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The Pinkel Years: The first class

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It’s time to take a look back at the Gary Pinkel years at Mizzou. We start by reviewing his first signing class.

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Texas Longhorns v Missouri Tigers
Brad Smith
Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Ben Fredrickson (6'4, 252, TE) — Orange Coast College
R.J. Jones (6'0, 165, DB) — San Francisco City College
Tim Starks (6'1, 205, RB) — Los Angeles Valley College

Gary Pinkel’s 10th and final Toledo was a dynamite mix of chemistry, athleticism, and future pros. Running back Chester Taylor would rush for 4,740 yards in the NFL. Offensive lineman Nick Kaczur would be drafted in the third round and stick for a while. Kicker Todd France and receiver Carl Ford would get cups of coffee in the league.

The Rockets began 2000 by pasting Penn State in State College — an 18-point underdog, they beat the Nittany Lions by 18, 24-6. They would slip up at rival Western Michigan a couple of weeks afterward, but that was the last time they would be tested. A seven-point favorite over Marshall, they won 42-0. They went to DeKalb and manhandled NIU, 38-24.

Pinkel’s final game as the Rockets’ head man was a 51-17 romp over Bowling Green. Both the Rockets and Falcons would be starting over in 2001. BGSU dumped Gary Blackney after a 2-9 campaign, replacing him with a relatively unknown Notre Dame position coach by the name of Urban Meyer; Toledo, meanwhile, lost Pinkel to the University of Missouri. His first team in Columbia might have had less talent than the one he left behind. It certainly fared worse against BGSU.

Mizzou athletic director Mike Alden's first and only football hire came from a large pool of names. He first went after TCU's Dennis Franchione, with whom he had worked at Texas State. He looked hard at WMU's Gary Darnell and gave consideration to four assistants: Oregon's Jeff Tedford, Nebraska's Turner Gill, Purdue's Jim Chaney, and Wisconsin's Kevin Cosgrove. Pinkel, meanwhile, got permission to interview at both Mizzou and Maryland. As with every coaching search, this could have gone in a number of different directions. But Alden and Pinkel found each other.

It was perhaps a sign of Pinkel’s intended patience that he only signed three junior college transfers. Mizzou had a lot of needs to address, but he only felt the need to plug in gaps at tight end, cornerback, and running back. It’s just as well — the guys he landed were fine but weren’t game-changers. Fredrickson would catch 18 passes and score three touchdowns in 2001-02, Jones would pick off six passes, and Starks would carry the ball seven times for 19 yards.

Troy State v Missouri
Ben Fredrickson caught 18 passes as a Tiger. He also caught Brad Smith a few times.
Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images

Marcus King (5'11, 180, DB) — Irving, TX
Thomson Omboga (6'2, 180, WR) — Grand Prairie, TX
Tony Palmer (6'3, 290, OL) — Midwest City, OK
Justin Scott (6'1, 185, DB) — Lufkin, TX
Jason Simpson (6'1, 185, DB) — The Woodlands, TX
Calvin Washington (6'1, 185, DB) — Lancaster, TX

Pinkel’s first signing class was, as it always is, a bit of a rushed affair — a few JUCOs here, a few guys from your old recruiting territory there. But looking back, it’s impressive how quickly they attempted to establish inroads in what would become their bread-and-butter recruiting territory. Not only did they sign nine players from Missouri and nearby suburbs; they also signed six guys from Texas and Oklahoma.

Considering the short notice, this was a hell of a haul, too. Marcus King and Jason Simpson would become stalwarts in the secondary, and Calvin Washington had his moments. Simpson was just about the best player on the team in 2004, and King kickstarted one of Mizzou’s greatest comebacks, returning an interception the length of the field against South Carolina in the 2005 Independence Bowl.

Omboga was one of the star recruits of the class, a four-star receiver who didn’t produce many big plays but served as a solid possession man and finished his career fourth all-time in career receptions at Mizzou. (Pinkel’s eventual offensive success would bump Omboga out of the top 10 in this category.)

Palmer, meanwhile, was an all-conference caliber guard. He would clear the way for and celebrate quite a few Brad Smith touchdowns. He would become the fourth Pinkel-signed Tiger selected in the NFL draft, after two local guys and Smith.

Kansas State Wildcats v Missouri Tigers
Jason Simpson

Arnold Britt (6'2, 180, WR) — St. Louis (Vashon)
Orlando Gooden (6'0, 180, DB) — East St. Louis (Cahokia)
A.J. Kincade (5'11, 185, DB) — St. Louis (Hazelwood Central)
Derrick Ming (6'0, 230, LB) — St. Louis (Webster Groves)
C.J. Mosley (6'3, 290, DT) — Ft. Leonard Wood, MO (Waynesville)
Damien Nash (5'11, 195, RB) — East St. Louis (ESL)
Jason Rhodes (6'6, 290, OL) — Kansas City (Park Hill)
Tyrone Roberson (5'10, 185, RB) — St. Louis (Pattonville)
Quincy Wade (5'9, 178, DB) — St. Louis (Lindbergh)

If a coach’s tenure doesn’t officially begin until his own players are beginning to work their way onto the depth chart, then you could definitely say that the Pinkel era didn’t begin until 2002. Most of his 2001 signees redshirted, and his best signee didn’t qualify and had to take a JUCO detour before finally suiting up in black and gold.

Regardless of when he made it to town, however, it was a huge deal that Pinkel was able to convince Damien Nash to sign with the local team.

East St. Louis High football standout Damien Nash, the top recruit in the St. Louis area, made a verbal commitment Monday to attend the University of Missouri. [...]

Nash said "the coaches' attitude and the determination of the coaches" impressed him most during his trip.

"I talked to the players, and they told me if it would have been a year before or two years ago, they would have told me not to" play football at MU, Nash said.

Nash, a 5-foot-11, 195-pound speedster, is a three-time Post-Dispatch All-Metro first-team pick. He rushed for 1,444 yards and scored 28 touchdowns last season for East St. Louis.

The fact that Nash even considered attending Missouri was a surprise because he had said all along he would probably sign with Nebraska. He even took an official visit to that school two weeks ago and liked what he saw.

But Nash was impressed by Pinkel's sincerity and the direction in which Pinkel wants to take the program.

Pinkel made recruiting gains one by one. Beat Nebraska for Damien Nash and Martin Rucker. Beat Kansas State for Chase Coffman and Tony Temple. Et cetera. Nash was the first domino to fall, however. He would injure his knee in junior college and wouldn’t live up to his massive recruiting hype on the field, rushing for 1,194 yards in two seasons. But he would become the first Pinkel signee drafted from Mizzou in 2005, and his commitment sent a message to every school in the surrounding area.

Nash wasn't the only St. Louis-area signee from this class to make an impact. Mosley went a round later than Nash in the 2005 draft and lasted 11 years in the pros. Kincade and Wade would both have their moments in the Mizzou secondary. Ming eventually became a starter at linebacker.

Kansas State Wildcats v Missouri Tigers
Damien Nash

Elgin Childress (6'2, 220, TE/LB) — Southfield, MI
Sean Coffey (6'6, 205, WR) — Cleveland, OH
Sonny Riccio (6'2, 195, QB) — Ellwood City, PA
Brad Smith (6'3, 190, QB) — Youngstown, OH
Brandon Smith (6'2, 210, LB) — Stanford, KY
Earl Stephens (6'4, 230, DL) — Ferndale, MI

While Pinkel and staff would draw a majority of their talent in future years from either Missouri, the Kansas City and St. Louis metro areas, or Texas/Oklahoma, he had spots to fill in his first class, and he used the connections he had already built at Toledo to fill a few of them.

Sean Coffey caught 114 passes in four seasons with Mizzou, peaking as a junior in 2004 with 648 yards and 10 touchdowns. Sonny Riccio would throw one of the most important touchdown passes in school history, a fake field goal lob to tight end Victor Sesay against Nebraska in 2003. Earl Stephens would put on some weight and eventually make an impact on the defensive line; he recorded five tackles for loss as a senior in 2005.

But it was a quarterback from Youngstown Chaney High School who would become the first face of Pinkel’s Mizzou.

[Smith’s career] produced 69 school, conference and NCAA records. Smith finished his career as the most prolific running quarterback in Football Bowl Subdivision history, a mark that’s since been broken by West Virginia’s Pat White. Smith became the first quarterback in major college football to throw for 8,000 yards and run for 4,000. Nevada’s Colin Kaepernick became the second [in 2010].

Among Smith’s other feats: His 11 runs of 50 yards or more are the most in school history, as are his 45 rushing touchdowns and 18 100-yard rushing games. No other player had more than 12. In 2005, he led the Big 12 in rushing with 1,301, becoming the first quarterback to lead MU’s conference in rushing since Kansas’ Nolan Cromwell in 1975.

“He was a difference-maker from a national standpoint,” Pinkel said. “No matter what conference he goes to, what team he goes to, when he’s on the field he makes a difference.”

Independence Bowl: South Carolina v Missouri
Brad Smith
Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

In your first signing class during a rebuild, you’re simply looking for some cornerstones. You can’t expect a world-beater class. Larry Smith set the tone for his program rebuild in 1994 by signing running backs Brock Olivo and Ernest Blackwell and a host of linemen and future contributors like Brian Cracraft, Chris Meredith, Mike Morris, Todd Neimeyer, and Cliff Smith. And Pinkel did it by shoring up the Mizzou secondary and landing stars in both symbolism (Nash) and transcendent play (Smith).

Pinkel hit Texas hard, and he hit Missouri harder. To say the least, that would continue in the coming years, even if he never again signed a player from Youngstown.