Missouri didn’t get to the SEC championship game for a second consecutive season by accident.
Contrary to how some might feel about the Tigers’ deservedness, they simply did what they had to do – win the SEC East – and earned the right to square off against No. 1 Alabama on Saturday at the Georgia Dome.
It’s also becoming a habit that the Tigers are here, again, in a conference championship game. This season marked the fifth time Missouri has won at least a share of a division title in the last eight seasons and it will be Missouri’s fourth conference championship game appearance since 2007. Three of those division titles and two of the conference title game appearances occurred in the Big 12; the last two of each have been in the SEC.
Only two Power 5 conference teams can match Missouri’s five division titles since 2007: Alabama and Florida State. The kicker is that they're still seeking their first conference championship since 1969.
“We haven't won a championship in the Big 12 or the SEC,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. “That's my responsibility. Hopefully we can play well and have an opportunity to do that.”
How have the Tigers sustained success? There are several factors, but coaching stability means a lot to Missouri’s ability to win divisions and punch tickets to conference title games.
Of Pinkel’s nine full-time assistants, five have remained at Mizzou with Pinkel since he arrived in 2001: defensive coordinator Dave Steckel, cornerbacks coach Cornell Ford, quarterbacks coach Andy Hill, running backs coach Brian Jones and defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski. Ford, Jones and Kuligowski were also with Pinkel at Toledo and Hill was at Mizzou before Pinkel arrived and is in his 19th season in Columbia.
Only one of the other four assistants – offensive line coach A.J. Ricker – is in his first season with the Tigers. Offensive coordinator Josh Henson is in his sixth season, safeties coach Alex Grinch is in his third and receivers coach Pat Washington is in his second year at Missouri.
“I think it's been really important,” Pinkel said of the staff stability. “I've had five coaches leave, one of which retired, in the years that I've been here. That's very, very unusual. I would say it's one of the least numbers in the country.
“Certainly the consistency of staff, the consistency of attention to detail, how we do things in our program -- we have certain ways we do absolutely everything. Having that continuity also in recruiting has been really important for us.”
It also helps when the consistency starts at the top. Since 1991, Pinkel has coached at only two places: Toledo and Missouri. In an era when it’s common to see coaches jump from job to job, climbing the ladder (or in some cases, getting fired for not living up to expectations), it’s noteworthy to see a coach stay in one place as long as Pinkel stayed at Toledo and now, Missouri, where he is finishing his 14th season.
He has the sixth-most wins of any active FBS head coach with a 185-102-3 record. At Missouri, Pinkel is 112-65.
Notably, Pinkel has achieved that record without highly regarded recruiting classes. Since 2006, when ESPN began its recruiting rankings, the Tigers haven’t had a signing class ranked in the top 25 nationally. Their last two classes, ranked 33rd in 2014 and 38th in 2013, were 12th and 14th in the SEC, respectively.
Conversely, Alabama is annually at or near the top of the rankings.
“I've never looked at a recruiting ranking since I've been coaching,” Pinkel said. “We have an evaluation system we use. ... We never talked about stars on any player, ever.
“We do a thing called 'Mizzou Made' here. We think we've developed players as good as anybody in the country. We have a plan and infrastructure set in to do that -- professionally, personally, academically, player development. We have our system. It's a system that I learned from Don James when I was a coach with him at the University of Washington. We tweaked it a little bit. You always try to make it better. ... We just do what we do. I think it would be hard to say that we haven't had a little bit of success doing it our way.”
The Tigers have been on an ongoing journey to earn respect in their new league, and Pinkel knows winning is the way to do it.
“It's a consistency of winning, winning at a high level, in a very, very difficult league, very competitive league; I've always sort of brought up [that] you earn respect; that's how you get it," Pinkel said. “Hopefully we've gained some respect. We'll see how it goes from here.”