Gary Pinkel never once considered retirement.
When his daughter recently called him saying she had heard he was retiring, it was news to the man at the helm of Missouri football for the past 12 seasons.
“I love what I do and I couldn’t wait to get into work on Monday morning,” Pinkel said to reporters gathered for his end-of-season press conference Tuesday morning. “I want to get back. I want to win.”
Pinkel enjoyed seeing the passion displayed by Tiger fans in voicing their displeasure with the 2012 squad’s disappointing 5-7 record in the school’s first season as members of the Southeastern Conference – a telltale sign the bar has been raised much higher for Missouri football than where it’s previously been.
“It’s good, it’s what it should be,” Pinkel said. “As you all know, we had people that used to cheer here when we played somebody close which drove me crazy. Our fans have a high expectation level for Mizzou football and that’ s what they should have.”
Pinkel will be back in 2013 for his 13th year, and is committed to getting the Tiger program back on track after not qualifying for a bowl game for the first time since 2004.
The parallels between that offseason eight years ago and this current one stop there, though.
“In 2004 we were still building the infrastructure of our team, we had a lot of internal things that were not going right,” Pinkel said. “There were a lot of little things that were important to our program that we fixed at that time.”
This time, Pinkel will be staying the course with the formula through which he raised a previously downtrodden program to national relevance.
“I embrace the foundation of our program when things get tough,” Pinkel said.
As he does in any offseason, regardless of success or lack thereof in the previous season, Pinkel will go back and analyze the program to ensure things are operating the way they should.
“We analyze everything we do, to make ourselves better.”
After the analysis he’s already done, Pinkel says the team’s conference affiliation did not cause its struggles.
According to Pinkel, there was no SEC learning curve and the conference was what the Tigers expected it to be.
“We knew going in exactly what was out there, that’s not it,” Pinkel said.
Health will be a key factor in Missouri’s success in the SEC. The offensive line was plagued all season by a bevy of injuries, which contributed to junior quarterback James Franklin taking even more hits. Those injuries, according to Pinkel, further lowered Missouri’s margin of error, which had already shrunk from its change in conference affiliation. Improvement needs to come in the trenches first.
“It’s a line of scrimmage league,” Pinkel said. “The offensive and defensive fronts are hugely important when you play in this league…you always look at the quarterback and receivers, defensive backs, linebackers and all that. But the bottom line is, the best teams we’ve ever had here were really good up front on both sides of the ball and that’s the way this league is.”
In terms of off-the-field moves, Pinkel said he couldn’t be more pleased with the transition made by the university and fans to the SEC; saying the commitment from the university and fans has been “exceptional” and that they “get it.”
Pinkel is committed to fixing the on-field product and has what he described as a “great” relationship with Athletic Director Mike Alden.
This one year of struggles is far from enough to deter Pinkel, who pointed out his program is 13th among BCS schools in wins since 2007 and 14th among BCS schools since 2003 in bowl appearances.
“I had a responsibility here, when this program was handed to me, to build a respected national program and we’ve done pretty good until this year, “ Pinkel said. “It’s my job to get it back.”
Open competition at quarterback
As is the case with every position, Pinkel said there will be open competition for the starting quarterback job when spring practice arrives.
After a sensational sophomore season, James Franklin was hampered by injuries during a disappointing junior campaign in which his production took a massive dip.
Pinkel said Tuesday he thought redshirt freshman Corbin Berkstresser impressed while on the field, especially considering he was in-and-out throughout the season.
Freshman Maty Mauk, the most prolific passer in national high school history, would appear to be the wild card in the competition after redshirting this past season.
Should Mauk win the job, it won’t be the first time a redshirt freshman unseated a much more experienced player at quarterback during Pinkel’s tenure at Missouri: In 2002, Brad Smith beat out senior Kirk Farmer, who was the returning starter.
Here’s what Franklin had to say about the Ohio native during fall camp in August: “He’s way ahead of where I was,” Franklin said. “As a freshman, he’s a lot better quarterback than I was – he has better footwork and he also has a stronger arm.”
Josey set to return
Gone is 1,000-yard rusher Kendial Lawrence, but freshman Russell Hansbrough and redshirt sophomore Marcus Murphy will return to the Tiger backfield next season.
Joining them will be junior tailback Henry Josey, who missed the 2012 season recovering from a horrific knee injury suffered during his breakout 2011-12 campaign.
Pinkel confirmed that Josey, who was averaging more than eight yards per carry at the time of his injury, will participate in spring ball.
According to Pinkel, team trainer Rex Sharp has told him that Josey always has a smile on his face and that his attitude and approach toward his rehabilitation are “remarkable”.
“I just marvel at the kid,” Pinkel said.
After spending time with Josey in hospital in the days following his injury and then seeing Josey progress through training to where he is now, Pinkel is giddy about the Texas native’s return to the playing field.
“I have such admiration for him,” Pinkel said. “I get chills talking about it.”
No staff changes
Members of Pinkel’s coaching staff, in particular offensive coordinator David Yost and defensive coordinator Dave Steckel also came under fire this season. Pinkel however says he expects all members of his staff to be back next season and in the same roles they currently are in.
“Hiring the wrong person doesn’t destroy your business,” Pinkel said. “What destroys your business is keeping that person in your organization.”
Pinkel mentioned he did fire several assistants during his time as head coach at Toledo.
“I’ll never have anybody working for us that’s not good enough to be here because that’s the priority of our football program,” Pinkel said. “There’s nothing personal here and there never has been.”
Richardson likely NFL bound
Pinkel said he anticipate redshirt junior Sheldon Richardson to depart for the NFL draft in the coming weeks.
“If I was a bettin’ man I’d suggest he’ll go,” Pinkel said.
Pinkel believes Richardson – who finished tied for second on the team in both tackles and sacks – will grade out as a 1st round pick and that he’d encourage him to move onto the professional ranks.
“I always treat those players as my kids and if he’s projected to be a fist round pick I’d encourage him to go,” Pinkel said. “It’s irresponsible for me not to do that.”
According to Pinkel, as is typically the case numerous names of other underclassmen have been submitted for assessment by NFL personnel but it remains unclear whether or not a player like corner E.J. Gaines or defensive end Kony Ealy would also declare early.