Is Gary Pinkel the most underrated college football coach in America?

Think about this for a second: tonight, Missouri plays Texas A&M. If you had looked at this game before the season, it would be realistic to expect one team to be ranked No. 5, and one team to be ranked No. 21 (possibly) — but the No. 5 would have been A&M, and if Missouri was the No. 21, that would have surprised a few people. Instead, here we are at the game — and Johnny Manziel and the Aggies are the No. 21 team in America. Manziel’s probably out the door (to Sundays), Kevin Sumlin might be out the door (to a bigger job somewhere else), and Charles Barkley said on College Gameday this morning that “they’ve checked out” (you know, provided you think Charles Barkley knows anything about college football). Now, on the other side of the field, you’ve got Missouri, somehow ranked No. 5; if they win tonight, they’re headed to the SEC Championship Game — there’s a really narrow window where Auburn could beat Alabama, then Missouri could beat Auburn, and you might see Missouri playing for a national title. (I did say “narrow window.”) So while on one side of this game you’ve got Manziel, possibly the story of college football over the last 20 months, on the other side you’ve got James Franklin, who missed four games and is still responsible for almost 2K yards of offense and 14 touchdowns. And on one side you’ve got arguably the hottest coaching prospect in America in Sumlin, while on the other side you’ve got Gary Pinkel, who could be … bear with me … the most underrated coach in America.

It’s possible that if you’re a casual fan of college football, you mostly know Pinkel for this:

But check this out: he’s been at Missouri since 2001, and they’ve won eight or more games eight times. Since 2007, they’ve won double-digit games four times, and in the three of those years they went to a bigger bowl game (the fourth double-digit win year is this year), they’re 2-1 in the bowl games; they beat Arkansas 38-7 in the 2008 Cotton Bowl. Technically, since 2007 Les Miles only has four double-digit win seasons himself; if you asked most college football observers to pick the better coach between those two, probably 90%+ would say Miles. That’s likely valid, given that he has a national championship, but across the last half-decade or so, Pinkel and Miles are hitting some of the same bars. (Should also be noted that most of that time, Pinkel was in the Big 12, which is an easier conference than the SEC.) Bob Stoops has five double-digit win seasons in that time frame, and Mack Brown has three. 

Now consider this reporter’s notebook on Pinkel, especially this paragraph about the team’s 31-3 win over Tennessee (and granted, the 2013 Vols team isn’t very good):

Look no further than Missouri’s depth chart. If the SEC standings were based on teams’ accumulation of four- and five-star recruits, the Tigers would be fighting off Kentucky for sixth place in the Eastern Division. Instead, Mizzou’s evaluation process and player development have never produced better results. Just check out the collection of two-star recruits and overlooked prospects that contributed to Saturday’s win.

For the 2014 rankings as of now, Missouri is down at No. 31. Considering seven of the top 13 teams in those rankings are also from the SEC, Pinkel is clearly doing more with less. Missouri’s 2012 season was not exemplary by any means, but the argument can be made that they were beset by injuries.

There’s two big things about a potential win tonight, aside from the opportunity to play for the SEC Championship: Pinkel would tie Don Faurot, for whom the Tigers’ field is named, with 101 wins at Missouri (Pinkel is currently 100-62 at Missouri) and it would be an amazing conclusion to a tough season for Pinkel, whose mentor (former Washington coach Don James) passed away last month. Just remember this: between the dashboard cam DWI video and the back-to-back subpar seasons (2011 and 2012), Pinkel was on the hot seat just a couple of months ago. Right now his team is 10-1 and possibly headed for a solid bowl (maybe Chick-Fil-A). As SEC coaches go — and yes, Pinkel has only been an SEC coach for two seasons now — you hear constantly about Saban, Miles, Sumlin, Richt, Spurrier, Malzahn and even Muschamp (the latter not for the best reasons right now), and you almost never hear about Pinkel nationally — but he’s won almost twice the games he’s lost in the Big 12 and SEC over the past 13 years, and he does it with a different model –– almost a bit shy, a bit introverted, and trying (sometimes unsuccessfully) to focus on family. Plus, scouts seem to love coming to Mizzou:

Pinkel’s not a big name, despite coaching at a major university (34K+ students) for the past almost decade-and-a-half. But when you consider his results, especially the fact that he might be coaching for an SEC Championship in only Missouri’s second year in conference (after a rough first year) — and also consider that he does it with far less four-and-five-star guys than his rival coaches — there’s a case to be made that he’s one of the most underrated coaches in all of America. This is an old tweet (from late 2011), but former ESPN guy/now Fox Southwest guy David Ubben agreed with the assessment then:

(I also think Gundy deserves a lot more credit than he gets, by the by; his last couple of seasons are 9 wins, 9 wins, 11 wins, 12 wins, 8 wins, and 10 wins with one game left.)

Point is, celebrate Pinkel tonight — whether you do it because you hate Manziel’s swagger, whether you do it because you’re from Missouri, whether you do it because you’re excited by the new uniforms Mizzou will be rocking, whether you do it because the Pat Forde Don James story linked above is moving, whether you do it because you think they have a chance to beat Alabama or Auburn next weekend, or whether you do it just because you’re lazily enjoying the end of Small Business Sunday by taking in a prime-time CFB game, just do it. He’s not the most hyped coach in his conference (he’s probably in the bottom 40 percent), he probably has about 1/5th the star power and cache of the opposing coach in this game, but his results have been good for the Tigers. He really might be one of the most underrated coaches in America.

Ted Bauer