Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
COLUMBIA — Seventy-five thousand fans will pack the Georgia Dome on Saturday for a Southeastern Conference Championship matchup between Missouri and Alabama.
Gary Pinkel believes one more will be watching from above: Don James, his former coach at Kent State.
“He’ll be watching from Heaven,” the Missouri coach said. “He’ll be rooting for me. I know that, because he always liked me better.”
Better than Nick Saban, he means. James coached the current Alabama coach at Kent State as well. Saban and Pinkel were teammates, and both worked as graduate assistants under James, who died in October of 2013.
The two have followed different routes since then. Saban coached at a handful of spots as an assistant and head coach both professionally and collegiately before becoming one of the most powerful men in collegiate sports at Alabama. Pinkel has had just two head-coaching jobs, and he’s stayed at both for at least 10 years, becoming each team’s winningest coach in the process.
But their paths have crossed, too. Pinkel’s first gig as a head coach came at Toledo, where he took over for Saban after his one season there. Pinkel joined Saban in the Southeastern Conference in 2012, when Missouri realigned from the Big 12, and Saturday’s game marks their second meeting as head coaches.
And it all goes back to James.
“I guess the thing that Coach James was, he was an organizational genius,” Pinkel said. “The detail of organizing every little tiny aspect of your football program, having a plan in place for everything, evaluate everything you do after you do it. I’ve been a head coach for 24 years now. We have an infrastructure in place. I would say that in itself is probably as important as anything I’ve done, I’ve learned from him.”
Saban also made note of James’ organizational prowess, as well as other influences the college football Hall of Famer imparted.
“A lot of the stuff that we did way back when I was a player and first started coaching for coach James are still things that we use in our program today,” Saban said. “It starts with how we recruit players, how we evaluate players, character and attitude — how those things sort of play into it, how you sort of try to find out those things about players so you get the kind of guys that are a good fit for your program. That was a big thing that Don always emphasized.”
Saban, who is a year older than Pinkel, was a defensive back for the Golden Flashes and Pinkel was a tight end. Both Saban and Pinkel, who were teammates of Hall of Fame Steelers linebacker Jack Lambert, served as captains their senior years at Kent State. During Pinkel’s final season, Saban worked as a graduate assistant, something that took some convincing.
“I never really wanted to be a coach,” Saban said. “Coach James asked me to be a graduate assistant. My wife had another year of school, so I decided to do it, even though I didn’t want to go to graduate school. I really liked it. I have thanked coach James many, many times for inspiring me into the opportunity to do it.”
The decision worked out just fine. Saban has four national titles under his belt, three at Alabama and one at LSU, and his current team sits at the top spot of the AP Top 25.
“Nick, I think he gets a little bit underrated,” Pinkel said. “And I think everybody would be surprised that I say that, because they take it for granted a little bit what he’s done there. … To win at the level he’s winning at, consistently, I think it’s unprecedented.”
Pinkel has done all right for himself. After coaching under James for 12 years at Washington, he got a chance to be a head coach in 1991 at Toledo. He has since logged a 185-102-3 career record while helping to turn around two football programs. His Tigers are in the SEC Championship game for the second straight year.
Saban isn’t surprised by the success.
“Gary and I have always been good friends,” he said. “We were good friends in college. We also started out coaching together. … I have a lot of respect for Gary and what he’s done in his coaching career. I think he’s one of the finest people as a person in our profession that I know. I’ve always had a tremendous amount of respect for him personally and professionally.”
The two faced each other as head coaches for the first time in 2012 when Alabama beat Missouri 42-10 in the Tigers’ first year as an SEC member.
Missouri receiver Bud Sasser, who did not have a catch in the Alabama game, imagines it would be fun to coach against an old teammate.
“I think (Pinkel)’s pretty excited about it,” said Sasser, who hopes to be a coach in the future. “They both have plenty of success, and I think when you’re playing against a friend like that, it’s tough competition. But at the end of the day, you all are still buddies, and you just hope you have the bragging rights for that year.”
The bragging rights will hold a bit more weight this time around. Presumably, No. 1 Alabama would be headed to the first-ever College Football Playoff with a win Saturday. And though Missouri’s two losses could keep them out of the playoff, a win Saturday would bring the Tigers their first conference championship since 1969.
It’s been almost that long since Pinkel and Saban were just college kids, pondering their futures.
“I vividly remember talking about coaching and how he was interested in doing it and I was interested in doing it,” Pinkel said, “and it’s kind of funny how things work out too many years later.”
All thanks to a little encouragement from James.
“Don was one of the best coaches, to me, of all time,” Saban said. “He was my coach, had a great impact on my life. I certainly appreciate him more than anyone could know for the start that he sort of inspired me to have as a coach.”
Added Pinkel: “I loved (James). I feel very fortunate, and I’m sure Nick would say the same thing. He was a very significant part of my life.”