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'My players knew we really cared about them': Gary Pinkel talks Hall of Fame nod, Mizzou memories

"Were we perfect all the time? No. But at the end of the day my players knew we really cared about them," Pinkel said of how he'd like to be remembered at Mizzou

ST. LOUIS — Former University of Missouri head football coach Gary Pinkel never saw himself as a "Hall of Famer". So when the news came via a note and personalized football in the mail, he first thought someone might be playing a joke on him.

"I never thought it would happen. It wasn't my goal to do it at all and I just never thought it was gonna happen. It wasn't my goal to do it at all and I just thought it was never gonna happen. So I'm thinking that, 'If one of my buddies did this to me I'm gonna blow their car up'. But what I did was (after opening the package and reading the note) I went in and walked into the shower with Missy (Pinkel's wife) and she goes, 'What's wrong, what's wrong, what's wrong?' And I said, 'Read this, read this!' And she read the same thing, 'Welcome to the club'. And she looked at me and just screamed and it was just a special moment. It really was a special moment for me. This award is about a lot of people besides Gary Pinkel."

That club is the National College Football Hall of Fame. He'll be inducted alongside the rest of the class of 2022 in December.

Pinkel recently sat down with 5 On Your Side's Frank Cusumano to talk about the honor and look back on his time in Columbia.

Pinkel stepped into a rough reality at Missouri. In the two years prior, the team was a combined 7-15.

A conversation Pinkel recalls with then-assistant coach David Yost at the time sums up the situation pretty well.

"He (Yost) says, 'We only have one corner on scholarship.' And I go, 'Oh my gosh' and I sat down. And he goes, 'And the bad news coach is that he's having surgery tomorrow.' And I'm thinking, 'What did I get myself into? How could this happen?' And I'm not gonna criticize anybody but that was a rude awakening for what we had to do to turn this thing, and it took as four years to do it," Pinkel said.

And Pinkel did turn it around. He won 191 games at Missouri, the most of any coach in program history. Pinkel credits a lot of his success to what he learned under his mentor, coach Don James.

"I think it starts with Don James. And I mention that too because Nick Saban was on that team with us. And Saban used so much from that foundation he got from coach James, like I did. Even though he does some things different," Pinkel said.

It was tough sledding convincing recruits to come to the "new" Missouri program Pinkel was building. Relationships were so frayed between the St. Louis area and the University that some high schools wouldn't even let him come recruit their players.

"There was two high schools who didn't want me to come in. And they sent someone out and said, 'We've just been burnt so many times by the University of Missouri.' And It was like someone hit you on the side of the head... But we were different and we had to prove it," Pinkel said.

Pinkel coached at Missouri from 2001 to 2015, retiring to better allocate his time while fighting a non-Hodgkin Lymphoma diagnosis. Today, coach is doing alright.

"I'm doing fine. It hasn't done a whole lot the last three or four years. I really try to take care of myself. I always have, but I try to do it even more so now. So I'm doing ok," Pinkel said.

Although, he has to admit he daydreams about a return from time to time when sitting around and watching a big Saturday game.

"That's gone through my head a little bit. I've said to myself, 'What if somebody came and wanted to do It? But yeah, to coach again? Yeah. I loved what I did. I absolutely loved what I did. But for me it was all about making sure that I spent my time right," Pinkel said.

Pinkel has dedicated his time away from the game to family, and growing his charitable organization, "GP Made" which aims to help children facing challenges.

Pinkel does offer up a football thought to new Mizzou coach Eli Drinkwitz every once in a while, but mostly keeps his distance.

"I stay back. They don't need Gary Pinkel roaming around the halls," Pinkel said. "I talk to coach Drink probably once a month or so. I just really want him to do well."

The landscape of college athletics is quite different than the one he left just a few years ago in 2015.

With the institution of name, image and likeness opportunities for players and the explosion of the transfer portal, college football is a bit like the wild west at the moment. Pinkel has some thoughts on how he'd handle things.

"You'd have to do it. You'd have to jump in," Pinkel said about utilizing NIL and transfer portal opportunities. "The trouble I have is I don't know if it's going to become a bidding war and the amount of money that's gonna be out there. Is that all done upfront and the right way and everything else? The portal I'd say go two years and then you'd have three years of eligibility after it. One of the great things about football and all sports is you fall down, you get back up, you brush the dust off and go back to work. You don't go to the portal and say, 'I don't want to be here. You don't treat me very well. I'm gonna leave.' That's not what sport is about. Sport teaches a lot more than that. That's why I'd want them to adjust the portal a little bit."

When he looks back on his career as the winningest coach in Mizzou history though, Pinkel just hopes his players knew he was someone who wanted the best for them.

"I would want him (a former player) to say that he (Pinkel) cared about us. That we weren't just football players. I can trust him. Education was very important to him, work ethic and all the different values we taught our players. And we didn't do it because it sounded good in-home recruiting, that's what we did. At the end of the day that's what we did," Pinkel said when asked what he'd hope a former player would say about him. "We did all the things we told them we'd do. And I want them to walk out four years later, which they did... Saw them as freshmen and then walk out after their senior banquet with their bowtie on and they were completely different men. And our stamp was on them. Certainly their mom and dad was, but our stamp without a question was on them. And I think most of our players saw that. Were we perfect all the time? No. But at the end of the day my players knew we really cared about them."

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