True to his word, every January after the Tigers’ 2005 season ended during what would have been O’Neal’s tenure at Mizzou, Pinkel and assistant coach Cornell Ford visited O’Neal’s family, and Pinkel gave O’Neal’s father a ring the Tigers players got for playing in a bowl game.
The gesture was not lost on Bob Bunton, who was O’Neal’s high school football coach at Parkway North in suburban St. Louis.
“They didn’t sweep it under the rug,” Bunton said. “Coach Pinkel is a man of his word and they still continue to honor Aaron O’Neal’s legacy.”
Pinkel will retire when this season ends, battling lymphoma. He made the announcement late last week after a week of turmoil during which his team joined protests over the handling of racist incidents on campus, which culminated in the ouster of the UM System president and its chancellor.
Pinkel gained some recognition nationwide when he quietly stood by his graduate Michael Sam, the first NFL draftee to come out as gay, and again this month as he stood by his players when they vowed not to play until UM System President Timothy Wolfe resigned or was fired.
The coach’s quiet decency was no surprise to the Mizzou community. In his 15 years at the University of Missouri, Pinkel brought the Mizzou football program back to relevance, with a stable program heavily influenced by his mentor, coaching legend Don James.
Pinkel changed after Aaron O’Neal’s death, one of his former players said.
“When A.O. passed away it hit everybody hard,” said Tommy Saunders, who played for Mizzou from 2004 to 2008. “Being the leader of the program, you could see the changes he was making in the program. The coaches stopped to talk to us about what was going on with us personally in life. It took a little more effort, but it brought us closer together.”
Then the program took off. Since 2007, Mizzou has averaged almost 10 wins a season and has won four divisional conference titles, two in the Big 12 North and two in the SEC East.
The family atmosphere cultivated by Pinkel and his staff was apparent on national TV after Mizzou’s 20-16 win over Brigham Young University on Saturday. The Tigers entered the game as underdogs, having lost four in a row and dealing with the distractions of the protests and news of Pinkel’s retirement.
After posting the win, Mizzou players surrounded Pinkel, chanting his name, hugging him and telling him they loved him. Pinkel then broke out in a dance for the players that he had only done once before, after the Tigers won the Cotton Bowl in 2014.
“Coach Pinkel did a great job talking to the players, all the coaches did,” Saunders told Courthouse News. “When you trust your coaches, you would go out and jump in front of a train for them.”
Pinkel is the only active coach to lead two programs in career wins, going 73-37-3 in 10 seasons at Toledo and 117-71 in 15 seasons at Missouri. His 190 career wins is tied for fourth in the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) among active coaches, and he is a three-time Coach of the Year.
In the past 10 years, the Tigers have had just one losing season. From 1983 through 2000, when Pinkel took over, Mizzou had just two winning seasons.
Mizzou alumni Patrick Weir and Matt Jeans remember the pre-Pinkel football dark ages.
“The biggest thing is the perception of Mizzou across the country,” Weir said. “Your school is not an afterthought anymore. I get to talk some smack.”
Jeans traveled to San Diego in 1997 where Mizzou played Colorado State in the Holiday Bowl and a bartender didn’t recognize his Mizzou baseball cap.
“He asked if I was a Michigan fan because of the ‘M’ on my cap,” Jeans said. “He had no idea Mizzou had a football team. Now I bet he knows who Mizzou is.”
Pinkel’s success on the football field has had other tangible benefits. Without the football program’s turnaround, an invitation to jump from the unstable Big 12 to the more stable SEC probably would not have been extended. But it was, and Mizzou enjoyed a $34 million payout last year from the $476 million the SEC generated from TV deals with CBS and ESPN: the biggest payout in college sports, according to Forbes.
“I think we made a lot of progress over the years,” Pinkel said in a news conference Monday. “This is a great university. One thing I always tell recruits is that my players love going to school here.”
Pinkel disciplined his top players regardless of the effect it might have on the won-lost record. He booted Dorial Green-Beckham, arguably the top recruit in program history, from the team in April 2014 after several run-ins with the law. This year he suspended starting quarterback Maty Mauk for the season for violating team rules.
“We’re talking 18- to 22-year-old college athletes and students: these guys are going to get into trouble,” Saunders said. “Coach Pinkel made it clear that nobody is bigger than Mizzou. No matter who’s out there, we’re going to go out and play on Saturday.”
No one outside the team knows exactly what Mauk did, a trademark of Pinkel’s respect for players’ privacy. Another of coach Bunton’s former players, Donavin Newsom, was Mauk’s roommate, but he knows better than to ask what happened.
“If he wanted to say something when we talked, he would have,” Bunton said.
Pinkel was far from perfect. There was an embarrassing DUI arrest in 2011 and a divorce in 2012.
But Pinkel held himself to the same standards he held his players. He was suspended for a week without pay, had his salary frozen for a year and put in 50 hours of community service for the DUI. School officials estimated the sanctions cost Pinkel more than $306,000.
“I have already met with our staff and communicated with our players and have apologized to them,” Pinkel said at the time. “I accept full responsibility for my actions and will abide by whatever course of action our leadership deems appropriate.”
Pinkel has had no run-ins with the law since.
Pinkel’s handling of the Michael Sam situation drew praise from football and non-football fans alike.
Sam became the first openly gay player to be drafted in the NFL when the Rams selected him in the seventh round in 2014. Sam’s sexual preference didn’t become public until he announced it after earning SEC Defensive Player of the Year and coming out to his Mizzou teammates before the season started.
“That’s something you want to model,” Bunton said. “Strong leadership defines trust. In this day of social media, with 125 kids on the team, and to not have that come out, are you kidding me?”
Pinkel’s latest show of dedication was supporting his players during the racial unrest on campus.
It wasn’t until the Tigers’ black players announced they wouldn’t play until Wolfe was out that the protests gained teeth. Two days later, Wolfe resigned and the team was back on the field.
“Like every other university in the country, we have our problems,” Pinkel said in the Monday news conference. “What you do, just like a football program, you communicate, you talk, you solve problems and you get better and the University of Missouri gets better as you go. That’s our challenges and that’s what we’ll do.”
Saunders, like many former Pinkel players, was shocked and saddened by the news of his retirement. Dozens of players offered thoughts through social media and reached out to Pinkel personally.
Saunders called Pinkel a mentor and role model who cared about his players even after they were finished putting on Mizzou’s black and gold. Saunders said Pinkel kept his promises to him from the time he was a walk-on, to when he earned a scholarship and became a team captain. Pinkel even helped Saunders establish his fitness company after graduation.
“Most of the values and mindset I have come from the Mizzou program,” Saunders said. “No excuses, no matter what, because the results are the results, and to have a positive attitude, all crucial attributes you want that were cultivated through the Mizzou program.”
Pinkel told his players they have his cell phone number for life.
“I think that this position, being the head football coach, my responsibility is to win football games to keep my job, but I also think my responsibility is to help young men,” Pinkel told reporters Monday. “I don’t think we have the Mizzou-Made philosophy for our program to look good; that is what we do. The things we do in our program, we want to impact lives, so when they walk away from the program, we are there for people, we help them, and that’s real real important.”
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