

What is certain is that Pinkel's program and James's program took extremely similar leaps in Years 5-8.  James's Adjusted Win% rose from 0.605 to 0.754 (an improvement of 0.149), while Pinkel's rose from 0.489 to 0.661 (an improvement of 0.172).  Again, I'll let you decide how much of that was due to Pinkel and staff, and how much was due to the unique and irreplaceable talents of Chase Daniel, et al.  We'll know the answer for sure in another year or two (or six).

With those similarities in mind, how did the Univ. of Washington program progress in Year 9 of the Don James tenure and beyond?  He stayed ten more seasons, so we'll break those up in chunks of four, three and three years.

Don James' final 10 seasons
Span Record vs sub-.250 win% vs .251-.500 win% vs .501-.750 win% vs .750+ win% Adjusted Win%*
Next 4 Years 34-13-2
6-0 14-3
Next 3 Years
1-0 13-1-1
0-6 0.610
Final 3 Years
3-0 12-1
Total 86-31-2
10-0 39-5-1

A couple of things to note here:

  • While Washington did eventually win a (co-)national championship under James, it didn't come after years of steady, persistent, ever-upward growth.  There were bumps along the road.  After three double-digit win seasons in four years (10-2 in 1981, 10-2 in 1982, 11-1 in 1984), Washington only won between 6 and 8 games every year between 1985 and 1989 (7-5, 8-3-1, 7-4-1, 6-5, 8-4).  But...and here's the important part...James wasn't fired.  Granted, after five straight years of 6-8 wins, I'll be completely and utterly convinced that Mizzou has entered the dreaded Glen Mason Territory, where you're doing too well to fire a coach, but you're not ever doing better.  Washington was seen as a winner, though, and that consistency paid off with a late-career breakthrough.  Remember this.  Please, for the love of all that is holy, remember this.
  • This really is proof that some recruits just don't work out.  You have to figure that the recruits James landed after that run of improvement and success in Years 5-8 were more high-caliber, high-potential athletes than those he had landed previously, but the results did not translate with that.  But then the recruits he landed when he was mired in Glen Mason Territory were the ones that led to the 31 wins (and a national title) in his final three seasons.  Funny how life works out.  It's the same way with Gary Pinkel--the recruiting class that has ended up being the most successful is likely the 2005 class that included Chase Daniel, Chase Coffman, Brock Christopher, Ziggy Hood, etc.  That class came on the heels of the disappointing 5-6 season of 2004.


I guess there's really not a good way to wrap up four meandering posts around a very broad topic, but what have we learned, boys and girls boys?

In the end, a program like Missouri has to look at more than just last year's results.  While it's certainly conceivable that Missouri can break through into residence at The Club someday, it's not altogether likely, either with Gary Pinkel as head coach or with anybody else.  What is conceivable, and what should be expected, is that Mizzou can become a program that...

a) Makes bowl games an annual habit no matter where they are in the ebb-and-flow of the given recruiting "cycles" I've discussed throughout these posts,

b) Makes Top 25 rankings a far-from-rare occurrence,

c) Competes for a Big 12 North title almost every season (and occasionally actually competes in the Big 12 Championship Game as well, ahem),

d) Occasionally, when the stars (and recruits) align, makes a strong run at a Top 10, or even Top 5, finish.

As I mentioned earlier in the week, if Mizzou beats Northwestern in the Alamo Bowl in a week and a half, they'll officially have averaged 10 wins per season over the last three years.  Who among you actually believed that would happen?  I mean, I always hoped it would, but the belief had been somewhat beaten out of me.  Just remember that if next year goes sour when Mizzou fields a team with more than 25 freshmen and sophomores on the two-deep.  And remember that if Mizzou seems mired in 6-8 win territory at some point.  We are not a program that can do without patience.

Whether Gary Pinkel ever achieves the highest heights of a Don James or Bobby Bowden is obviously far from certain (and as far as Bowden goes...far from likely), but with the unique talents, personalities and successes that the Pinkel Era has seen to date, this appears to be bandwagon you may want to stay on for a while, through the uphill and downhill slopes.

And just remember--a future 5-star recruit is 6 years old right now, and in all the time that he can remember, Mizzou's been a winner.