A disappointed Gary Pinkel honored in final home game

Gary Pinkel: “I didn’t want to end like this.”
Missouri Tigers coach Gary Pinkel is carried off by player after a game at Faurot Field in Columbia on Nov. 21, 2015. Mizzou lost to Tennessee, 19-8.

Gary Pinkel stood at the entrance to the tunnel. As his 21 seniors’ names were announced before kickoff, he gave them each a big hug, individually whispering something as his players were called to take the field and celebrate their career at Missouri.

When it came down to the last player, another name rang over Memorial Stadium’s PA system.

“Coaching his last game at Faurot Field,” the voice said, “Gary Pinkel.”

The 15-year head coach wiped away tears before walking through a line of his players, who crowded him on the turf.

The Tigers would go on to fall to Tennessee, 19-8, in the 28-degree Columbia air Saturday night. On his last home game, Pinkel traded in his iconic visor for a black and gold knit cap; his enjoyment for tears; his contentment for disappointment.

“I didn’t want to end like this,” Pinkel said after the loss. “I love those kids. God. They know what I’m like. They know that I like to win, man. That’s what we got in this business for. That’s our job — that’s my job — to win. When it’s tough to win, it’s my job to find a way to win. And I feel like I let them down. Bottom line is, I let them down.”

Signs from fans had filled the stadium at the beginning of the game. “Pinkel For President,” read one. A quote from the coach — “We Don’t Give Up Around Here” — was written on another. No matter how clever some of the poster boards were, the common theme was highlighted on a single sign: “Thanks, Coach Pinkel.”

As the game clock winded down and the Tigers began walking toward the locker room, defeated, Pinkel was stopped and thrown into the air.

The scoreboard didn’t matter. Senior offensive linemen Evan Boehm and Connor McGovern, two of the strongest guys on the team, raised their coach — their second father — onto their shoulders in triumph.

“We told each other, ‘Win or lose, we have to do this. He deserves this,’” Boehm said. “If that didn’t happen, there’s something wrong … There’s not enough words to describe the praise that everybody on this team and everybody that associates with this program has for him.”

The moment wasn’t perfect in the least. It would have been ideal to storm off the field with a victory. Instead, the Tigers, now 5-6, are rearing their final game of the season with an almost do-or-die chance to make a bowl game.

And Pinkel put the burden of the loss solely on his shoulders.

Once the players settled into the locker room after the game, Pinkel had a talk with them. He told them that he was sorry, that he was disappointed he couldn’t get them a win.

His “kids” would have none of it.

“We had to stop him and tell him that, ‘You didn’t let us down at all,’” junior defensive back Aarion Penton said. “We all love him, and he’s the reason why we’re here.”

The feeling of disappointment was passed around the team.

Pinkel’s final home win came and went almost two months ago, against South Carolina, on Oct. 3. After the type of season it’s been, it’s not easy to see your beloved coach — who is retiring due to the cancer diagnosis he received earlier this year — close out his final home game with a loss.

“I feel terrible,” Penton said. “Coach Pinkel is the only reason why I’m here. He’s a great guy, he’s like a father figure to me and the team. I’m just disappointed that we let him down and couldn’t bring home the ‘W.’”

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