Content Exchange

COLUMBIA, Mo. - In Friday’s Post-Dispatch, several of Gary Pinkel’s former assistant coaches reflected on their time working under the soon-to-be Hall of Fame inductee. Those wide-ranging interviews this week included many more quotes than we could squeeze into the story, so we’ve curated more here, oral history style.

Several of Pinkel’s assistants worked alongside him for his entire 15 years at Mizzou — a couple more stayed on under Barry Odom — and became entrenched in the Columbia community. The staff continuity and loyalty were rare, especially by today’s standards in college football. Unlike many coaches today, Pinkel also allowed his coaches to talk freely to the media, which added color and insight to the team coverage over his 15 years and made these stories possible years later. Here’s more from Pinkel’s brigade on what made his program so unique and successful.

First, though, a rundown of Pinkel’s coaches and where they are now. The dates listed below only represent their time at Mizzou under Pinkel:

Dave Christensen, offensive coordinator/offensive line, 2001-08: retired

Matt Eberflus, defensive coordinator/safeties, 2001-08: Indianapolis Colts coordinator

David Yost, quarterbacks, offensive coordinator, 2001-2012: Florida International coordinator

Andy Hill, receivers/quarterbacks, 2001-15: Kansas City Chiefs assistant special teams coordinator

Brian Jones, running backs, 2001-15: Villanova running backs

Bruce Walker, tight ends, 2001-13: retired

Craig Kuligowski, defensive line, 2001-15: Toledo co-coordinator

Cornell Ford, cornerbacks, 2001-15: Toledo cornerbacks

Dave Steckel, linebackers/defensive coordinator, 2001-14: broadcasting

Josh Henson, offensive line/offensive coordinator, 2009-15: USC coordinator/offensive line

Barry Odom, safeties/defensive coordinator, 2009-11, 2015: Arkansas coordinator

Alex Grinch, safeties, 2012-14: USC coordinator/safeties

Pat Washington, receivers, 2013-15: Appalachian State receivers*

A.J. Ricker, offensive line, 2014-15: TCU co-coordinator/offensive line

Ryan Walters, safeties, 2015: Illinois coordinator

* Washington was not retained after the season

On Pinkel’s structure and organization …

Josh Henson

“There was always a plan. And that plan was laid out months in advance. There was a lot of thought that went into it. Coach Pinkel knew what he wanted. He knew how he was going to do it. At the same time, he was also willing to adjust and he evaluated every single thing we did in the program. Every time that we had an event, a recruiting weekend, spring ball, the spring game, two-a-days … we evaluated the recruiting weekend, two-a-days or anything that anyone wants to bring up that we can adjust to make the program better, make Mizzou better, he listened. … His planning and his structure and the way he stuck to that structure on a daily basis, how he did things every single day, how methodical he was with staff meetings, approaching the team, I thought that was special.”

Craig Kuligowski

“He's a master of consistency and organization and treated people well. … He was a very process-driven guy. He worked for Don James, and working for Don James was like learning coaching at Harvard.”

Dave Christensen

“He’s probably the most consistent person that I know as far as running a football program. He wasn't into change. We obviously always evaluated and looked at things but had a program that he brought from another Hall of Famer in Don James. And there's another guy who's gonna go in the Hall of Fame that used the same program. And that’s Nick Saban.”

Cornell Ford

“We spent a lot of time driving to St. Louis together just the two of us. He would share his thoughts with me about things and we talked a lot about Don James. One day I was watching an old interview of Don James. It went on for about 30 minutes and he’s talking about his program, and I was like, ‘Holy crap, that's our program!’ Literally, take Missouri from 2001 to 2015 and the years I was at Toledo and this was the Washington program in the early 1980s, late ’80s. It was amazing. The only difference was that Don James was in a tower (at practice). Gary Pinkel walked around on the field.”

On letting the coaches coach the team …

Dave Steckel

“He kept us accountable to the players. He kept us accountable to the organization. On the field we coached but in film and meeting rooms, he watched all the video. He was right there with the offense and with the defense and watched the video and held us accountable and asked questions. ‘Why are we doing this? What about this? What about that?’ He always asked the whys, and when you gave him the why and the players weren’t doing the why he held you accountable to make sure they did the whys, whether it be the fundamental or the scheme.”


“He managed the coaches. He didn’t mingle in your work. If something wasn't getting done, he would bring it up in the staff meeting (and say), ‘Get it corrected.’ I don't remember Gary ever talking to me about a blocking scheme or a technique I was using. Just get your players to play above their ability level was always our goal. Then you were fine. In the 17 years I coached the offensive line (at Toledo and Missouri) we didn't have a lot of offensive line discussions. He let me do my job. He trusted me like he did with all the coaches. He trusted you to do your job and had an expectation for you to do your job. He was fortunate he had a lot of guys that were self-motivated. I didn't want to let him down.”


“It was very beneficial because it allowed you to be on the field and coach and not look over your shoulder, even though I knew he was watching. … You knew how he wanted it done. Eventually the only guys that really he got on the most were probably the younger coaches or the guys that were new to the program. Because he just wanted to make sure you're doing it the right way. Because the staff was together for so long, they knew what he wanted. He just kept an eye on us and every once in a while would jump our ass to grind a little bit more. But I think that's why the program worked.”

On the pivotal 2005 season …


“The old cliché is you need players. In 2003, we did break through. We were 7-5 and went to the Independence bowl. So then everybody gave us a statute for 2004. Everybody picked us to win the North. … But that was a bad year. And there's reasons. There's a lot of reasons for that I won't get into. But we self-evaluated and 2005 was a turning point. It was ‘go to a bowl game or … we’d be looking for a job.’ That's a fact. Well, guess what? We're playing Iowa State, we're down 14. We get ready to start the fourth quarter and Brad Smith gets knocked out of the game. And little freshman Chase Daniel comes in, marches down, scores. On defense, we luckily get a defensive stop. He goes back down scores a touchdown. We get a stop. We go to overtime. The defense gets a stop, so we get three defensive stops in a row, which we weren't stopping anybody that day. And then Chase Daniel comes in, we get the field goal and go to the Independence Bowl and quote unquote, the rest is history. That saved our jobs.

"If we don't win that game we don't go to the Independence Bowl and who knows? Then the program just took off. The kids took ownership into the programs and said, ‘OK, this does work.’”

On the Big 12 to SEC transition …


“It was huge. I think everybody in college football thought that we're just going to be completely miserable failures. To be honest with you it was a fear in everybody's mind, too. Mizzou was a lot closer in terms of facilities, and that’s honestly all through Coach Pinkel’s doing, too. But it was scary. The first year was sure bumpy. But kids believed. We had some kids that we're seniors that really had their best years and did a great job leading us, played great and then after that the expectations were set. The next year the kids were able to do it again.”

“The transition, which was without question in my mind, the best thing for the university to do was to join the SEC because it raised the expectations and the standards of everybody around there. … But it’s tough to be the guy that makes the move. Coach Pinkel handled it great. We didn't switch everything. We didn't say, ‘Well, we’re going to the SEC. We have to do things this way now.’ We just continued to run the program the way we run it adjust as needed in a positive way.”


“We had a little bit of friction in the program with some of the players (in 2012), so in that next year the kids just said, ‘Hey, we're better. And we're going to prove it. We're all in.’ There were some of those guys who became seniors and they wanted to leave an impact. Quite honestly that group of kids got tired of us talking about the 2007 kids and they wanted to leave their mark. They left a mark all right.”

On staff loyalty and continuity …


“When you think about some of those years there, Gary Pinkel could have fired all of us about five times each, me probably six or seven. But his loyalty with the coaches made the coaches work harder for him. Nowadays, there's always a scapegoat. This guy just gets fired because of this. You know, in our situation you're held accountable. Go get your job done. Because of his loyalty, we worked harder for him.”


“Believe me, there were a lot of people at Mizzou early on that called for my job. That was never even a factor. (Pinkel) never mentioned it to me, never talked about it with me. Very, very loyal. They're not like that in this business. Just look at what's happened in the last three weeks. You just start firing those assistants if you're struggling because then you could blame it on them and not have to take the blame for it. That wasn’t Gary Pinkel.”

“The only jobs I ever interviewed for while I was at Missouri was head-coaching jobs,  because I knew what I had. He did things the right way. He's a family man. We were able to be family men ourselves. He just knew how to do things the right way. I was a firm believer that the grass isn't always greener. I had a great thing going with him.”


“We were able to be together for so long. We grew up together. We coached together. We saw our kids grow up together. There was a continuity there and a love. You just wanted to do a good job because you cared about the other guys. It meant a lot.”


“I think it’s very important. When you were recruiting a kid, you felt a responsibility that you're going to be there when that kid was done. You're accountable to what kind of football player, what kind of person he was.”


“To be honest with you when I first got there, it was hard because those (assistants) had been together for so long there was a lot of things that just kind of went unsaid because they knew everything and would be like, ‘We forgot to tell you that.’  Being the first new guy in a while, that was kind of interesting.

“I remember one time I asked (Pinkel) a question about hiring staff and he said, ‘If I am down to two coaches who are even I’ll always hire who I think is the better person and who's going to have the ability to get along with the staff better. Maybe the other guy is a little bit better coach, but he's going to cause problems in the staff and it's going to start to cause splinters in the staff. Staff continuity and staff camaraderie is the most important thing you can have inside of your building because the players feel it. They know that the staff isn't all together.’ He said to me, ‘Remember back to when you played. You were always watching the coaching staff, their mannerisms, how they interact with each other.’

"He was huge on this: When we were in front of the players, we were always a united front. I thought that staff did a better job of that than any staff I’ve worked on. They did an unbelievable job. And I've worked with some great staffs. But I just thought that was an unique ability for that staff.

“Coach Pinkel would always let you air your voice. A lot of those guys were comfortable airing their voice because they've all been together for so long. We brought up things that were hard issues to bring up. When you brought up a hard issue, he didn't blow up or explode. He took it in and he internalized it. We talked about it. He said, ‘What is the solution?’ And he came up with solutions.

“That staff, because they were together for so long, was very, very loyal to each other. They just had each other's back. That’s the way it was. It was a really unique thing. I think in this business in today's day and age, it’s something I'm really glad that I got to be a part of. … Loyalty, that word obviously isn’t used very much at this level of ball anymore.”


“He cared about family. He gave guys opportunities to be with their families. In this profession everybody grinds to midnight. Coach Pinkel was like, ‘After practice you guys go home.’ That is unheard of. There are a few people that do that, but very few. Even though some days we had tough days at practice or he got on somebody’s ass about something, in the end guys appreciated being able to go home and see their kids before they went to bed. That was a big deal.”

On in-house promotions …

Barry Odom

“He was able to (hire) guys that he saw something in and train them and also got them in position organizationally. He wanted things done. But also he put guys in position to be able to get the best out of them. I think there was a trust factor in a lot of that, which is hard to find in a lot of lines of work, but especially this one. He trusted guys. Also from a responsibility standpoint, there was number of times, man, I didn't want to let him down. I felt like I owed him. I wanted to do the absolute best job I kid could not only for our kids but for Coach.”


“If Coach Pinkel wouldn't have promoted me to be the offensive coordinator at Missouri, I wouldn't be offensive coordinator at USC today. That’s the way it is. He went outside and interviewed other people. He interviewed me, and I think that was part of Coach's philosophy if we had been doing really well in house and guys were leaving for good reasons. When David (Yost) left, we didn’t have a great year (in 2012), but I think David had had a lot of success and we had a lot success overall as a program during David's time. He’s a great coach. He did a great job. But that goes to show you, too, that Coach Pinkel doesn't panic. He doesn't care what outside sources thought. We all knew that as a staff, and that's why we loved him and that's why we stayed with him. … The guy was so unbelievably loyal, so loyal to you and your family that you wanted to repay that to him. I had other opportunities to leave for programs that in everybody's book would be like, ‘Oh, that's better job than Missouri.’ But I thought I had the best job in college football.

“At one point in time, I told (my wife) Shauna, ‘It may not ever get better than this.’ And she looked at me like ‘Oh, come on.’ I said, ‘I'm just telling you. This guy I work for, the place I work at, the great family life you can have in the middle of America working for this guy, we’re winning at a super-high level, it may not ever get any better than this.’ She looked at me like I was crazy. But I was serious.”

Pinkel interviewed different candidates for the coordinator position when Yost left after the 2012 season, including Henson, Andy Hill and a young assistant from East Carolina, Lincoln Riley, who’d go on to become the head coach at Oklahoma and now USC. Coincidentally, Riley recently hired Henson as his coordinator and O-line coach.

On adopting Pinkel-isms …


“It’s interesting now with my staff defensively. (Former Mizzou player) Michaels Scherer is here. Jake Trump is here. Kenji Jackson, too. There'll be things that I say or do (in the meeting room) and they point out pretty quickly where that came from. I take pride in that. (Pinkel) is in the core values of who I am. Guys that have been around both can see some of that shine through. There was times this year that I bounced things off of him. He's just got a lot of information and did it at a high level for a long time.”

On recruiting and development …


“You got to have good coaches. You got to have talented players. You got to have facilities in order to entice guys, or you don't have a chance on any of that stuff. But in terms of recruiting when we would look at a defensive lineman or any different position, (Pinkel) had physical standards that the guy would be graded on, athletic standards that the guy would be graded on. He had a group of tough questions that you would ask the high school coach about the kid. How hard does he work? How tough is he? How does he handle hard coaching? How does he take criticism? What's he like as a leader? How much did he bench press? How much did he vertical jump. All of that was in there and so whenever a kid came up (for discussion), it wasn't just like, ‘I like this guy. I think he’d be a good guy.’ It was all this evaluation on the guy. I think it helped to systematically put guys that would work in what we were doing defensively and offensively in that system.

“Identifying guys that have the talent to have success in your system, that's a big deal. And it's a lot harder to do than you think. I think that's why there was so much success. And then to be honest with you, did we ever have a bad quarterback? If you have a good quarterback, obviously you have a chance. That was really one of his big strengths as well.”


“That was the reason that we turned programs around we were able to build programs. Those tough questions were important because you were looking for a certain kind of player. And if people answered those questions right, and you did a good job of investigating and trying to find the right answer to those questions, you found the right type of kid with the right kind of DNA that you can bring into the program and they will eventually help you turn the program around. Those tough questions were a big part of that. We weren't there to get all the four and five stars that everybody was looking for. Coach Pinkel would tell you he didn't believe in stars, which is true. We believed in our system.”


“I've had a chance to experience a number of other programs since leaving there, and that's one thing that we did on a daily basis: We talked about our personnel. Each position coach talked about each one of their players on a daily basis. Every single day, (Pinkel) would get a report on every one of your players. Not only you and him, but the entire staff knew everything about every player. You're constantly talking about personnel. Nowadays people don't want to recruit AND develop. They want to recruit the instant player. What we did there was we evaluated extremely well and we developed extremely well. We could bring in a guy that was maybe not as highly rated a player and developed him into a great player. Look at the number of NFL players who came out of there and the number of four or five stars that came in there. Those numbers don't equate. We brought in players we evaluated who had potential and we developed that potential. That daily meeting about personnel was part of the package. Nobody does that. That was something I took with me to Wyoming. We did the same thing. People just don't understand that you can evaluate, recruit and develop to build a team.”

Dave Matter

@dave_Matter on Twitter

This article originally ran on


Locations Content Exchange