Mizzou Football -- At a Crossroads?

It's been that kind of year. 
It's been that kind of year. 
The season is officially over for the Missouri Tigers football program following their ugly loss to Texas A&M over the weekend. It was a tough way to end the season, an exceptionally low note in a campaign that has largely been low notes. 

The Tigers, after moving steadily into the national spotlight as a Big XII powerhouse, fell back several rungs on the ladder this year. They finished with a 5-7 record overall, and a much more depressing 2-6 record in conference play, a mark that will forever stand as the school's first impression as part of the SEC. Not exactly the way you want to open such an historic new chapter in Mizzou football history. 

Given the down season, there are going to be questions. But how many, and how serious those questions should be, well, that remains to be seen. 

It's been eight long years since the Missouri football team last had a losing season, when they wrapped up the 2004 campaign with a 5-6 record that included a brutal run through the Big XII. (The Tigers lost five in a row during conference play that year.) Since then, things have been largely lollipops and sunshine for Mizzou, in spite of the occasional hiccup. 

This year, though, things went bad in a variety of ways. There were injuries to key areas of the team -- most notably on the offensive line -- and several players just flat-out didn't perform up to expectations. Quarterback James Franklin took a rather large step back in addition to struggling with injury, the coaching staff appeared unable or unwilling to make adjustments at times, and the souped-up level of competition seemed to outclass the Tigers at times. Just a rough season all around, really. 

With that backdrop, perhaps it should come as no surprise that there have been some rumors floating here and there the last few days about the future of Gary Pinkel. After all, this was a really, really big season for the program, and they basically fell flat. The program scored the number one recruit in the nation in Dorial Green-Beckham before the season started, and was supposed to make its presence known on the biggest stage college football has to offer in the Southeastern Conference. That 5-7 ending (and the 2-6 in SEC play especially), doesn't leave the best taste in anyone's mouth, I'm sure. 

So, yes, I understand some of the angst. And I can understand why some people might be upset with Pinkel's attitude following such a disheartening season when he essentially said over the weekend he felt they had done everything right, and he wasn't making any changes. It felt especially pollyannaish in the wake of the beatdown by the Aggies, and I get that plenty of observers might be irked. 

Even Bernie Miklasz, who I normally agree with on most things and think of as a very reasonable type, as far as sports personalities go, took a very dim view of Pinkel on his radio show yesterday, criticizing the coach for his attitude. I don't personally share Miklasz's opinion that Pinkel should be on the hot seat, but I also don't think he's just blustering the way some are prone to do. 

For now, though, it appears Pinkel's job is safe, as Missouri Athletic Director Mike Alden came out in support of the coach last night. It also appears Pinkel is serious about not shaking up his coaching staff despite the poor results this season, as he stated on his weekly radio show there were no imminent changes coming. 

For me, while I understand the questions coming after a down year, I'm glad it doesn't appear anyone in Columbia is rushing to any rash decisions. I personally have some doubts about certain members of Pinkel's staff, but at the same time there are recruiting considerations in play, and this is a group that has steadily built their recruitment base into a real strength for the program. 

I go back to that earlier number: 2004. As in, the last losing season at Missouri. It's easy to have a short memory in sports, but I can certainly recall the dark days at Mizzou before Pinkel came along. The track record, of taking a team that was a complete afterthought most years and turning them into the sort of program that could even consider jumping to the SEC, is more than enough for me to grant Pinkel some leeway. That's not to say there shouldn't be questions about his future; only that I think the man has deserved a modicum of patience by now. 

There were times this season when virtually none of the names playing on the offensive line were recognizable. At the very least, I am willing to say wait and see what kind of team the Tigers have when their entire starting lineup on the O-line isn't in traction. 

Still, while I don't think Pinkel needs to immediately be put on the hot seat, I do think this season has to serve as notice to everyone in Columbia. When Mizzou joined the SEC, the game changed. The stakes were raised. Losing seasons are not good enough. Missing bowl games is what the old Mizzou did, not the Gary Pinkel version. 

I believe in this coach, and this program. This is not a program prone to rash decisions or knee-jerk reactions, and I respect that. It's too easy to make changes just as window dressing when things go poorly. It's harder to stay the course you believe in, even as the questions fly from all sides. 

And make no mistake, the questions are going to be there. In the decade plus he's been at Missouri, Gary Pinkel has proven to have plenty of answers. I think he'll come up with a few more. 
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