Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
COLUMBIA — It was a fitting backdrop.
Behind the microphone and the Tiger-logoed podium on the Mizzou Arena floor hung a mosaic of Gary Pinkel. The smaller photos within the larger image showed the coach during his 15 years at Missouri, often mid-hug or in the process of celebrating with his players.
And when the man himself stepped in front of that backdrop Monday to speak about his upcoming resignation, it was clear that was how he would like to be remembered: a coach defined by his players.
That was never more apparent than when he choked up for the first time, about 14 minutes into his statements.
“The toughest thing about this,” he said, fighting back tears, “the most important thing, sorry, is my players. In Toledo and here at Mizzou. I’m going to miss that, and I’m going to miss the interaction, being around them, scolding them when I have to scold them and hugging them and touching them every day.”
Pinkel decided to step down during Missouri’s bye week in late October, more than six months after receiving a blood cancer diagnosis. He announced the news in a release Friday.
Pinkel received treatments in May and June at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. He said he felt “great” after the treatments and did not feel any weaker as he coached this fall.
“I’m high energy, man,” he said.
Instead, Pinkel said, the decision was based on his future and how he wanted to spend it.
“This job is every minute of every day,” he said. “We have 127 players. I mean, that’s just the way the job is, and you’ve got to give all your energy. You’ve got to put everything into it. We work six, seven days a week, nine months out of the year. And is that the right way to spend my time?”
After having a PET scan Oct. 26, Pinkel decided to step down at the end of the season.
“I decided at that time that I was going to embrace the healthy times,” he said, “and I’m going to battle when the tough times come. I certainly have those down the road. Prayerfully, hopefully, much further away than right at this particular time.”
Though Pinkel repeatedly pointed out others have to deal with worse forms of cancer, he was frank about his diagnosis of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
“There’s no cure for it,” he said. “You manage it, and that’s pretty much what you do the rest of your life. You manage it and you deal with it. … In this position, you live PET scan to PET scan.”
Pinkel called the experience of being diagnosed with cancer “numbing.”
“You drive around, I think, for a week, and you just glance at yourself in the rear-view mirror,” he said. “You look at yourself and say, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’”
He said he feels physically well at the moment and that it’s possible he could live another 25 years.
“I don’t know what can happen here,” he said.
The decision had nothing to do with Missouri’s turbulent week prior, Pinkel said. In the days before his announcement, the team boycotted football activities until system president Tim Wolfe resigned. The team’s struggles this year, including a four-game losing streak, were not a factor either, Pinkel said.
“If I didn’t have cancer, I wouldn’t be doing this,” he said. “We had a tough year. Three years ago, we had a tough year. Shoot, you’re going to have tough years in this business. You battle.”
Pinkel intended to tell his players Sunday, but when rumors swirled Friday afternoon he said he had to tell his players before they heard elsewhere.
It was important to announce his resignation mid-season, Pinkel said, because it gave director of athletics Mack Rhoades time to begin his coaching search.
Rhoades took over as Missouri’s A.D. in spring, and Pinkel gave him the news of his diagnosis not long after — though Pinkel did not then expect to resign at the end of the season.
It was “certainly not something I wanted to do,” Rhoades said of beginning a coaching search, “being here six months and then having to go do that.”
While Missouri looks to replace its all-time winningest coach, Pinkel will be looking for something to do to occupy his time. He has no gameplan at the moment, he said, as he was expecting to coach for a while longer.
Though, not too much longer.
“I told somebody,” he said, “if I’m coaching when I’m 70, shoot me. … I heard someone down the road say, ‘Would you rather die on a football field or would you rather die on a beach?’ And I’d rather die on a beach.”
Not that it’s going to be all relaxation for Pinkel.
“I’ve got to make a difference,” he said. “I’ve got to do something. There’s no way I can just get up and go golfing every day. I can’t do that.”
Pinkel said he will continue to live in mid-Missouri, and there’s the possibility of keeping him around the athletic department, which he and Rhoades have discussed.
After all, it’s going to take some time before Pinkel’s focus isn’t on football.
Like, for instance, when he referred to the PowerPoint slide he uses as a backdrop when he does public speaking.
“It says, ‘It’s all about football’ — excuse me, ‘It’s all about people,’ not football,” he corrected, before rebounding with a joke. “I guess I am going to be struggling with this, aren’t I?
“No, it’s all about people, and it is. It is all about people.”