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"Everybody's favorite player's the backup QB, but then he throws three INTs." A Gary Pinkel Q&A.

This summer, I spoke with Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel for part of a coach profile that went up at SB Nation last week. Here is the extended Q&A.

David Manning-USA TODAY Sports

On today vs. yesterday

BC: Starting from where you started off in the 1970s, I guess my first question is ... well, you started coaching in the 1970s! What are some of the biggest changes in the way that a football program is run now as compared to when you began?

GP: I don't think it's remarkably different. I think running a program is like running a business. Obviously it's people-oriented, and it's still about attention to detail, having a plan for everything. It's still about honest evaluation of what you do because you always want to do it better.

I think the brand of football is a lot more different, and there's a lot more people pulling at you. But I still think it's about getting people motivated and working hard. It's still about staying organized and getting people to act responsibly within your organization. So I don't think it's changed that much.

BC: It seems like one of the biggest changes is simply speed -- your ability to make evaluations of yourself and your opponent more quickly. Every coach I've talked to who started in the '70s or '80s began by cutting up film and hanging from the big lines and whatnot.

GP: Oh, that part changed -- the technology part of the job has changed remarkably. I remember in the 1970s using splicing machines, hot splicers, putting all that film together. All that information you get now, that's changed.

BC: So when you get information faster, what fills that extra time? Do you go into more detail because of that extra time?

GP: It's just all data, and you have to determine how you're going to use it. You can get so much data on so many variables. You have to figure out what works best for you so you can make good decisions.

You can overdo it. But it's interesting because we used to have to accumulate all the data and work till 9:00 or 10:00 at night, Sunday through about Wednesday. But now all that stuff on our next opponent, we have every bit of it in place when we walk into the office on Sunday morning. We have it all.

It amazes me that so many people still work till 10:00. We don't here, but it seems like most still work till 10:30, 11:00 every night because it's just what you're supposed to do. I try to be a bit more family-oriented for my coaches.

BC: I bet there are no complaints about that.

(Bill Carter-Rock M Nation)

On continuity

BC: Speaking of the coaching staff, one of the ongoing narratives with your time here is continuity. Obviously you lose coaches sometimes, but compared to other head coaches, you really haven't.

Knowing what I know about Don James' tenure at Washington, there were ups and downs. In the mid-1980s, there was a bit of a downturn [from 1985-89, Washington went just 36-21-2, peaking at just 8-3-1 in 1986]. Of course, by 1991, they're playing for the national title, which is anecdotal proof that continuity can be a good thing.

What in your own experience has taught you that continuity, avoiding changes when possible, is the way to go?

GP: I think certainly that's my background. I watched this guy as a head coach, I played for him, I meticulously followed everything he did. I feel very fortunate -- I've only lost six coaches in 14 years, and [all but] one of them advanced professionally. Never a parallel move. It was always to a coordinator, NFL, what have you.

But I think, personnel-wise, continuity is important. I see it every year where coaches make changes just to make a statement. "I'm fixing things." This guy's coached for you, and all of a sudden he's not good enough. If it's gotten to that point, you should have seen it and done something about it two years before. I just don't believe in throwing someone under the bus just to sound like the guy in power is making these dramatic changes.

A couple of years ago, we had a pretty tough year, and I know Mike Alden wasn't the happiest guy in the world -- not that he wanted me to make changes, but I came out in public and said I'm not going to change any coaches. And everybody came at me. But I have a really strong belief in people. The coaches that work for me are really good, and I think they become better as they mature and go through our process. And I just refuse to throw somebody out for the sake of making changes so it looks like you're in control.

On the summer

BCSo in terms of game-planning, what are you doing in these months, June and July? What are the things you're working on the most right now?

GP: Well, first of all, each coach takes a vacation. Each week, there are two to three coaches in here who are responsible for the office so that the players know who's here. But they also have assignments and responsibilities -- offense, defense.

Generally we will have personnel and scheme analysis for our first two or three opponents. For some of the people early in the season, we have game plans done or nearly done. And all this information, when we're all back in July, we'll start going through it as a staff. So it's just analysis of our opponents so that when we get into the season, we'll have done the preparation we feel is necessary to do the right things.

On making changes

BC: So if there was an issue from the previous season -- the offense wasn't very good, the pass rush wasn't where it should be, etc. -- what's the process for making changes?

GP: It starts with a thorough discussion. Our staff meetings are really, really important. Our communication is hugely important. If it's personnel, well, we talk about personnel every day.

When we have practice in August, for example, when we come off the practice field, Rex Sharp comes in and gives us a trainer report, and we watch the video, and then we start talking. A.J. Ricker, for example, talks about every single player who practiced. We do that after every single practice. Most people don't do that. They'll say "How are your guys?" We don't.

So it's a really thorough analysis of personnel. Once in the season, it's the same thing. Who's playing? The grade they have, their production, what kind of mistakes they are making. So that's when things lead themselves to changes.

We generally won't pull a guy right away; we'll start playing the guy behind him a little bit more, maybe to motivate him, get him playing better. But as a staff, we're really on personnel.

And we all have opinions, too, which is good. I make final decisions, but we don't overreact. You know, everybody's favorite player is the backup quarterback, but then he comes in and throws three interceptions.

(Bill Carter-Rock M Nation)

BC: Last season was pretty interesting to watch because it seemed there were shifts, in terms of run-pass rates, from September to November, based on success or lack thereof, I guess. How much of it was, "We need to do something differently here," and how much of it was, "Our opponents coming up don't defend the run as well."

GP: I think it was more about us. First of all, our defense was playing at a very high level, about as good as we've played. And then we had some losses in our receiving corps, and our passing game just wasn't as efficient as we needed it to be. So we decided we need to run the football more; the running backs we had were outstanding. And leaning in that direction was a strategical move.

It was also one we made to protect the ball. I believe we were second in the league in fewest turnovers in SEC play on offense. So we're protecting the ball, we're playing great defense, we've got a good kicking game, and I thought that was a really good move by our coaches.

I think we've also done a much better job of ... we get into the fourth quarter, working the clock, keeping the ball, keeping our defense off the field. We call it the four-minute drill, which, okay, offense is out there, there's 3:30 left, they've got one or two timeouts, how are we going to stay on the field. All those things lend themselves to success.

But they clearly talked about it, discussed it, and that was a great direction. Our offensive staff did a great job of making that adjustment.

On the work week

BC: So you hit the season and you've got reasonably fleshed-out game plans for the first few opponents. The game ends on Saturday, you come into the office on Sunday morning, what's the first thing you do that morning?

GP: The coaches come in about 8:00, and they grade everybody individually. Then offense and defense get together as a group. I'll usually sit with the group that struggled the most. That's the meeting I think I need to be in. And again, it's just analysis, grading players really thoroughly. Kicking grades, point-of-attack grades, big plays, all those things.

Then, offense and defense grade together as a group, which is really important from a team aspect, making sure everybody's on the same page. What I do is then, once they have their grades together, I'll meet with the offense, meet with the defense, I'll watch the video and go through everything, every play I had questions about. I want to make sure I'm on the same page, too. So they'll get the grades, we'll put the depth chart up, talk about change possibilities, are we gonna do it or not do it. Stats are very important there. And then I go over and do the same thing with the other unit.

At that time, we talk about strategical things. We might want to lean a little bit in this direction this week because of injuries, production, everything else. So really, on a Sunday, that's what we do. I have checklists for everything -- I have a Sunday checklist, July and August checklists, very detailed for every little thing that has to happen in our camp and everything else. And I got that all from Don James. I've added little things to it, but I got it from him.

BC: It seems like one of the things that does perhaps differ from staff to staff is whether you’re evaluating yourself first or your opponents first on Sundays. It seems that Missouri has a reputation for solid self-scouting, so I guess it would make sense that you do that first. At one point does the opponent come into play? Where does the analysis really start for whoever’s next?

GP: Well it starts when we’re flying back on the airplane now. All our guys have that on their computers or their iPads or their phones. So they can start looking at those things.

We have analysts now — offensive and defensive analysts. They’re really awesome; last year’s the first year we had them. What they’ll do on Sunday evening before the guys go home, or Monday before we meet at 7 a.m., is they'll give their analyst reports. So last year, Coach Stec and his defensive staff are sitting there, and in the other room the offensive staff, and the analysts come in and give a detailed analysis.

When I was a coordinator, I would have loved to have had these guys.

So, thorough, 30 minute analysis, offense and defense. And the analysts are great because all they've studied is the next opponent.

So that’s the start of it, and then the offense and defense itself starts its game planning. And you’re right — we’re a remarkably consistent program. One thing we do on Sunday, too, is we evaluate the weekend. We evaluate everything. We call it ‘relentless evaluation.’ I learned that from Don James. When things got bad two years ago, people said ‘Well, you’re probably looking at things differently.’ No. We’re approaching things the same way we did before. We did it that year. We still do it this year. You don’t start creating things. In fact, what I do, when things get tough, I embrace the detail of our program. What we do works here. Coaches don’t get side-swiped when they walk in the door, thinking ‘Oh, what’s going on now?’

But we do want to make ourselves three to five percent better every year because you have to grow.

(Jamie Squire-Getty Images)

BC: Monday, it starts with the 7 a.m. meeting. What’s going on in practice in terms of installation of the game plan?

GP: Our players will get our opponents Sunday night. If we win, we don’t practice, and they’re short practices anyway because we just played the day before. The staff gets home around 7:00 or 7:30, and our players will jump on it fully on Monday.

A lot of them will come in a group on Monday. The top two units will come in and watch the opponent together. The players are analyzing themselves and the opponent at that time.

The first time they will get a look at the game plan is 7:00 Tuesday morning. So if you’re traveling that week, you’re in here Tuesday morning getting the entire game plan — offense, defense, kicking. They’ve seen video. Our players have seen the opponents by Sunday night because of Hudl. It's just remarkable what you can get from that. But we game plan all day on Monday, and they come in and get it.

BC: And how much changes from week to week regarding the game plan?

GP: I know some people don’t like to change much — you don’t want to be predictable, but you want to be really good at what you do. And I know some people like to design stuff all the time.

My big thing is, as long as the players can handle it, I’m okay. Generally, if you’ve got a young team, it’s better not to make a lot of changes. You’ve got to maintain a discipline and a focus, and you might be struggling. If you change a lot of things, is that really going to help them? Those are some strategical things that you have to analyze.

BC: Another difference from staff to staff seems to be the situational aspects. When you have a chance to get on the field during the week, how much are you focusing on red zone, other situations? Is there a specific emphasis?

GP: We have certain things we do offensively and defensively on Tuesday and Wednesdays. We’ll be pretty physical on Tuesdays, but we’re very, very situation-oriented. Field position, down and distance, time in game, two-minute offense, end of half. We’ll try to do an analysis of opponents — after big plays, what do they generally do? If they get a big play, do they run the ball or pass the ball? We’ll look into all of that.

(David Manning-USA TODAY Sports)

BC: Defenses tend to change their approach when they get inside the 30- or 40-yard line. That seems to have been a strength for Missouri for a long time now: stiffening when you have to. That’s always been one of my favorite fan complaints — they’re playing too soft!

GP: It’s a bend but don’t break. I think there’s a pretty sound philosophy there. I also think it’s a lot harder to actually score in the red zone. The field’s smaller and tighter. The space is different. But to me, being a good, plus-30, plus-15 defensive football team is a tremendous asset.

On Saturday surprises

BC: So then Saturday comes, and with as much planning as you do, how much actually surprises you on Saturday when the game starts, either because of what your team isn't doing or what the opponent is doing?

GP: Hopefully there aren’t any surprises. There might be some frustration because you’re not playing well or you’re not focused, which can happen a lot.

We have a team meeting on Thursday, and we have the Thursday checklist. The Thursday checklist is meticulously about everything that can happen on Saturday, everything that we’re going to do. We’ll sit down as a staff, and we’ll go through about 25 different fundamental items. Short-yardage, goal line, two-point conversions. If it’s fourth-and-1, are we going to go for it against this team? If we’re going to go, who’s carrying the football? Do we need to keep their quarterback off the field? That might make us more likely to go. We tried three fake kicks in the bowl game. Two of them worked. Those calls were all made on Thursday. Those decisions were made then.

The neat thing about that is, we do it in a calm setting where you’re more likely to make intelligent decisions. So you’re not caught up emotionally in everything.

BC: So if something isn’t working, obviously you don’t wait until halftime to fix it.

GP: Yeah, we heard that for a few years around here. You’re not making the right adjustments at halftime! I don’t hear that too much anymore. But I got to the point where I was saying, "Why would you wait until halftime to frickin' fix it? Are you kidding me?"

But anyway, all of a sudden your team plays better in the second half … what did you say to them at halftime? Well, nothing. At halftime, we just want to help our kids.

(Bill Carter-Rock M Nation)

BC: You really only get about five to 10 minutes at halftime, right?

GP: Right, and I know TV wants to get this under control, and we talked about this in the SEC meetings, but we need to get off the field for a 20-minute halftime. Sometimes they make you wait for TV. And then they’re complaining that the game’s too long! But they’re going to try to tighten those things up a little bit.

But it’s quick. I’m in the offensive room, defense is in another room, Rex Sharp gives me any injury news, so then I’ll say, "Tom isn’t going to play in the second half. So who’s stepping in on the kicking team?" We’ll make any personnel adjustments we need to make.

And then the offense and defense, they’ll go through a checklist in terms of, are we changing this? Are we doing this? Are these calls helping these guys? And then we look at the clock, we’ve got eight minutes left, they’ll break into positions and discuss things. It’s very detailed and organized. And it’s hugely important. A lot of things happen during a game. Plus, maybe you’ve got a guy injured, and a backup’s in the game.

On not coaching for Don James

BC: You coached for Bowling Green for two years under Dennis Stoltz, then went out to Washington with Don James. I guess you hadn’t been with Coach James for a while at that point, but what did you pick up on in those two years that was maybe different?

GP: Well … [runs over and picks up a book] I have to show you this. This guy sent me this book — it’s the media guide from Bowling Green from when I was 26 years old. I shouldn’t do this because it’s like shooting yourself. I was 26, it was my second year ... [finds his picture] that was me, believe it or not.

BC: I forgot about those [generic trucker/coaches] hats!

GP: It was so cool.

Anyway, Denny Stoltz, I love Denny Stoltz. He gave me my first job. He's a great guy. But he wasn't really structured, and I was struggling. I’m used to every frickin' minute of the day being planned. I remember we used to have staff meetings at 8:30, and I’m there three minutes early, of course. But no one else is there. Denny comes in, and we maybe start at 8:40 or 8:50, and there’s nothing wrong with that! But I was so determined … I’m going to sit in that empty meeting room for 20 minutes until someone comes in there! I used to go back to my wife and say, 'That stuff I learned from Coach James, I know it would work way better here!'

I was smart enough not to say that to Coach Stoltz, of course, but it was really difficult for me because I’d worked for Don out there for a year as a part-time assistant. I knew as a player that when Don came in my sophomore year, the second he came in, [the level of organization changed].

I’m sure it’s happening with Stec down there with all those guys. They’re all GAs who played for me, and they are soldiers. I’m a solider for Don James because what he did worked. It worked for him at Kent State, it worked at Washington. So that was tough for me.

(Jamie Squire-Getty Images)

BC: Then you go back out to Washington. If nothing else, I guess that confirmed for you what you were looking for in terms of the type of organization you wanted to be in.

GP: I’ve done that, too, where you’ve got grad assistants and you send them out, but they’re a trained Don James guy, and you end up bringing them back.

Right now, I’ve got Barry Odom, who’s like that. A.J. Ricker played for me. Ninety percent of places aren’t like this, but we’ve got a way we do absolutely everything. We teach certain ways, we coach certain ways, and a guy isn’t just going to come in and do his thing. We’re not going to do that around here.

I think Stec’s a great example of this right now — those guys he’s got down there are soldiers. In fact, you’ve gotta watch those guys, man. They’re so extreme.

It’s really cool to have that kind of a culture. That was really important when I went back with Don. It just clicked. And it was great for him, too, because when I went out there, I was a part-time assistant and he had just started there. They were still adjusting to him. I was 24, and those players all knew I’d played for him, and we’d won a championship. But they’re all kinda looking around and wondering, "Is this really the way to do it?"

What he did that was so smart was, he brought me in, and I was a soldier. I’d talk to those guys all the time, and I think there was a bit of a calming effect there, saying, "This stuff works." When you’re one second late, and you’ve got to get up four days in a row, that’s discipline. That stuff works. And I think having me around really helped.

BC: So the downturn for Washington in the mid-1980s has always been really interesting to me. Obviously the Internet didn’t really exist at that point, so there’s not as much to read about from that time. But there was a downturn and a rebound. What were some of the causes of going from almost winning the national title in ’84, then going down for a bit.

GP: I think we had one losing season, kind of like we’ve had here. I’m not blaming injuries, but we did have tons of injuries [in 2012] here. I should have done a better job of coaching, but honestly, I think if I do a better job of coaching, we win one more game that year. That’s it. But I didn’t get that done. That’s on me.

But then, they were yelling at Coach James. 'Make changes, get rid of this guy.' He didn’t. What I saw him do was just get back to ... not the "basics," that’s an overused term. But the emphasis of the detail in everything we do.

And the other thing we did was, he didn’t talk to the players much at that time. That was just him. But he brought a bunch of players in and talked to them, and I think that was him searching out how to get better.

The bottom line was, we also weren’t as good personnel-wise. You never want to say that because that means you recruited poorly. You can’t blame it on players. But the truth of the matter was, we had a bit of a lull in recruiting. But we came out of it, then obviously just went crazy.

That was a great experience, though. I saved those clippings. I was struggling at Toledo, and … Coach James, we had won all those games, been to the Rose Bowl, the Orange Bowl. And they’re sitting there saying, "Well, he’s too old. Should he be coaching anymore?" And I’m looking back and thinking, "Are you kidding me? They were on him like this?"

BC: Joe Paterno was past his prime 16 different times.

GP: Right.

(Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports)

BC: I’ve noticed that sometimes when a coach builds up a program to a certain level, maybe he starts bringing in a different caliber of guys [from the perspective of recruiting rankings], but they don’t respond as well to his style of coaching, and recruiting and performance almost end up going in opposite directions. But it was, in your opinion, that at Washington in that time the recruiting just wasn’t as good?

GP: Well, you’ve got to coach better. But the reality of it was, we had to really play well to win because we just weren’t as good.

But we battled through it. I always tell everybody, those who overcome adversity in our business are the ones who survive. When you’re winning, anybody can do it.

On 2012

BC: And once you have proof that you will rebound doing things a certain way, it probably gets easier, too.

So, one more question about 2012. You said coaching could have gotten you one more game … how important was it to not make a bowl that year? That reality check? Because that’s what the narrative became — I think it was maybe Max Copeland talking about how everybody doubled their efforts because the bowl streak had ended and they knew they had to buckle down. Is that real, or would the same type of improvement have probably happened the next year if you go 6-6 and go to a minor bowl?

GP: I wish we had gone 6-6 and gone to a minor bowl!

I don’t necessarily agree that missing that provided us with the motivation to make that extra move. We didn’t make drastic changes. We didn’t change anything — I told the team we weren’t changing anything and that what we do works, we just had to do it better. It wasn’t a popular statement at the time. But I think it was really neat to see … when you have adversity like that, it was neat to see the players and hear their feelings. I talk to those guys all the time. But they were asking me, "What can we do to make this better? What do you need from me?"

You’d like to say we made all these changes, but if there’s anything we did, we were very concerned with the number of injures we had, so we went back and did an analysis for all our last seven years of practices. Did we start adding things? Were we practicing more? We found out that over the years, we had basically added another practice period. You add up all the hits that happen in August and in Tuesday-Wednesday practices, the physical parts … we went back and pulled those out.

We examined our conditioning, and the feedback we got from our players was that they were fatigued heading into September. So we felt we were over-conditioning, and we backed off. We started taking shoulder pads off on Wednesdays. We only had full pads on Tuesdays. We made a lot of little changes.

It’s not like you can’t get injured, but most injuries are happening when players are fatigued. As a staff, working with Pat Ivey and Rex Sharp, we got together, and I think that really helped us.

BC: I know that when you talk to sports analytics people, they’ll tell you that health analytics are the next big thing. That’s not as much fun for me because I like the play-by-play data, but they say that can make the biggest difference. No matter what you’re analyzing, you’re probably analyzing your first string, and if they’re not on the field…

GP: It’s a struggle. Just look at my Cavaliers [in the NBA finals]! Two of their top their top three players aren’t even on the court. We’re all better players if we stay healthy, so we put a premium on that, more than other. And I think that keeps our players fresher, mentally and physically.

(John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports)