Pinkel heaps praise on Saban, hopes for Arkansas-Mizzou rivalry

By: Clay Henry
Published: Wednesday, October 18, 2017
Missouri coach Gary Pinkel speaks to the media at the Southeastern Conference NCAA college football media days, Wednesday, July 15, 2015, in Hoover, Ala. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
Missouri coach Gary Pinkel speaks to the media at the Southeastern Conference NCAA college football media days, Wednesday, July 15, 2015, in Hoover, Ala. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

— Gary Pinkel gave a glimpse of Nick Saban – and the coaching tree shared by both – during his time with the Northwest Arkansas Touchdown Club on Wednesday.

He also pointed to his presence at the event as evidence that Arkansas-Missouri has yet to become a rivalry.

Pinkel coached Missouri to five division championships in 15 seasons as head coach at Missouri - three in the Big 12 North and two in the SEC East. He stepped down because of cancer after the 2015 season as the winningest coach in program history.

He said he wouldn't be invited to speak at a Kansas club. No Missouri coach would. But more on that in a moment.

Pinkel's coaching roots began at Kent State where he was a player along with Steelers great Jack Lambert and Saban. They played and later coached for Don James at Kent State and both were graduate assistants on his staff in 1974.

“Don James was a huge influence on Nick and I when we were grad assistants,” Pinkel said. “We talked about getting into college football as a coach. I knew that's what I was going to do, but Nick's dad owned a car dealership. That's what Nick thought he was going to do, but Don talked to him about coaching. Nick's dad asked him to try coaching for a year.”

Saban and Pinkel are still close. Saban wrote the foreword in Pinkel's newly published book, The 100-yard Journey.

“The foreword is better than the book,” Pinkel said. “I will say this about what Nick has done: You look back on the records of coaches like Bo Schembechler and Bear Bryant, they had 120 scholarships. Nick has had only 85.

“What he's done is amazing. He loses 15 guys each year and the brilliance looks the same. He will go down as one of the best ever.”

Pinkel said James shaped his career, both as a player and a coach. He was play-caller for James at Washington for seven seasons, serving previously as a position coach for six seasons during two different stints.

Pinkel replaced Saban as head coach at Toledo in 1991. There was a brief conversation with James when Pinkel left Washington to become a head coach. Did James want to give him any advice?

“I got up to leave the room and asked him kind of a joke,” he said. “You know, any last words?”

James was ready. He promised Pinkel that tough times were ahead and there was only one way to attack tough times.

“You do it by getting up in the morning and attack it one hour at a time,” Pinkel said. “If you don't, it will eat you up. It was great advice.”

Pinkel recalls the tough times in the first four years at Missouri.

“It was really tough,” he said. “We had to change the culture. I can remember the first winter conditioning practice that first year. Every one of my coaches was back in the locker room with his head in his hands.

“I looked at them and said, 'Did you think we came here because things were great?' The reason why they have been losing is that they bring in a new coach every four years.”

That transitions into the plight Arkansas coach Bret Bielema faces. Pinkel said nothing is easy in the SEC.

“It's the greatest league,” Pinkel said. “It's just plain hard. It's hard even when you stay healthy, but it can get really hard when you have injuries. Alabama has a few more players so they can survive some injuries. It's tough on every one else.”

The hot seat talk concerning coaches is the nature of the business. Pinkel called it a “sad” reality.

“It is because of the impact of the dollars,” Pinkel said. “The social media aspect has changed things. It's unfortunate, but it's the way it is.

“I think what Saban has done has had an impact, too. I call it the Saban rule. He's had his team at such a consistent level. They lose players and then the next year it doesn't look like it. That puts pressure on the entire league.”

Quarterback is the key position.

“You look at what we did over time at Missouri, we had good quarterbacks - Brad Smith, Chase Daniel and Blaine Gabbert,” he said. “You have to have good quarterbacks and you have to keep them healthy. That can be luck in some degree.

“Coaches get their quarterbacks hurt and they may end up getting fired. That's tough, but it's what happens. The Packers just lost Aaron Rodgers and that will be tough to overcome.”

Pinkel joked about the nature of the Arkansas-Missouri series. It's probably not a good rivalry yet, because Pinkel wouldn't have made the trip to speak to an Arkansas club. He has been to the state twice to speak this year.

“I would hope that you would never ask a Missouri coach again, because of the way the rivalry develops,” he said. “I hate Kansas. They would never ask me to speak to a group there and I wouldn't go if they asked me. I hope that's how the Arkansas-Missouri rivalry develops.”

Having said that, Pinkel said he's encouraged that the Mizzou and KU hoops teams are playing a benefit game Sunday in Kansas City to raise money for hurricane relief.

“When we went to the SEC, Kansas got mad and we don't play anymore,” Pinkel said. “It's like they took their toys and went home. We should play each other in all sports. It's good for the two institutions.

“But I understand that it's going to take time for the Arkansas-Missouri game to develop into something. You just can't wake up and say you are rivals. Through time, I hope it becomes something and you guys never ask a Missouri coach to walk through those doors again.”

With that, Pinkel headed out the doors. To his credit, he didn't do anything to create a rivalry, unless you count heaping praise on Saban.

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