Will wins or off-field issues shape Pinkel's legacy at Mizzou?
The days directly preceding and following last week’s announcement that Missouri coach Gary Pinkel would retire at the end of the season due to health issues highlighted the up-and-down nature of his tenure with the Tigers.
Pinkel, the all-time winningest coach at both Mizzou and Toledo, received words of praise from former players and fellow coaches alike before his Tigers rose to the occasion on Saturday and knocked off BYU. But amid racial tension and protests on campus, which briefly included a player boycott, a recent poll indicated a plurality of Missourians disapproved of the way Pinkel handled the situation.
Further away from Columbia, former Mizzou star Aldon Smith was suspended by the NFL for a year stemming from repeated run-ins with law enforcement.
Perhaps it’s fitting that the two weeks surrounding his announcement perfectly summed up his career at Missouri: A well-liked man who won 191 games and the admiration of nearly everyone who played for him but struggled with handling off-the-field issues.
Since coming to Missouri in 2001, Pinkel has compiled a record of 118-71, has gone to 11 bowl games and won the Big 12 North three times and the SEC East twice. It’s a level of success unmatched in Missouri history and only approached by the Tigers in the 1960s.
Since he’s arrived at Mizzou, 26 Tigers have been selected in the NFL Draft, including seven first-round picks in the past five years, and the program was almost universally lauded for the way it handled former SEC Defensive Player of the Year Michael Sam’s public announcement that he was gay.
But other issues have hung a darker cloud over both Pinkel and the program. Pinkel was arrested on suspicion of DWI during the 2011 season, an incident that included an embarrassing dashboard camera video of the arrest. The university also settled a wrongful death suit in 2009 stemming from the 2005 death of Aaron O’Neal shortly after participating in a team workout.
Last year, an Outside The Lines report on ESPN highlighted complaints that the program and university failed to appropriately handle accusations of sexual assaults involving former Missouri running back Derrick Washington.
Even last week as the program was celebrating the achievements of a coach who made Mizzou football relevant again after decades of despair, a poll conducted by Remington Research Group found that 41 percent of Missourians disapproved with Pinkel’s handling of the player boycott — he initially was fully supportive before later backing off some of his comments — while 31 percent approved and the rest were undecided.
Pinkel will likely be remembered at Missouri as an outstanding coach who brought success to the athletic department, and it’s difficult to find anyone who knows him well and doesn’t praise Pinkel as a person. But his own actions, as well as actions of members of his staff and some of his players, have put others at risk.
Few, if any, college football coaches make it through a career untainted, but as Pinkel enters the final weeks of his coaching career, it remains fair to wonder which points of that career will ultimately shape his legacy.