The 2014 SEC Championship game between Mizzou and Alabama features two coaches cut from the same cloth.
Mizzou Head Coach Gary Pinkel and Alabama Head Coach Nick Saban played for coaching legend Don James at Kent State in the ‘70s, and both served as assistant under James for several years before landing their first head coaching jobs.
“You could tell back then that Pinkel was going to be special,” said Warren Moon, the University of Washington quarterback from 1975-1977. “Good coaches have a way of handling players, and Pinkel had it.”
Moon sat down with GaryPinkel.com to talk about coaching mastermind Don James and the impact he had on his players’ lives, their careers, and the entire game of football.
Moon played quarterback for James at the University of Washington from 1975-1977. He was recruited by a number of colleges out of high school, many of which wanted to convert him to another position, as was the norm for many major colleges recruiting black high school quarterbacks. So Moon decided to attend West Los Angeles College, and after breaking numerous records in his lone season there, James offered him a scholarship to Washington and pledged to keep him at his natural position.
Moon was a three-year starter for the Huskies, but it wasn’t all smooth sailing in Seattle. Washington went 11-11 in Moon’s first two seasons at the helm, and many people were calling for him to be benched—both because of his performance and his race.
James didn’t listen. Moon was his guy, and he stuck with him.
“He believed in me, and I never wanted to let him down,” Moon said.
Competition & Preparation
Unlike many coaches at the time, James made his decisions about who played based solely on who performed in practice, Moon said. On James’ squad, if you were one of the best 22 players on team, you were going to be on the field somewhere.
As a result, every player on the roster felt like they had a chance to play, thus fueling the competitive spirit that James’ teams came to be known for.
The fierce competition began in the offseason, when James instituted a precise conditioning regimen unlike any other. He had calculated that a player expends six seconds of intense energy on each down, so mat drills lasted exactly six seconds, with very short rests in between.
Once the season rolled along, practice began at the Gold Line—the exact start time of practice—set at odd times like 8:58 a.m. or 9:02 a.m. to promote attention to detail. Throughout the day, every second was accounted for and none were wasted. Each drill had purpose, and each player had a role. Every single play was scripted based on scouting reports and tendencies, and all sides of the ball—offense, defense and special teams—were regarded as equally important, as evident by the number of hours spent on each.
That comprehensive and detailed preparation, Moon said, is what enabled him to have such a successful career. Compared to James’ rigorous practices, NFL workouts were no big deal. James eased the transition from college to professional football, which is why so many of his former players have gone on to sustain long, illustrious careers in the National Football League.
James also emphasized the importance of setting goals. When he was hired at Washington in 1975, the Huskies were coming off two straight losing seasons and had lost 15 of the their past 22 games. In his first meeting with the team, he announced they were going to win the league championship and go to the Rose Bowl.
It didn’t happen right away, but the possibility entered his players’ minds. They began to believe. After hovering around .500 in ’75 and ’76, James’ loyalty and seemingly audacious objective came to fruition in year three. Moon, whom James believed in when no one else did, led Washington to a 27-20 win over Michigan in the 1978 Rose Bowl and was named the game’s Most Valuable Player.
“I learned about goal setting from Don James,” Moon said. “All these years later I’m still impacted by it…I try to get better every year.”
In the next 17 seasons, James took the Huskies to 13 more bowl games, including five more Rose Bowls. The first couple years weren’t easy, but once he got the ball rolling, nobody could stop it.
Don James and Mizzou Football
What James did at Washington bears a strong resemblance to what Pinkel is in the process of doing at Mizzou. Since becoming the head coach of the Tigers in 2001, Pinkel has guided a once-floundering program to nine bowl appearances and five conference divisional championships. He holds the distinction of winningest coach at two separate universities
Before Pinkel left James’ staff to take his first head coaching job at Toledo, he asked the legendary coach for one more piece of advice. James responded:
“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,” James said. “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.”
When Mizzou entered the Southeastern Conference, his goal was to win it. Since then, the Pinkel-led Tigers have captured two SEC East championships in their first three years in the league.
How has he done it? Through meticulous preparation, precise organization, and goal-setting—just like James.
“He was my coach, my mentor, my friend, and he had such an amazing influence on my life, both personally and professionally,” Pinkel said. “The program we built at Toledo and here at Missouri is Don James’ program; it’s a tribute to how he developed men and built football teams.”