It doesn’t take long to understand how important the late Don James was in the life of Mizzou head football Coach Gary Pinkel. Listening to Pinkel talk about him for even just a moment, you understand that James was so much more than just a football coach.
Pinkel was introduced to James as an 18-year-old sophomore football player at Kent State. After his football career was over, Pinkel knew he wanted to get into coaching. That’s when he joined James as a part-time assistant coach.
“I think I’m one of the few people that’s coached for and played for him as a full-time coach,” Pinkel said. “Kent hadn’t won forever there. Don James comes in to Kent State University with that plan in there—that Don James plan—and before you know it, we win a championship a couple years later…went to the first bowl game, the Tangerine Bowl in 1972.”
It’s that same successful Don James plan that Pinkel implements at Mizzou today. Everything that goes on, from the verbiage that’s used to the practice regiment, is derived from the Don James plan.
Making the transition with James to Washington was a dream come true for Pinkel. “So what Don James did is he picked the program from Kent State University up, and he carried it out to Seattle, Washington and placed it in there.
“I think one of the reasons that he hired me as a part-time assistant for a year and then rehired me as a full-time assistant for 12 years is because—I was much younger then obviously—when I was a player, I went through the program and I know it works. And I know why it works.”
After Pinkel spent time as a member of James’ staff for 13 years, he was courted to be the next head coach for the Toledo Rockets. It was the big break Pinkel had been working for, and he decided it was time to head out on his own. Before he left out from under the wing of James, Pinkel asked him if he had any advice. It would be the best advice Pinkel would ever receive as a professional:
“Gary, when things get tough—and they’re going to really get tough, that’s the way this business is—you wake up and focus on doing your job. You wake up and you focus every hour on doing your job, then you go to bed and you wake up and do it again. You don’t let any outside influences get you because if you do that in this business, they’ll chew you up,” James had told him.
Pinkel said he walked out of James’ office not thinking too much about what he said at the time. But today, he doesn’t know if he’d have survived in coaching without that advice.
What’s clear about Gary Pinkel is that he’s a coach of habit but more importantly a man of incredible planning and values, all of which he got from Don James. The Mizzou family mourns the loss of Coach James, but celebrates his life and his achievements as his plan and personality is the core of the Mizzou football program today.