A couple of years ago, I wrote this about Gary Pinkel:
The bottom line is, despite the fact that Mizzou has improved in five of six seasons under Pinkel, the one season they didn’t (2004) has defined Gary Pinkel’s tenure to this point. And it will continue to do so until Mizzou overachieves in the same way they underachieved that year. Simply exceeding handicapped expectations isn’t enough.
If you haven’t noticed, Mizzou’s exceeded expectations each of the last two seasons (and really, in four of the last five). The 2005 Tigers were picked by most to crash and burn and quietly finish off the Pinkel Regime. They lost to New Mexico and Kansas in beyond-aggravating fashion, but thanks to some Chase Daniel magic against Iowa State and some Brad Smith magic against South Carolina, they finished 7-5. At the beginning of the season, 7-5 would have been a welcome bounceback to 2004. At the end of 2005, 7-5 seemed disappointing.
In 2006, Mizzou was picked preseason #5 in the North. They were supposed to struggle to make a bowl game while turning the page on the Brad Smith era. As I’ve pointed out, the Sporting News picked them to lose to Ole Miss at home. Well, they went 8-5, exceeding preseason expectations...and it felt a bit disappointing. In other words, Gary Pinkel’s teams are experts at exceeding expectations in the most disappointing way possible, even going back to 2002 (predicted to suck, but Brad Smith emerged...and went 5-7) or 2003 (8-5 was quite a lovely step forward, but it still came with super-annoying losses at Colorado and Kansas). Mizzou flashes more potential than others thought they had, then pulls a Lucy Van Pelt (or, I guess, a Tony Romo) with the football.
Pinkel needs to win and win big in 2007. Not necessarily because he’ll get fired otherwise (it would probably take a 5-7 season for that to happen, possibly 6-6) and not necessarily because Nebraska is about to distance itself from the rest of the North. I’ll believe that when I see it (how are the four Heismans for Harrison Beck and Marlon Lucky coming along?). No, he needs to win big because, as I’ve mentioned before, we’re one or two steps away from the dreaded Glen Mason Territory, where a coach at a mid-level school establishes his program enough to go 7-5 every year but never turns a corner. To me, 7-5 this year is the worst-case scenario because he won’t get fired, but he’ll have missed another opportunity to turn a corner and prove himself to future recruits.
That, and he needs to win because this year’s team is the most talented Missouri team in 25 years.
For the last three years, I’ve constantly defended Gary Pinkel from attack...mostly from Mizzou fans. Which is funny, because I still have no idea if he’s a great coach or just a pretty decent one. As I’ve said before, he’s extremely classy, and he does everything the exact way I want a coach of my school to do...other than win big. Now it’s time for him to check that one off the list as well.
Just 24 months later, Gary Pinkel has indeed won big and proven that he is indeed a great coach, and now he goes about proving himself all over again with a new cast of characters and the same low expectations that awaited him in 2006. The 2009 season is almost a freebie--as Missouri fans, we want Mizzou to win big and shut up all the critics that expect a major fall--but really, there is little to no pressure this season.
As I've mentioned before, the major goal of this season is to not affect the trajectory of 2010 and 2011, not to have a 1999-esque disaster. In that way, success in today's game, and the season as a whole, is just icing. If Missouri does struggle this year and fall to the 5-7 or 6-6 range as some are expecting, nothing has really changed. A quite experienced team will return in 2010, ready to make some noise.
But if Missouri does win this year? If Missouri does live up to the strangely high BTBS projections? With some good fortune this year, Gary Pinkel will have positioned himself to become a relative equal to Dan Devine, Missouri's most successful coach. Missouri will have established itself as easily the class of the North division, now and into the future.
With all the naysaying in the offseason, Missouri fans (myself very much included) have become pretty defensive about the health and direction of hte program and are hoping to see some big-time wins this year just to shut up critics and opposing fans. But really, this could be one of the more enjoyable, low-pressure seasons Missouri has had in a long time. With a series of interesting matchups and fun opponents on the horizon, I hope we can enjoy watching a young team growing from game to game, learning how to be great, and representing Missouri in one of the more prolonged stretches of success the program has seen. This team is so young that it has no business winning at too high a level yet, but they have shown enough potential already that it isn't hard to believe they can indeed win quite a few games this year, and just for the potential of the season at hand, Gary Pinkel should be proud. He has built a program for the long-term, and this team could be very fun to watch.