Missouri football: Gary Pinkel emerges as one of nation's top coaches
Over the past eight seasons, Gary Pinkel's teams have won five division titles in two of the most competitive college football conferences in the country.
Pinkel has won 23 games as a member of the SEC the past two years and since 2007 he has five seasons with 10 or more victories. Pinkel has also watched NFL teams grab eight of his players in the first round of the draft, including seven in the past seven years. Another five were picked in the second round in the those past seven drafts.
Missouri has won 115 games since Pinkel took over the program in 2001. Overall, Pinkel's 188 career victories are fourth-most among active coaches and 22nd all-time.
So why aren't Pinkel and Missouri viewed among the elites in college football?
PREVIEW: Connecticut at Missouri
It's a question that's often posed to the 63-year-old coach. The No. 22 Tigers (2-0) are hosting UConn Saturday, as the Huskies face the two-time defending SEC East champion and perhaps the most underrated program in the country.
Pinkel, who spent 10 years at Toledo before joining Missouri, is unassuming and not one to promote himself. He has been mentioned for other jobs -- Washington reportedly pursued him a few years ago -- but he has carved out an impressive legacy in Columbia.
But while coaches such as Nick Saban, Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh are treated as highly paid celebrities, Pinkel is the best coach you may never have heard about. Before this season, he was earning a base salary of $3.1 million -- placing him outside of the Top 20 in coaching salaries.
His salary was boosted to more than $4 million a year before the season and Pinkel is slowly being recognized as a coaching giant. His program, though, has been slow to gain respect. The Tigers were picked to finish third in the SEC East in the media's preseason poll this summer after being picked fourth in 2014 and sixth in 2013.
"I have no problem," Pinkel said this week. "How you change that [is to] keep winning. I put it back on us. Just keep winning. That's kind of the way I was brought up. You don't talk about yourself, you do it by action. That's where we're at. We're constantly trying to make our football program better."
Missouri's record under Pinkel (115-66, 63.5 winning percentage) has been astounding, given the level of competition the program has faced. The Tigers were in the Big 12 until 2011, when Missouri joined the SEC.
In the Big 12, Pinkel built a perennial bowl team and conference title contender. Missouri was struggling before Pinkel was hired, with just two bowl appearances in 17 years. The Tigers were 4-7 and 5-7 in Pinkel's first two seasons, but they were a bowl team in two of the next three years before rising to No. 4 in the country in 2007.
As Missouri became a consistent Top 20 program, Pinkel was rumored to be a candidate at Washington. Pinkel played at Kent State -- where Saban was a teammate -- for longtime Washington coach Don James and was an assistant under his mentor from 1979 to 1990.
But Pinkel remained at Missouri as the school transitioned to the SEC. And much of his coaching staff has remained the same. He has three assistant coaches who moved from Toledo to Missouri with him, including running backs coach and 1980 UConn graduate Brian Jones. The staff also includes associate head coach Andy Hill, in his 20th season at Missouri. Defensive coordinator Barry Odom is in his 10th season under Pinkel.
The stability has translated into wins, even in the SEC. After going 5-7 in the first season in the SEC, Missouri has won the East Division two years in a row.
"All we had to do was win one more game [in 2012] ... if I had done a better job coaching we would have gone to a bowl," Pinkel said.
Missouri was ranked fifth in the country in 2013 and 11th last year. And that was playing in the best conference in the country.
"It's every bit as great and difficult as everybody says it is," Pinkel said. "It is a gauntlet of games. Anybody can beat anybody."
But the transition has been significant for Pinkel's program. The appreciation from fans and media in the college football-mad South has been slowly coming as Missouri has twice played for the SEC title.
Off the field, the shift has dropped Mizzou into an entirely new world of athletics.
"It's been huge," Pinkel said. "Our fans had to become SEC fans. That means that there's kind of a responsibility with how you cheer, how you act, what you do at games and that's all good and positive. ... But it's been really good for recruiting, too. It's been very, very positive. Having [SEC] attached to our University of Missouri is a good thing for us."
Aside from his success on the sidelines, Pinkel gained attention in 2013 when Michael Sam came out as gay to his teammates. Sam went public before the 2014 NFL draft and the story of how he was accepted by his team reflected well on the veteran coach.
Sam is back in Columbia for graduate school and recently visited Pinkel.
"We didn't talk about the future too much," Pinkel said. "Great seeing him. Great kid."
The school clearly values Pinkel. In the spring, Pinkel signed a contract extension that runs through 2021. If his program continues to thrive, Pinkel could leave as one of the Top 10 winningest coaches in college football history.
He is already the all-time winningest coach in school history (115 wins) and has produced five 10-win seasons in 14 seasons.
In the program's previous 110 seasons, there was one 10-win season.
"I was never one about being boastful about your program, the things you done," Pinkel said. "We've won five divisional championships in the last eight years and there's only two other teams that have done that ... Alabama and Florida State. We haven't won a championship, but we won three [division] in the Big 12 and two in the SEC, so we've got a lot of accomplishments, NFL first round draft picks and everything else. So I think there's a lot of positive things there."
This article was written by Paul Doyle from The Hartford Courant and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.