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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Column: Let’s not panic with Pinkel just yet

Missouri’s 39th-ranked signing class doesn’t merit the vitriol.

Feb. 12, 2013

“We do what we do.”

That’s Gary Pinkel’s response to almost every critical question he receives about the Missouri football program. And it came up yet again last Wednesday, as Pinkel used his National Signing Day press conference to defend a recruiting class ranked 39th nationally by Rivals.com.

The Tigers’ 2013 class fit with the program’s past performance on the recruiting trail. Since Rivals.com was founded in 2002, the average Missouri class ranked 35th in the country, with a high of 21st in 2010 and a low of 48th in 2011.

But most fans will consider those stats irrelevant and point to this fact: Missouri’s recruiting class ranked 14th — dead last — in the Southeastern Conference.

After a 5-7 season that snapped a streak of seven straight bowl games, Missouri’s middling recruiting class only gives nervous fans more reason to panic. Armchair quarterbacks with access to Internet forums will continue an argument they popularized last summer — the program has stalled, that Pinkel’s stubbornness has made his regime stale and that the methods that led Missouri to thrive in the Big 12 won’t even help them survive in the SEC.

But personally, I like Pinkel’s mindset. If Pinkel actually were too stubborn or resistant to change, he would’ve been gone from Columbia long before the start of his thirteenth season — and continuing the seventh-longest tenure of Division I head football coaches — next fall.

Taken in context, the results of Pinkel’s time in Columbia indicate that “what we do” works. Before last season, the same Missouri program that went to two bowl games in the 17 seasons prior to Pinkel’s arrival had made seven straight postseason appearances.

If “what we do” is finish 39th in recruiting, so be it. Though identifying and signing good players is an indispensable aspect of any coach’s job, the general public is too easily obsessed and misled by the notorious star-ranking system. Arkansas’ 26th-ranked class had an average star rating of 2.96, lower than Missouri’s 3.0; the Razorbacks only finished higher in the overall standings because they signed three more players with a four-star rating and three more players total.

A quick note: those four- and five-star players every coach salivates over generally do outperform their more numerous three-star counterparts. But if the projections were always perfect, USC would have won the national championship last month. If the rankings were always right, we probably wouldn’t know the names of Chase Daniel, Aldon Smith and Johnny Manziel, all three-star recruits.

Sure, the average caliber of Missouri’s class is noticeably lower than the top-15 classes signed by the top half of the conference (Alabama, Florida, LSU, Mississippi, Auburn, Texas A&M and Georgia). But the gap between the Tigers and the rest of the programs ahead of them is negligible, mostly present because Missouri simply had fewer scholarships to give.

Pinkel’s fate obviously rests in whether “what we do” can work in 2013, and there’s plenty of reason to believe it will. The Tigers will (in theory) be faced with an easier schedule and a shorter injury list than last year. After, if they come away winning season and a return to a bowl game, Missouri’s name will return to respectability and recruiting will pick up.

When times are tough, Pinkel’s mantra provides more aggravation than relief. But times can be good again quicker than you think, in which case “what we do” becomes a reinforcing reminder of all that success the Pinkel process has produced. Any deviation from the plan at this point is just as likely to result in failure as success.

After a trying season, Pinkel has no choice but to trust what “what we do” has done in the past. Until proven otherwise, it makes some sense for you to trust it, too.

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