It has been years since we last connected with noted Missouri blog, Rock M Nation. The last time we connected, we were getting (rightfully) fearful about Jeremy Maclin in the 2008 Alamo Bowl. The images of Chase Daniel’s family are seared in our memory banks forever, but five years later I’m turning to Bill Connelly of Rock M Nation to kick off a new series – “Profiles in 2014 Hope”. We’ll be tracking FBS teams that took a nosedive and then recovered the very next year.
Missouri qualifies with honors of distinction. Gary Pinkel has been at Mizzou almost as long as Kirk Ferentz has been at Iowa. The head coach of Missouri entered 2013 on the hot seat after going…wait for it…wait for it…5-7 in 2012, the Tigers’ inaugural season as members of the SEC. After a four year stint from 2007-2010 when the Tigers were a team on the rise (with the lone exception of 2009) things got a little hinky and the floor fell out last year. I was curious to see if there were any parallels and learnings we could benefit from by connecting with Bill Connelly. Let’s find out….
LTP: Thanks for playing, Bill. OK, you might have heard Northwestern just finished a disaster of a season at 5-7. We’re looking for hope and we’re knocking on your door. Considering Mizzou dipped to 5-7 in 2012 and one season later won the SEC East (11-2), consider us all-in on intrigue. Give us the overview for how and why things turned around so dramatically.
Bill C: You’ll recognize the general story: Banged up team with iffy depth loses its way. Missouri not only suffered a lot of injuries in 2012, but the injuries also focused on a couple of key units: quarterback and offensive line. At one point in Spring 2012, center Brad McNulty probably ranked around 12th or 13th on the overall Mizzou line hierarchy. He started five games. And James Franklin tore his labrum, came back, re-aggravated his shoulder in Game 2, finally got up to speed in early-October and immediately sprained his MCL, missed a couple of games, stunk in a couple more, got back up to speed and got a season-ending concussion. He was healthy about six quarters all year, and the projected starting line never saw the field at the same time.
The defense was solid but gave out late in the year, but the offense was easily the worst Missouri had fielded since about 2001. That’s probably not a good thing when you enter the SEC, but it’s not a good thing anywhere. Mizzou would have gone about 6-6 at best in the Big 12, too.
LTP: Excuse the basic line of questioning, but since we don’t follow Mizzou religiously, help us fill in the storyline on the coaching staff and what changes/tweaks were made last off-season.
Bill C: There wasn’t much. Offensive coordinator David Yost resigned against Gary Pinkel’s wishes, and while fans were demanding he replace Yost with somebody from outside the program, Pinkel “refused” to and “stubbornly” held onto the belief that he knew what was best, promoted OL coach Josh Henson to OC, and watched a healthy offense bounce back in a major way.
(Any time Mizzou loses a game, it’s all but guaranteed that the Mizzou Internet will be using the terms “stubborn” and “refused” frequently. They stubbornly refuse to find a new note to sing.)
So basically, Henson got promoted to OC, receivers coach Andy Hill moved to QBs coach (Yost was also that), and Pinkel brought in former Tennessee and Kentucky receivers coach Pat Washington. Those were the extent of the moves.
LTP: Ummm…your offense. How can we get us some of that? A huge increase from 2012, Mizzou is putting up 39 ppg and nearly 500 ypg on offense. What has been the beyond the boxscore story here of the marked improvement? Change in schemes? Philosophy? Something else?
Bill C: The most direct answer is easy: Mizzou got healthier. A (mostly) healthy Franklin, complemented by a healthy Henry Josey (he missed all of 2012 with injury), an experienced batch of receivers, and a line that was both healthy and incredibly humbled after 2012, made this a better offense. Henson made some SEC-related tweaks — tighter line splits, tight end used much more as blocker than receiver — but a vast majority of the improvement was based on guys not being hurt.
LTP: Considering Gary Pinkel has been head coach since the turn of the century (2001), I have to believe it was hot seat time in 2013 for him after going 5-7 in 2012. Furthermore, since you beat us in ’08 to get to 10 wins, Pinkel went 8-5 (4-4) in 2009, 10-3 (6-2) in 2010, 8-5 (5-4) in 2011 and 5-7 (2-6) in year one of the SEC. What pressure was there from the fan base heading it to this year and what impact did that have on the season (if any)?
Bill C: Naturally, the fan base was ready to fire him immediately following the 2012 season, just like they wanted to fire defensive coordinator Dave Steckel immediately following the South Carolina and Auburn losses. I do think Pinkel was probably gone if he went 5-7 again, but athletic director Mike Alden has done very well for himself by remaining incredibly patient, so Pinkel may have needed to go 4-8 or worse to get canned. Pinkel was atop the “SEC Hot Seat” lists, in part because half the conference has made a change in the last couple of years, but his seat wasn’t INCREDIBLY hot.
LTP: Throw us a lifeline. Tell us you didn’t see this turnaround coming. What signs of positive life can you throw our way that we too can rise from the bowl-less to get to Indy in 2014…?
Bill C: I was going to be content with 7-5 and happy with 8-4. It’s amazing what a healthy, experienced, humbled team can do when it has a humbled, hungry coaching staff leading the way. We learned this season that you don’t have to fire anybody to make improvements as long as the staff and team are both willing to work ridiculously hard (and as long as the injury bug is at least a little bit kind). That alone won’t always be enough, of course, but it was this time. And Northwestern certainly wasn’t incredibly healthy this year.
LTP: Mission accomplished, Bill. I’m looking for hope for NU in 2014 and you delivered it with a bow on top. The line that struck a chord with me the most in this entire post is “It’s amazing what a healthy, experienced, humbled team can do when it has a humbled, hungry coaching staff leading the way.” Enough said, right there. Good luck in the Cotton Bowl!
LTP ESPN BOWL MANIA
Well, we are more than well underway. Isn’t this convenient? The early leader is “PlzFireMickMcCall” who has gone with the reverse point strategy of going with 35,34,33 etc.. on the early games. As a result he/she has a commanding lead with 100 points, but considering most people mix it up or even do the low point games early, this thing is just getting started. Personally, I’ve got 8 points after losing the Colorado State comeback, erroneously picking Fresno State and Buffalo. The good news is they were all low point total games. I got the East Carolina game and am kicking myself as I was lazy and forgot to move that to my 35-pointer as I had planned to.
The full leaderboard…