COLUMBIA, Mo. • I’m going to break the fourth wall here and share a personal story.
You’ve read and will continue to read lots of Gary Pinkel testimonials in this space and others. For the last 15 years I’ve carried around my Pinkel story and promised myself I wouldn’t share it publicly until his coaching days are done. That will be true in a matter of weeks. So, on the eve of his final game at Faurot Field, now is as good a time as any.
Pinkel probably doesn’t remember this story. That’s OK. He’s not telling it.
The day is Nov. 5, 2001. He’d been on the job almost a year. His debut season wasn’t going well. The Tigers were 3-5. It was a Monday, when he holds his weekly press conference to talk about the next opponent. Baylor, in this case. I was 23 and covering the team for the Columbia Daily Tribune.
My mind wasn’t on Mizzou football that afternoon.
Skip back a few days. On the morning of Nov. 1, I got the phone call I’ll never forget. It was Tribune assistant sports editor Joe Walljasper. “Have you heard about Kent?” Kent Heitholt was our sports editor, our boss, the 48-year-old bear of a man who gave me my first job in sportswriting.
“No, I talked to him last night. What are you talking about?”
Joe’s voice wasn’t right.
Long pause while every particle of air escaped my lungs.
“Somebody killed him last night.”
In a haze I packed my things and headed to the office where a devastated staff of reporters and editors put together that afternoon’s paper in shock, in horror — at a murder scene, no less. It remains the most impressive moment of journalism I’ve ever witnessed: Guys wiping away tears while scrambling on deadline to produce the sports section while police officers interview them about their friend’s grisly death.
(If this is the first you’ve heard of Heitholt’s murder, go ahead and Google it. I don’t have the stomach to rehash the memories here.)
Joe and I were scheduled to leave the next day for Boulder, where Mizzou was playing Colorado. Joe stayed behind to hold the staff together and produce the sports page, a job he’s done superbly every day since that horrible morning. My head in a fog, I went to Colorado to cover the game, a 38-24 Mizzou defeat. They honored Kent with a moment of silence in the press box before kickoff. Otherwise, I don’t remember a single play.
Back to Monday. Kent’s memorial service was at United Methodist Church in downtown Columbia. We told stories, shared laughs and cried more tears. For some of us at the paper, Kent was like a dad away from home. I was 19 when he gave me my first newspaper job. Two years later, I was fresh out of journalism school, and over lunch at Quinton’s Kent asked me if I wanted the Mizzou football beat. Hell, yes.
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.
On Monday, Kent's service let out just as Pinkel was wrapping up his press conference. I raced across town and walked into the team facility hoping to catch a few players and assistant coaches for interviews. At that time, nobody in the media had connected with Pinkel much. Serious guy, no nonsense, not much personality. That was the early scouting report. The team wasn’t very competitive. He had a plan and believed in his system. I didn’t have much of an impression of the new guy. That changed.
After his press conference Pinkel usually ducks away into his office. With a team this bad, there was no time to schmooze with reporters. On this day, he stuck around and waited for me to show up. I wasn’t sure he even knew my name. But he had a stapled copy of the team’s weekly notes for me. We sat down and he went over that week’s changes to the depth chart. He noted a few injuries. He asked if I had any questions about the team.
Then he asked me how I was holding up, a question I had gotten approximately 87 times the last few days. Like the 86 others, I didn’t know how to answer.
Here’s what he said next:
“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.”
Are you kidding me?
Who was this guy?
Mind you, this was just Pinkel. He didn’t have handlers telling him what to say. He wasn’t looking to curry favor with the local beat guy. It was a genuine gesture of kindness and sympathy toward a virtual stranger.
I didn’t take Pinkel up on his offer, but for the last 15 years I’ve never forgotten that moment. Pinkel’s mother had died a few years earlier. We talked about how he dealt with his grief, how he went back to work and focused on his job to get through the pain.
Who knew there was some humanity inside the tough guy coach from Toledo?
Did that day shape my opinion of Pinkel for the next 15 years? Probably, yes. How could it not? Did it influence the way I reported his decisions, his missteps, his achievements? No. Not at all. I documented his bad days along with his good. If you ask me, this was one of his best.