An emotional Pinkel will leave behind his second family at Missouri

Gary Pinkel: “It’s my players. At Toledo and here at Mizzou. I’m going to miss that. I’m going to miss them. I’m going to miss that interaction and being around them, scolding them when I have to scold them and hugging them everyday.”
Missouri Tigers coach Gary Pinkel addresses the audience during a press conference Nov. 16, 2015, at Mizzou Arena. Pinkel held back tears while he spoke to family, friends, athletes and other community members about his career.

With tears in his eyes, the football coach tried to get the words out.

It took a few seconds. As Gary Pinkel stood on the stage erected in Mizzou Arena on Monday morning for his farewell press conference, he couldn’t help but choke up at the thought of leaving what matters most to him.

He’ll miss the coaching staff. He’ll miss Ann Hatcher, his secretary, who was one of his most reliable friends during the tough times. He’ll miss the game, obviously.

“Most importantly, the toughest thing about this,” Pinkel stuttered. He gazed down, trying to hide the glossy eyes of a football coach known for being stern rather than emotional.

“Sorry,” the coach collected himself. “It’s my players. At Toledo and here at Mizzou. I’m going to miss that. I’m going to miss them. I’m going to miss that interaction and being around them, scolding them when I have to scold them and hugging them everyday. That’s what I’m going to miss the most, being around the players.”

Tears are not common in the daily life of a college football coach. But here he stood, on a stage in the middle of a basketball arena, choked up before the media members and fans who had come to celebrate his career.

The man who has personified football in the state of Missouri for the last 15 years will step down at the conclusion of the season because of the diagnosis of follicular lymphoma, a form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, he received in May.

After his diagnosis, he immediately told family, close friends and Athletics Director Mack Rhoades. There’s no cure for the disease. It can only be managed. Now, he feels fine. He underwent treatment at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, in May and June and “felt great.”

But in the back of his mind, the inevitable end of coaching the Tigers still loomed. How much longer could he spend with his wife, Missy? How much longer could he spend with his children and his grandchildren?

“You start thinking about your time and reevaluate your priorities,” Pinkel said. “It’s funny when you get (cancer). It’s so numbing … You’re driving around for a week and you glance at yourself in the rearview mirror and look at yourself and say, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’”

During last month’s bye week, the coach made the final decision to step down at the conclusion of the season. He told his family and then Rhoades. Pinkel planned on telling his team and staff on Sunday after the Brigham Young game, but somehow word got out Friday afternoon.

He didn’t want his other family — the team — finding out from social media or word of mouth. Just minutes before boarding the buses for the BYU game, the coach dropped the bombshell.

“They had to know first,” Pinkel said. “That was the most important thing. When I talked to them, it was really emotional for me.”

Pinkel has always preached the family aspect of his Tigers’ program. This past week, as the news came out that the coach would resign following the 2015 season, a video from this summer came back into light. The promotional video, narrated by Pinkel, emphasizes his philosophy of coaching and molding his players into young men.

The black and white video starts out with a line of retired Missouri football helmets, dramatic music and the familiar sound of Pinkel’s voice.

“No one ever said it was going to be easy,” he tells his Tigers. “But I never doubted you guys for a second. Because I knew what makes this team so special. It’s all about family.”

Talking to players at Missouri, the family attitude within the program is more than just a selling point to recruits.

This year, Pinkel set up “fatherly advice” team meetings every Thursday. Last year it was “book of virtues.” The players took it to heart.

“He’ll tell you to treat everybody the same,” senior cornerback Kenya Dennis said. “One example he always uses is if the president was in here or the guy that’s cleaning the windows, he’d talk to both guys … He’s going to treat everyone the same no matter what.”

As a tight end at Kent State, young Pinkel played under the late Don James. That led the young man from Akron, Ohio, to a graduate assistant role under James at Kent State, and then Washington. He learned to lead a program with “honesty and integrity.”

Coaching was always about so much more than football.

“Coach James always said, ‘Anything you do, your players are going to notice,’” Pinkel said. “‘Anything you do, they’re going to look at you, they’re going to point to you and they’re going to see who you are.’ That leadership role is very important. I took that very, very seriously.”

The family mindset stems from this. His players are his “kids,” and looking after 127 isn’t always easy. But in his mind, it’s more important than what might happen any given fall Saturday on the gridiron. At his kids’ home away from home, someone needs to be a father figure.

“I tell recruits, and I tell players, ‘You’re going to have my phone number in your phone forever,’” Pinkel said. “‘And I’m going to have yours. You call me anytime you need me for anything.’”

The black and white video continues.

Players hug on and off the field. They joke around in the locker room. They lean down in prayer.

“I care about you guys,” Pinkel’s voice says, “and it’s my responsibility to push you to be great.”

The words come from a scripted promotional video highlighting the Missouri football program, but the words are real. Pinkel does care. He cares enough about his players that he gives life advice, putting aside the game for a few moments every week to spent time molding his players into men.

Stripping himself of the football coach role for at least one meeting a week, Pinkel is a father in those meetings.

He’s been a father figure for senior center Evan Boehm, whom Pinkel always told that he should live his life with enthusiasm.

He’s been a father figure for junior Michael Scherer, whose mom was in the hospital for a week this past winter. Pinkel texted or called the linebacker every day, asking how his mother was, sending prayers and good wishes. For a month straight, he’d ask about her.

He doesn’t just say he cares for a promotional video. He lives it.

And at the end of the day, those are the moments and lessons Scherer will remember. Someday, Scherer said, long after Pinkel’s statue is erected outside of Memorial Stadium, he’ll be telling his kids Coach Pinkel stories just like Pinkel always tells Don James stories.

“No coaching advice he could have given me on the field, nothing he could have ever told me during a game, or before a game or after a game will ever amount to what he’s taught me about life off the field,” Scherer said.

The music slows down at the end of the video, with a fade to the Tigers running through the smoke onto Faurot Field. The token phrase “Mizzou Made” appears on the screen.

Gary Pinkel made Mizzou, Mizzou. As of Monday, Pinkel has 118 wins, the most in school history. He’s been to ten bowl games in 14 full seasons at Missouri, five of which came during 10-win years. In the previous 110 seasons, there had been just one. He brought a down-and-out Big 12 program to the top of the Southeastern Conference in just over a decade.

Right before the screen cuts to black, just like Pinkel’s career at Missouri in a little over a month, Pinkel delivers his team a message.

“I love every one of you guys. Now let’s go win.”

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