With so few question marks for 2008 outside the punting game, I've found myself looking toward the slightly-more-distant future (i.e. 2009, 2010, etc.) quite a bit. And I'm asking an unanswerable question a lot--what are the odds that Mizzou can sustain a high level after 2008? This was covered a bit during my discussion with the Trib's Dave Matter, and it continues to rotate around in my obsessive brain.
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.
It's not at all uncommon to see schools experience a 1-2 year "nouveau riche" breakthrough and then plummet back to earth. There are a number of reasons this could happen. Oregon State exploded for double-digit wins and a Fiesta Bowl birth in the early-'00s, then their coach (globetrotter Dennis Erickson) leaves for a better job. Kansas did the same in the mid-'90s, and their coach (good ol' Glen Mason) left for a marginally better job. When the breakthrough coach leaves, you roll the dice again, and you likely land back in the middle when all is said and done.
The other way a program falls back to where they were before is when one class or group of players (usually landed early in a coach's tenure during his 'recruiting grace period', where results on the field don't matter--only the promise of great things down the line) cycles through the program, excels as juniors and seniors, and then vanishes into the night, leaving a fanbase to the realization that recruiting hasn't gone quite as well in proceeding years. Look no further than Columbia for that one--the Corby Jones-led Tigers climbed the ladder in '97 and '98, and every Missouri fan in the world thought the "sleeping giant" had awoken. And then Jim Dougherty/Kirk Farmer and DeVaughn Black/Zain Gilmore took over for Corby and Devin West, and we were back in the land of 4-7 records in no time. Look also to Champaign, where the Fighting Illini went from 2001 Big Ten Champs to 2002 Has Beens in the blink of an eye. The landing's usually pretty bumpy if you haven't been able to sustain your recruiting edge.
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).
Which brings us to the question of the day: is Missouri capable of revisiting this level of success rather soon (assuming 2008 goes well...knock on wood), or will the fall from Top Ten Land be as swift and succinct as the post-Corby fall was when Chase Daniel exits Dan Devine Pavilion for the last time?
As a whole, Gary Pinkel has followed pretty closely to the Frank Beamer and Bill Snyder timetables.
1989 - 1-10
1990 - 5-6
1991 - 7-4 (moving 3-year average of wins: 4.3)
1992 - 5-6 (moving 3-year avg: 5.7)
1993 - 9-2-1 (moving 3-year avg: 7.0)
1994 - 9-3 (moving 3-year avg: 7.7)
1995 - 10-2 (moving 3-year avg: 9.3)
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1987 - 2-9
1988 - 3-8
1989 - 6-4-1 (moving 3-year avg: 3.7)
1990 - 6-5 (moving 3-year avg: 5.0)
1991 - 5-6 (moving 3-year avg: 5.7)
1992 - 2-8-1 (moving 3-year avg: 4.3)
1993 - 9-3 (moving 3-year avg: 5.3)
2001 - 4-7
2002 - 5-7
2003 - 8-5 (moving 3-year avg: 5.7)
2004 - 5-6 (moving 3-year avg: 6.0)
2005 - 7-5 (moving 3-year avg: 6.7)
2006 - 8-5 (moving 3-year avg: 6.7)
2007 - 12-2 (moving 3-year avg: 9.0)
So Pinkel is pretty close to Bill Snyder's career track and actually pretty far ahead of Frank Beamer's. Honestly, it's probably worth noting that if Beamer had put up those win totals today instead of 15-20 years ago, he wouldn't have made it to Year #7. (And honestly, as all Mizzou fans know, Pinkel almost didn't see Year #5.) Beamer didn't reach that 9-win-moving-average figure until Year #9.
And really, Year #7 is a pretty big test for a coach's longevity. Look at these two:
1997 - 0-11
1998 - 3-8
1999 - 8-4 (moving 3-year avg: 3.7)
2000 - 5-6 (moving 3-year avg: 5.3)
2001 - 10-2 (moving 3-year avg: 7.7)
2002 - 5-7 (moving 3-year avg: 6.7)
2003 - 1-11 (moving 3-year avg: 5.3)
1994 - 3-8-1
1995 - 3-8
1996 - 5-6 (moving 3-year avg: 3.7)
1997 - 7-5 (moving 3-year avg: 5.0)
1998 - 8-4 (moving 3-year avg: 6.7)
1999 - 4-7 (moving 3-year avg: 6.3)
2000 - 3-8 (moving 3-year avg: 5.0)
Both of these coaches peaked by Year #5 and were done by Year #7. Just surviving for seven years and continuing to build your program is a happy sign for the future.
So Pinkel's passed the first test--a) he kept his job after some early struggles, and b) after seven seasons, his program is on the precipice. If karma smiles on Mizzou a bit in '08, and we avoid the injury bug, then we could/should be looking a second straight Top 10 finish (or way better).
And then comes 2009.
Really, your level of post-2008 optimism depends on which school of thought you most frequently call your home: 'culture of winning' versus 'caliber of athlete'.
Here's the argument for 'culture of winning', brought to you by Dave Matter.
Pinkel's not going to compromise the most precious parts of his program just because he's bringing in a higher caliber of player. He still believes in "deprogramming" the selfishness out of these guys when they land on campus. Obviously, I don't see what happens behind the scenes, but I doubt he has to consciously do this as much these days, and for one reason: The current players have bought into this mentality so much that a culture within the team has been formed. When high school players come in for their visits, they get a glimpse of that culture, and once they're thrown into it in August, they adapt quickly or they're leaving quickly. This is starting to sound a little philosophical, but I think once the groundwork of the program is established and that culture takes over--i.e., you've got high school superstars like Chase Daniel and Jeremy Maclin advocating that cause--the deprogramming becomes self sufficient. It becomes, more or less, buy in our get out.
So basically, success breeds success, and it becomes a gene that is passed along from class to class. Makes sense. Doesn't happen that often, as we discussed before, but with heavy-duty coaching continuity and ongoing senior leadership, it's certainly possible. Regarding the former, Pinkel has had unprecedented success in keeping his coaching staff together. Exactly zero coaches have defected, gotten a better job elsewhere, or been fired. Meanwhile, senior leadership for the 2007 was unbelievably strong--Martin Rucker, Lorenzo Williams, etc., made this team their own brought to the table an unseen level of player-level ownership of the program.
That will almost certainly continue in 2008--Chase Daniel, Sean Weatherspoon (who's not even a senior), and William Moore will carry forward the leadership gene...no question about it. The test here will be, as with everything else, 2009. Not only will we lose a lot of starters, but it's quite possible that we'll also lose both a couple assistant coaches (you can't tell me Dave Christensen won't get snatched up for a low- to mid-level head coaching job after another season of high-level success...maybe Matt Eberflus too) and our upperclassman leadership. Daniel and Willy Mo will be gone for sure, and there's at least a small chance that guys like Sean Weatherspoon, Danario Alexander, and Jeremy Maclin will jump for the draft too. It's unlikely that all three of them will bail, but it's at least in the realm of possibility. So that leaves a downright paltry senior class for 2009. That's great from a "that means we'll have lots of returning starters for 2010!" perspective, but when the going gets tough in 2009--and it's a guarantee that the going will get tough at some point--who's going to fill the leadership void? Jared Perry? Derrick Washington? Luke Lambert? Hardy Ricks? Carl Gettis? I'm not saying nobody will step up, I'm just saying it's far from clear who that leader will be. And the continuity of leadership is every bit as important as the talent on the field.
The other argument, the 'caliber of athlete' argument suggests that, without this crop of breakthrough All-Americans--Chase Daniel, William Moore, Jeremy Maclin--the talent level just won't be high enough to win on a consistent level after 2008. I cede the floor to the inestimable Sunday Morning QB.
The balance of power depends on the sustainability of Kansas' rise - which is shaky - and the durability of Nebraska's sense of entitlement, at least where recruits are concerned; in that regard, the stockpiling of talent, the Huskers reasserted themselves under Bill Callahan after some really mediocre efforts on the trail by Frank Solich's staff. Missouri's recruiting has been a little better the last two years, but still just so-so - Pinkell hasn't brought in a class ranked higher than fifth in the Big 12 according to Rivals, which is roughly how his teams have usually fared.
Missouri's had good, productive quarterbacks before - Brad Smith, Corby Jones - and been thoroughly mediocre, anyway, because they had to handle everything themselves (Brock Olivo could squat the statehouse, but he was just an OK running back). The current supporting cast seems like an elite group because it has an elite quarterback who can get everyone involved. When Daniel is gone, there's no reason to expect any sustained fireworks on the order of last year's (and this year's, most likely).
So, enjoy this year, and then it's back to 5-7 wins a year for you. As much as Mizzou fans would like to argue, this has at least some basis in history and fact. However, if Mizzou is different (and I sure hope they are), it's because of this: as well as SMQB has done in showing that, as a whole, recruiting rankings are more accurate than they're given credit for being (seriously, he's done great work in that regard over the last few months), of the players who have bumped Mizzou to this uncomfortably-high level, most--Chase Daniel (***), Martin Rucker (***), William Moore (***), Lorenzo Williams (***), Sean Weatherspoon (**), Chase Coffman (***), Stryker Sulak (**), Danario Alexander (**), Adam Spieker (***)--were not top-tier recruits. Only Jeremy Maclin (****) and Tony Temple (****) were. What has worked for Mizzou has been a) that undefinable 'leadership' intangible, and b) having strong 3-star role players setting the table for a few breakthrough athletes and running on a high motor. They haven't needed a ton of 4- and 5-star athletes across the board to get to where they are--so as long as they continue to thrive as talent evaluators and finders of diamonds in the rough (likely from Texas) like Weatherspoon, Alexander, and Sulak, they don't need to land more than a few top-tier kids each class. Bill Snyder and Frank Beamer have never been overall kings of recruiting--they found some impact blue-chippers and mixed them with a bunch of hungry, raw, athletic-but-less-recruited players and found success.
The problem with that is, it's hard to continue exploiting 'inefficiencies in the market', so to speak, and catching those diamonds in the rough that others don't find. Just ask Billy Beane. If you do something that works, others will emulate it. Both finding and landing those kids will get harder, and it will be imperative to have a nice bank of 4-star kids to fall back on. So while this recipe could potentially continue working for Pinkel and staff, the margin for error in needing to land both the next Weatherspoon-like rough-diamond and Maclin-like blue-chipper--will grow with each passing year.
Everybody agrees that, unless we see an unbelievable rash of injuries this year (KNOCK ON WOOD), there will be a dropoff from 2008 to 2009. And really, it doesn't even matter how steep that dropoff is. In 2005, OU went 7-5 after back-to-back national title game appearances. (Let's face it--7-5 at OU is like 5-7 at MU.) Plus, they had an awful 05-06 offseason, with the Rhett Bomar/Big Red Sports & Imports ordeal. And when all was said and done in 2006, they were Big 12 Champions, and if not for an all-time screwjob in Eugene, OR, they'd have been in the national title game once again. What nobody knows is, what's going to happen in 2010? Will the program begin to splinter if the leadership from the upperclassmen isn't as strong? Will the product on the field simply suffer in comparison to the Daniels and Maclins and Willy Mo's we're growing accustomed to seeing? Will recruiting continue on the uptick--will we actually land some of these blue chip kids we're after (and will our ever-improving facilities make us that much more of a draw to these kids? I didn't even touch on the topic of money in this post)? As I said a couple thousand words ago, it's an unanswerable question at this point...but it's sure a lot better from the vantage point of the Top Ten, is it not? I mean, ten years ago, we were wondering how we'd fare after the 'glory years' of 7-5 and 8-4 seasons...