Gary Pinkel didn’t feel right.
It wasn’t what you are thinking.
The former Missouri football coach has, over the years, made peace with his cancer diagnosis. He backed non-Hodgkin lymphoma into remission once, and plans to do so again now that his treatments have resumed. He has become comfortable knowing he’s fighting an opponent that never will go away, and he’s still full of fight. So, no, it wasn’t his health that was off.
Pinkel had remained plenty busy since his retirement from coaching. He enjoyed his time as a fundraising liaison for the Missouri athletics department. After that contract expired he took a liking to the guest speaker circuit, where his lessons on teamwork and leadership applied to folks in the business world. Scratch boredom from the list of potential reasons the retired coach seemed off.
He’s happily married. He has more time to spend with his children and eight grandchildren. Life, in the grand scheme of things, was good.
So why was the head known for wearing that signature visor so restless?
“I just felt, kind of empty,” Pinkel said by phone this week. “Not empty from not being the head football coach at Missouri. People ask me all the time: What do you miss? I miss game day. I miss putting my headset on. And for four hours, I went into a zone. I was gone. And I loved it. And the other thing I missed? I really missed helping my players. Loving them. Hugging them. At the end of the day, I had to do something.”
Car by car and cart by cart, former Mizzou football players poured into a Columbia, Mo., country club on Monday. Whether they had a decent golf game mattered not. They came to support their coach. The par-3 tournament marked the first official fundraising event for the GP M.A.D.E Foundation, the not-for-profit organization that has emerged as Pinkel’s post-football purpose since it was announced in April.
When you learn how to coach college football from Don James, you realize that coaching really boils down to making a good plan and executing it. Excuses are the enemy. Distractions are the devil. You have to have a goal, and a process that gets you there. Pinkel’s version of that system produced an unmatched 118-73 record at Mizzou, from 2001-15. Turns out the plan works for starting foundations, too.
As a coach, Pinkel attended more golf tournaments for good causes than he could count. They passed in a blur. As the president and treasurer of the foundation hosting a tournament with his name on the banner, it’s game day all over again. Pinkel can tell you why a par-3 tournament is more fun, and why it was important for everyone who attended to get some time with him. He’s back in the zone.
Pinkel had one short window to chat this week. His foundation work keeps him “bouncing around.” He’s fired up. Speaking a mile a minute, he made a point to thank his behind-the-scenes teammates who make the foundation possible, assistant coaches if you will. He explained the once-a-week staff meetings with his team. He shared his ups and downs on the recruiting trail — donations, not players. He shared the details for his long-term vision, but said he must keep focused on the day-to-day.
See what I mean about sounding like a coach?
The future is bright, he insists. The path that will lead him there has been planned, down to every detail. Pinkel knows no other way.
Moments after our phone call ended, he sent a text message of an outline that looked incredibly similar to something that might appear on the wall of a football team’s meeting room. Beneath “Foundation Mission and Objectives” was a list of “Foundation Support Objectives.” There were the three Pinkel had explained.
Pinkel’s foundation will raise money for support and research for children facing lymphoma and leukemia. One of the vivid memories he has of his cancer diagnosis in 2015 came in his car. He was driving when he caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror. That guy in the glass had cancer. That punch to the gut came back when he began to devour research about his disease. Kids get this? He wants to do everything in his power to keep that from happening to one more.
The foundation also will aid children living with physical challenges. Pinkel’s older sister and younger brother were diagnosed with hereditary spastic paraplegia. His childhood home was a daily lesson in toughness and courage. He wants to make sure kids have the right equipment and receive the best treatments.
The third prong of the foundation’s mission is to provide mentorship and scholarships for children facing economic and social challenges. Coaching sent Pinkel into countless living rooms all across America. He saw financial and family situations that put young men’s chances of success at risk. He saw some of those men come to Missouri, then soar. He wants to make sure his last players were not the recipients of his last scholarships.
“I’m excited because we can keep getting bigger, raise more money, do more things to help kids,” he said.
He even has a logo — his signature black visor.
That empty feeling?
It’s gone now.
“I feel much more fulfilled,” he said. “I’m spending my time right.”
With no plans of slowing.