1. When Gary Pinkel took over as the head coach at Missouri in 2001, the Tigers hadn’t won 10 games in a season in four decades, and had managed only two winning seasons in the previous two decades. When Pinkel took over, Missouri was a floundering Big 12 program best known for being on the losing end of perhaps the most epic screwjob in college football history. Now, the Tigers are on the verge of becoming a perennial upper-tier SEC program: They’ve won 10 games in four of the last seven years, and have only one losing season over that same timespan. Long before the Michael Sam announcement, you could make the case that Pinkel has accomplished one of the best decade-long coaching jobs in college football history.
2. What makes this more remarkable is that Pinkel has done so without the benefit of top-tier recruits. In 2009, for instance, the Tigers had the 40th-ranked recruiting class in the country, according to Rivals; they had one five-star recruit (defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, now in the NFL) and one four-star recruit. The rest were two- and three-stars.
3. That class included Michael Sam, a two-star defensive end out of a small high school Hitchcock, Texas, who would go on to become the SEC defensive player of the year on a team that came a couple of plays short of going undefeated during the 2013 regular season.
4. According to Rivals, Missouri signed the No. 35 recruiting class in the country, and the No. 12 recruiting class in the SEC in 2014. It has two four-star recruits; the rest are three-stars and two-stars. “I bet we’ve been averaging being ranked somewhere in the 30s, but in the last seven years we’re eighth in the nation in winning,” Pinkel said. “The numbers don’t match. I’ll just put it out there: Our system works. It’s not perfect; there’s no system that’s perfect. But our system works.”
5. The overarching notion when Missouri joined the SEC was that the program would soon launch into a death spiral; the overarching notion when Missouri went 5-7 in its first SEC season in 2012 was that the Tigers lack of pure talent had now been exposed, and that they would become the new Vanderbilt, perpetually doomed to failure. (That word, doomed, by the way is not my word: It’s Pinkel’s word for how others were characterizing his team.)
6. What Pinkel has done so skillfully is recognize that Missouri — while able to lure blue-chip recruits here and there — cannot compete on a toe-to-toe level with LSU and Alabama (and before that, could not compete with Oklahoma and Texas in the Big 12). Therefore, the best way forward is to play up the differences. (After the failure of 2012 — and after a 2011 DWI arrest affected his own personal stature — Pinkel made several changes last fall, including eliminating two-a-days in order to minimize injuries.) And this is why I imagine that the revelation that Michael Sam played an entire year at the school without word of his sexual orientation leaking out to the media — and the revelation that his teammates didn’t appear to let it bother them at all – could actually elevate Pinkel’s stature among the players he’s trying to recruit: Two- and three-star kids who recognize (along with their parents) that a future in the NFL is a longshot, and are maybe searching for a more personalized atmosphere.
7. There is, of course, still some homophobia to overcome in SEC country, as certain callers to Paul Finebaum’s Monday radio show made clear (my personal favorite was the guy who used the revelation of Sam’s sexuality to advocate for a catastrophic earthquake that would eradicate the state of California). But between the vitriol, there was a surprising amount of acceptance of Sam, as well. There will be negative recruiting, because this is the way of college football. But if Pinkel can appeal not just to the next Michael Sam, but to other forward-thinking and independent-minded southern recruits (and parents) who see the appeal of Missouri’s system, then it’s very possible that his rebuilding job might last another decade.