Football coaches often display a gruff exterior. From pee-wee to high school to college and pro, coaches thrive on making their players tough.
Many people don’t see the flip side, though, where coaches become mentors to kids and, sometimes, a second father to their players. Casual fans don’t often see the coach give life lessons.
Sometimes that compassion goes beyond the locker room and practice field. Sometimes it goes beyond his players — to a fan, or a parent. And this time, even a sports reporter.
Missouri coach Gary Pinkel took a young reporter under his wing in 2002 after a tragedy at the Columbia Daily Tribune. Dave Matter, now a St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter, penned a heartfelt remembrance of when he was hired by former Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt to become the new Mizzou football beat writer. It might as well have been the world’s greatest gig for Matter, who’d recently graduated college.
A year and some odd months later, the Tribune lost its beloved sports editor.
Matter wrote: “Sixteen months later, he was gone, beaten and strangled to death with his own belt on the Tribune parking lot we walked across every day.”
The murder sent tremors through the sports reporting world, especially the Tribune — both current and former reporters at the time — who knew Heitholt as a great friend and, like a coach, somewhat of a second father, as Matter wrote.
Then Matter covered a weekly press conference for Missouri football coach Gary Pinkel, who was still fairly new and had no real connections with any of the media who covered Mizzou. Pinkel singled out Matter and asked to visit with him personally.
Matter recalled a private conversation he had with Pinkel that day:
“If you need to get away from things for a while, if you don’t want to be around the newspaper or you just want some time alone, come by my office. Tell my secretary and you can come in and just hang out as long as you want. We don’t even have to talk. You can just get away from everything for a while and have some quiet. My door’s always open for you.”
Matter said he never took the coach up on the offer and even broke an unspoken code to rehash this personal story. He had hoped to keep it under his reporter’s hat until the coach retired. With this Saturday being Pinkel’s final home game at Missouri, Matter felt it the right time to show the coach’s personal side.
As it goes in coaching, or writing, there’s never a wrong time to help someone in life.