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PATRICK McMANAMON

The kid from Kenmore High School in Akron knows he’s not exactly the most popular guy in his home state this week.

But that’s OK.

Gary Pinkel accepts the reality.

“I’ve never had a whole state against me, but I guess I can handle that,” Pinkel said early Wednesday morning from his office in Columbia, Mo.

Pinkel has handled just about everything since he became coach at the University of Missouri in 2000. His work, focus and approach have led the Tigers to the Big 12 Championship Game on Saturday night in San Antonio, where they will face Oklahoma.

Win, and Pinkel’s Tigers head to the BCS National Championship Game, presumably against West Virginia.

Lose, and Ohio State will ascend to the title game.

Think Buckeyes fans are rooting against Pinkel?

“Of course,” he said. “That’s the way it should be. If you’re a Buckeye, there’s no question about that.”

Pinkel deals with realities well. He played on Kenmore’s 1969 City Series title team and still keeps in touch with many of his former teammates, saying “you roll tight with the guys you won a championship with.”

After leaving Kenmore, Pinkel went to Kent State, where he was on a team with Jack Lambert that won the MAC title in 1972 and went 9-2 in 1973. He tried out for the Pittsburgh Steelers and just missed making the team before joining the staff of Don James at Kent State as a graduate assistant.

He joined James at the University of Washington, and he says to this day that former Kenmore coach Dick Fortner and James are his two influences in coaching. Ten years and 73 wins at the University of Toledo preceded the seven seasons at Missouri.

“I always tell people that when I was at Kent State, Don took that program to Washington,” Pinkel said. “I took it to Toledo and I brought it here to Columbia, Mo.

“This is Don James’ program. The foundation has not changed. The organization, the preparation, player development, how we practice. He was a class act.”

Folks in Missouri would be quick to point out that the program might have been shaped by James, but it is clearly Pinkel’s.

He has instilled discipline to the program, graduated players, won and earned back the respect of the Missouri community.

It was not an easy task.

Shortly after he was hired, Pinkel went on a recruiting trip to St. Louis. There, the high school coach, so turned off by past experiences with Missouri, flat refused to talk to him.

“It was unbelievable,” Pinkel said. “We had our challenges.”

Hard work has changed that atmosphere.

Demetrious Johnson, a former Missouri player and St. Louis community leader, had stayed away from the Tigers for 15 years.

“I am proud to say that I am back,” he said. “Mainly, because of the things that Coach Pinkel stands for.”

“He’s the type of guy I wish I’d had in my life growing up,” said Jamonte Robinson, a co-captain in 2001. “Not a day goes by I don’t wish I were a freshman in his system.”

Pinkel shrugs it off, saying many others have worked with him to build what Missouri has.

“I’m just kind of directing things here,” he said.

Pinkel struggled his first few years at Missouri, but now has directed the Tigers to places they have not been in a long time — or have never been to before.

Missouri is ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press poll for the first time in 47 years. The Tigers are Big 12 North champions for the first time, which makes this their first appearance in the Big 12 title game. If they win, it would be Pinkel’s first win over Oklahoma in five games.

Not to mention it would take Missouri to the national championship game, the place Ohio State hopes to be.

Already this week, Pinkel has gotten e-mails from friends back home, some saying it would be hard but they would cheer for him, others saying they were sorry but they had to root against him.

Pinkel understands.

But if he had one message for those left from his days in Kenmore, it would be simple.

“That they’d root for their old high school buddy,” he said.

He paused for a few seconds.

Then he added: “Write that tongue-in-cheek.”



McManamon is a columnist for the Akron Beacon Journal. Reach him at pmcmanamon@thebeaconjournal.com.

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