When Gary Pinkel arrived after the 2000 season, Missouri football was a mess. The Tigers were a mess on the football field, but even more so on the recruiting trail.
The Tigers were coming off the Larry Smith era, during which the program went 33-46 over a six-year span and watched high-profile recruit after high-profile recruit in the talent-rich local areas of Kansas City and St. Louis flock to other programs.
It just wasn’t cool to go to MIZ-ZOU.
But Pinkel saw first-hand the importance of keeping the best local players at home when he worked with legendary Washington Huskies coach Don James for more than a decade. Pinkel often told stories about how James would preach to him about “keeping the best ones at home,” so he made that his recruiting emphasis the second he arrived in Columbia, Missouri.
That focus took time, but he hired quality assistant coaches like Andy Hill, Cornell Ford and Craig Kuligowski who loved to recruit and preached to them over and over how it was vital to own Kansas City and St. Louis.
By the time signing day had arrived in 2005, that emphasis had firmly taken root as top players in the key metro areas like running back Damien Nash of East St. Louis High School, defensive back A.J. Kincade of Hazelwood Central, defensive tackle Jaron Baston of Blue Springs and tight end Chase Coffman of Raymore-Peculiar became building blocks for an era of sustained success at Missouri that hadn’t been seen in decades, if ever before.
Pinkel also fostered relationships with the high school coaches in Missouri like no coach before him, and he pointed to those relationships as being significant in finding under-recruited, lower-ranked players like offensive lineman Joel Clinger of Warrenton, tight end Martin Rucker of St. Joseph Benton and receiver William Moore of Hayti, who all went on to become impact players for the Tigers.
“Kids in the state of Missouri and the general area learned to trust us,” Ford said on signing day for the 2015 class. “We know our focus always had to be Missouri first. There are so many good players in Kansas City, St. Louis and all the areas in between. We’re going up against some of the better programs in the country here in our own backyard and that’s a good thing. You had to take your efforts to another level and be ready to work every single day at recruiting.”
And few worked harder at recruiting than Pinkel and his staff.
“Easily the hardest-working recruiting staff we ever faced,” a longtime Big 12 assistant who has recruited against the Tigers for more than a decade said Thursday. “They did lose a few local guys, people like Ezekiel Elliott to Ohio State, but they got almost everybody they wanted in the Show Me State and surrounding areas once he got his foundation in place.
“You just couldn't beat them on local players, guys like Sheldon Richardson for example. Believe me, we tried and always ended up on the losing side."
And with that foundation in place, Pinkel was able to venture out to even greener pastures in Texas, Ohio and other parts of the country. The Tigers’ efforts in Texas would become legendary, as former Tigers from Texas include first-round draft pick and current Chicago Bears defensive lineman Ziggy Hood, first-round pick and current Arizona Cardinals linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Chase Daniel and others. Then with the move to the SEC, the Tigers began to also have success in key recruiting territories of Georgia, Florida and other Southeast states.
But even with that national success, Pinkel never shifted his first attention away from dominating Missouri. It’s the reason why the Tigers signed the 18th-best class in 2015 -- Pinkel’s best ever -- and it was no surprise it was largely built with homegrown talent like five-star defensive tackle Terry Beckner of East St. Louis and true-freshman starting quarterback Drew Lock of Lee’s Summit.
Whoever inherits the Missouri program after Pinkel's departure must continue that concentration on Show Me State talent, but it’s going to be awfully tough to replicate Pinkel's results. Few head coaches had an eye for talent better than Pinkel, but there is no question the program is on much better footing -- both on the field and on the recruiting trail -- than when he arrived 15 years ago.