What does this mean for Gary Pinkel and Missouri’s football team?
Forget about Missouri’s 4-5 record and current string of four consecutive losses.
Forget about how the Tigers generated only 25 points during that mini-slide.
And forget about how Missouri (1-5 in conference play) has fallen considerably short of expectations this year, relative to its back-to-back SEC East titles in 2013 and 2014.
The enduring memory of the Tigers’ 2015 campaign occurred on Saturday and spilled over to Sunday — off days for the program, in the wake of Thursday’s primetime home loss to Mississippi State — when the players and coaches bonded together, arm in arm, supporting a cause bigger than anything on the field.
On Saturday, a group of 30-plus UM players — in conjunction with Missouri’s Legion Of Black Collegians — declared their intentions to boycott practices, games and other team events until university president Tim Wolfe resigned or had been removed his position.
On Sunday, the Tigers’ boycott threat reached another level of notoriety, when head coach Gary Pinkel Tweeted out a message saying, “The Mizzou Family stands as one. We are united. We are behind our players” — with the accompanying picture of Missouri’s entire football team supporting the cause.
The simple Twitter picture speaks volumes about Pinkel’s leadership style. The Missouri coach of 15 seasons wasted little time in nipping this potentially volatile situation in the bud — or at least the initial phase. By extension, he also sent a clear message to the Tigers players, coaches and staff — along with future recruits — that no single incident can break the spirit of a unified group.
However, it also raises a series of What’s Next? questions:
**At the time of this writing, President Tim Wolfe seemingly has no plans of stepping down from his current post; and Missouri must contend with BYU at home next Saturday night. Will the Monday activities — practice, film study, physical therapy, etc. — take place as normal, involving every Tigers player? Or will the athletes decide to stay away from the facility, as a means of raising the stakes of this high-profile boycott?
UPDATE: Pinkel released a statement Sunday night that said the players will not resume football activities until Jonathan Butler, the graduate student in the midst of a hunger strike as part of the anti-racism protests, eats.
**Would a boycott affect the language of the players’ scholarship contracts, in terms of forfeiting certain benefits?
**Does the SEC office have any power to influence the Missouri players and coaches back onto the field?
**What would be the short- and long-term economic ramifications of the program sitting out any of the next three games — vs. BYU (Nov. 14), vs. Tennessee (Nov. 21) and at Arkansas (Nov. 28)? And, regarding all varsity sports, would Missouri be jeopardizing its status as a full-time SEC member (since 2013)?
— Coach Gary Pinkel (@GaryPinkel) November 8, 2015
In American sports, the notion of having your teammate’s back, with him/her returning the favor, isn’t just reserved for the field of play. It’s a perpetual-motion machine of respect, support and reciprocal accountability that fuels the group dynamic and often forges healthy relationships long after a season ends.
Of course, there’s also a downside to this show of collective unity. If Missouri were to forfeit its final three games — as a reaction to President Wolfe not stepping down — the Tigers would run the risk of alienating their base of students, alumni and paying customers.
That could potentially lead to a national backlash against the UM program, with many dissenters surmising that boycotting multiple games — off incidents that technically didn’t directly harm the football team — might be an empty venture. In other words, there are alternative ways to express dismay with how a school president governs his/her university, as in social-media campaigns and/or peaceful public rallies to raise awareness.
After all, the Missouri program already understands the power of its collective voice — first with the Legion Of Black Collegians’ Saturday statement and Coach Pinkel’s all-inclusive, follow-up Twitter picture from Sunday.
Remember the public outcry surrounding the St. Bonaventure men’s basketball team from 12 years ago? In 2003, the program had been forced to vacate six Atlantic 10 victories, as punishment for using an ineligible player during that period. Devastated by the news, the Bonnies players made a bad situation even worse, opting to forfeit the final two games of the regular season, since they wouldn’t be allowed to partake in the conference tournament or NCAA basketball tourney.
That short-term display of unity garnered sparse praise in national circles. In fact, the whole debacle eventually led to the dismissals of head coach Jan van Breda Kolff, athletic director Gothard Lane and school president Dr. Robert Wickenheiser.
Back to Missouri. Obviously the events that have led to the Tigers’ boycott are more serious than an ineligible player. Here’s President Wolfe’s reaction statement from Sunday, and he seems unlikely to step down.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to say this could be the most pivotal week of Pinkel’s principled and successful career at Missouri (117-71 overall record).
Bigger than the days leading up to his first bowl victory with Mizzou in 2005 (beating Steve Spurrier’s South Carolina Gamecocks in the Independence Bowl).
Bigger than the massive November buildup for Kansas vs. Missouri in 2007, when the traditional basketball powers held the No. 2 and No. 3 national rankings for football.
Bigger than the days leading up to Mizzou’s first appearance in the SEC championship (2013), at a time when old-guard supporters of the SEC didn’t think Missouri or Texas A&M belonged in the nation’s most storied football conference. For the record, the Tigers captured the East division with a freshman quarterback (Maty Mauk) … and the Aggies produced that year’s Heisman Trophy winner — also a freshman (Johnny Manziel).
But Pinkel should feel an eerie calm this week, in advance of the media storm that awaits his program.
In coaching circles, getting players on the same page — regardless if they like, respect or fear their leadership council — is already half the battle.
Jay Clemons has previously worked at Sports Illustrated and FOX Sports, among other media organizations.