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Gary Pinkel talks about installing Don James software, handling pressure, and writing a book

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I spoke with Gary Pinkel this week about his new book, The 100-Yard Journey.

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Missouri 58, Murray State 14: Your Bill Carter Photo Gallery Bill Carter

The Mizzou sports history library isn’t enormous. You’ve got Michael Atchison’s True Sons, of course. Bob Broeg’s Ol’ Mizzou is good for catching up on the first 80 or so years of Mizzou Football. Norm Stewart, Dan Devine, and Don Faurot all published books. There’s certainly reading material, but this isn’t exactly the Notre Dame library here.

In this regard, it’s a pretty big thing when Missouri’s winningest football coach publishes a book of his own. Gary Pinkel’s The 100-Yard Journey: A Life in Coaching and Battling for the Win was released on September 15, and it’s a worthy read for any Mizzou fan.

With Dave Matter as a co-author, Pinkel basically starts at the beginning and works his way through his time as Kent State player, Washington (and Bowling Green!) assistant, and head coach at both Toledo and Missouri. I’ve shared a couple of passages recently (here and here), and I figure just about any Mizzou fan will get something out of reading it. He talks through both fun and tough topics, and he shares quite a few stories that Mizzou fans probably hadn’t heard before.

I got a chance to speak with Pinkel this week about his time at Mizzou and the process of putting a book together.


Bill Connelly: I've been writing at Rock M Nation for 10 years and obsessing about Mizzou for far longer than that, and I was curious how much new information would be in there compared to what had already be written. There was a lot. It was a really fun read.

Gary Pinkel: I appreciate that. I just wanted to keep it real, be really honest about things and also tell little stories about things behind the scenes, a lot of why we did what we did.

BC: One of the reasons I was most interested in reading this to begin with, other than being a Mizzou guy, was, I've always been curious, going back to 2001, hearing about the "process," the Don James system. The way you always described it was like installing software on a computer.

GP: [laughs]

BC: I was always interested in figuring out what it actually meant. We spoke a bit in your office a couple of years ago, and I poked around with a couple of questions about it, but my first question is basically, do I have this right:

So from a super general perspective, it seemed to me that this quote-unquote software was a) lists — the second Tuesday of June, you do this — and b) constantly evaluating yourself on how you're doing each item on those lists to make sure you're doing everything as well as possible. Is that anywhere close?

GP: Yeah, people talk about the "process" — Nick Saban uses it a lot also — but the process is daily making sure that everything in your organization is functioning at the most efficient and high level, whether it's the academic support people, whether it's the weight room, whether it's the football coaches, whether it's practice, training room, what have you.

All of these different things that happen, I think from a leadership standpoint, that can wear you out if you don't really know what you're doing or if detail isn't important to you.

If you looked at 10 different people and what they do daily to run their organization, the people that have the detailed organization set and the everyday process of fixing problems or praising people, [making sure] that everything is working as efficiently as it can, then that's really what it was about.

NCAA Football: Tennessee at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

BC: I was excited see a lot in there about your Toledo years because what I've come to realize at Rock M over the last couple of months is, it's really easy to compare what Barry Odom's doing to what you were doing at Missouri, but really that's not fair — it should be compared to your first years at Toledo.

I was really interested in you talking about walking in the door there [in March 1991] and basically inheriting Nick Saban's staff. At Missouri, there was so much about your staff continuity and everything, but it took four or five years at Toledo to get that group of assistants in place.

What are some of the mistakes you feel it's easy for a first-time head coach to make when it comes to looking for assistants to bring on board?

GP: First of all, you have to have a gut feeling so much for hiring people. I never hired family — until the very end, when I hired my nephew [Alex Grinch], who's now the defensive coordinator at Washington State now — I never hired friends. I hired a lot of people who were graduate assistants for me, people I trained and then sent 'em out for a couple years like I did [at Washington with Don James] and then brought 'em back. They knew how we coached.

You know, it's interesting, the whole subject matter of my assistant coaches ... when we were struggling — losing, losing, winning, losing, those first four years — those first four years here, it was, "Oh, they're a MAC staff, they're very average, he's gotta make changes because they don't know how to win in the Big 12."

Then, as everything evolved from 2006 on, as we went to nine bowls in the next 11 years, then it seemed like all of a sudden, "Boy, gosh, the continuity's been so awesome, so good," and everything else. Things flip around a little like that.

At the end of the day, I had a very good staff. I didn't ever just fire a guy here or there just to make it look like I was making changes. I was trying to do the right thing that way. If I ever let a coach go — and I had to a couple of times — it was just because, you know, the old thing where hiring the wrong person doesn't destroy your company, but keeping that person in your company destroys it. Based on that theory. I was never going to offer a guy up just to make it look like I was making changes.

BC: And without going into too much detail about how Missouri's doing at this specific moment in time, halfway through your second year at Toledo, based on what you said in the book, you were starting to wonder how you should be adapting your beliefs to what was going on there. It did take a few years, but perseverance ended up paying off.

GP: I had a friend of mine I mentioned in the book, Pat Gucciardo, a retired coach back in Toledo, he kinda, after my first three or four years, we were doing okay, we were up and down a little bit. But he kinda threw at me at lunch time, "Maybe you should make some changes." I didn't flip out on him or anything, but I said, "I won't do that. What we do works."

I really felt that the whole time I was there. It's so easy to make changes, it's so easy to say, "Let's try this," or "Let's try that." But the trouble with making a lot of changes is for the players, too, and their trust. You start changing a lot, the players' confidence level and trust level kinda ratchets down a little bit.

I believed in the system, and like I told the recruits when I went to Missouri, we were in homes in St. Louis, Kansas City, and everything, this thing worked in Kent State, where they'd never won a championship ever. This thing worked at Washington, where they hadn't won a championship in forever. This thing worked in Toledo and won championships. And now we're bringing this to St. Louis and Kansas City and the University of Missouri.

There was some substance to what I was talking about. It wasn't the typical coach who comes in and says "We're gonna have a pretty good program. We're gonna do this and this and this." I told them, this thing has worked, that if you looked where this program has been, it's been successful.. And I think that really helped us with the trust factor.

BC: Are there any certain staff members you've kept tabs on or stayed in touch with over the last couple of years?

GP: Yeah, Dave Yost, I'll talk to him occasionally. Dave Christensen ... I'll get texts often. Pat Washington [now South Carolina receivers coach] texted me before they played South Carolina. I'll see Cornell [Ford] and those guys occasionally.

I had great people around me, really great people around me. I was thinking, you know, maybe I was not tough or mean enough — kiddingly, of course.

One of the things our staff did, too, was, we changed things a little bit. I changed the time factor a little bit, contracted when my coaches would get home at night. I just felt with the technology changes we could get home earlier, and that had a lot to do with it.

We weren't one of those staffs that was still there at 11:00 on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday nights like I did when I was at Washington. We tried to get home, certainly on Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday, by 7:00 so they could put their kids to bed. Can you have a quality of life and have a family and see your kids and kiss 'em goodnight and still coach football at a high level? Yes, you can, and oh by the way, if I knew that I could stay till 2:00 in the morning and win more games, I'd have stayed till 2:00.

NCAA Football: Colorado at Oregon
David Yost has coached at Washington State, Oregon, and Utah State since leaving Missouri.
Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports

BC: The continuity through the years threw me off a little bit. I was talking to a friend at Villanova and randomly mentioned Mizzou, and he brought up Brian Jones being on staff there. He wears blue on the sideline instead of black and gold! It just felt weird — these people are on other staffs now!

GP: Exactly. They're actually at different places.

But getting back to a minute ago, you talked about Barry, and ... every coach has to go through certain things. I would tell Barry, I was head coach 10 years at Toledo and then came to the Big 12, and you're walking right into the SEC.

One of the toughest things, I think, for anybody, and I'm not [specifically] talking about at Missouri or anything, one of the most difficult things is dealing with the pressure of the job. The pressure of the job is beyond description. I talk in there about some words of wisdom that Coach James gave me when I was leaving to become the head coach at Toledo about how to focus and how, if you don't, it's going to chew you up and spit you out.

I loved the pressure, but now that I'm away from it, I don't know how I did it for 25 years.

There's no handbook for, "This is how you handle the pressure ... GO." You have to learn through discipline, make mistakes sometimes, but you have to learn how to deal with it because if you don't it'll chew you up.

BC: It was easy to view this as a continuity hire, but ... a brand new coach has to make his own mistakes and learn from them. And we don't really realize until retrospect, of course that was going to happen. But obviously the pressure's pretty high at the moment.

So, just the process of putting the book together ... be it because of memory, or the subject matter itself, was there a particular part of the book that it was harder to put your thoughts on or talk about than other parts?

GP: It was interesting. First of all, Dave Matter did an awesome job, he really did. We sat down and organized everything, we had a very detailed — I'm not good at many things, but I'm a pretty organized person — we went almost by chapter and organized what we wanted to do in each chapter. That's how we started.

Akron, Ohio, was the first chapter, and we'd go through my childhood and my brother and sister, who, they're both special needs, which was a huge part of my life. Anyway, we started there and then we just kinda worked our way through everything.

For example, once we got into the coaching, he would bring in my first four years at Toledo. He'd have all the stats for it, what our record was, we would relive it. He did a really good job with that.

For when we got here at Missouri, he wrote down "losing, losing, winning, losing," I hadn't even ... I forgot! I was so focused, and ... you had to relive how difficult that was, changing a losing culture, one that you inherited, two winning seasons in 17 years. It was nothing against the kids, nothing against anybody, but the bottom line is, people don't know how to win! They don't know how to be successful. It was much more difficult than I ever thought it was going to be.

Reliving certain things that came up in the book, talking about my brother and sister having a disease called hereditary spastic paraplegia, and how I didn't get the disease, and a couple of times I'm talking to Dave with tears in my eyes, talking about my mom or different things like that.

We also decided to talk about some difficult things, like the DWI. You know, I never had a shot in my life, and I got a DWI. I had to own that, 60 years old. I talk about that in detail. I also knew my players at the time, they're gonna react how I react to this. They were obviously very forgiving to me, but I talked about that and some things that went on on campus my last year there.

I talk about, really, everything. I don't really leave anything out, even the difficult things. If you're gonna do it, you can't selectively take out things you don't wanna talk about.

Oklahoma64-PinkelGabbert Bill Carter

BC: I enjoyed the parts from early in your Missouri tenure, where you're waiting for someone to walk into the first team meeting late so you could unleash on them, or pacing up and down in the airport after the Bowling Green game in 2002, waiting for someone to say something that you could pounce on. That was pretty entertaining, I thought. Good old Jamonte Robinson [the victim of the team meeting unleashing].

GP: Sadly, all that was true. I swear to God, I remember that Bowling Green thing. I was walking around, wanting one guy to ... it was just one of those things that, you know, ... we lost to Texas Tech that year, and we were playing awful, and I flipped out in the locker room. It was all planned, but yeah, people probably had no idea that was going on.

BC: I was in the stands for the '02 Bowling Green game, and we had to break up a fight among Mizzou fans, so everybody was a little on edge that night.

GP: Oh my gosh.

BC: It was interesting. But there were happy endings eventually.

So you reflect on your coaching career and your general football beliefs from the 1970s to the present. What are some of the things you reflected on from the 1970s, just in terms of what you believed in football-wise, that you think back on and realize, "Wow, I can't believe I thought that"?

GP: First of all, offense has changed. That was one of the things that I bring up in the book. It happened to me when I was an assistant at Washington. We were just doing okay, but people were doing things — Dennis Erickson at Washington State was doing things [with a one-back offense] — and we brought in a good friend of mine in Keith Gilbertson. That's what we needed there.

Offenses and defenses always change, and you have to stay on the cutting edge. We did a good job of that when we were at Missouri. We were struggling a little bit, and I'd see Texas Tech going to bowls, and they didn't have any better players than we did, so we changed our offense, and we were on the front end of that. That was a positive for us.

There's so many things that are different. It's so much bigger than it was. The amount of money coaches make now, the pressure. And that applies to everybody in the organization. People are not very patient anymore.

You know, cell phones, social communication has changed everything in terms of being able to have continuity and respect for one another and do the things you need. It's never ending.

Things have changed dramatically, but the foundation that I played with Coach James at Kent State in 1971, when he came in there, and Jack Lambert and I were on that team, and Nick Saban was on that team, the foundation of that, which I could talk for an hour about — attention to detail, sound coaching — the foundation hadn't changed through my last year of coaching.

Certain things are always changing, and you have to stay on the cutting edge — Nike calls it relentless evaluation, always trying to make yourself better — we did that at Washington. Everything we did when it was over, we'd take notes on and talk about how we could make it better. And then the next year, when we'd start winter conditioning again, we'd review the notes and we'd adjust accordingly. Coach James was so far ahead in that, it was amazing.

The greatest thing about what we learned and what I did the whole time is, it worked. Most of the coaches that were on staff at Washington were great coaches. Most of them changed a lot of stuff and did their own thing. And that's okay. But most of them didn't last very long because it's so difficult. The program works, but you have to be committed to it.

Texas A&M v Missouri Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images