Webb: The good and bad of Pinkel’s tenure

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pinkel

Gary Pinkel retires from Missouri with five division titles and 10 appearances in bowl games, including two Cotton Bowls.

A few minutes into the second half, I did something I almost never do during Missouri games: I turned off the radio and TV and stopped paying attention. All I could think was “Gary Pinkel deserves better than this.”

It was far from a glorious home finale for a man who resurrected a football program that resembled a Football Championship Subdivision team just 15 years ago. Just two years removed from contending for a national title, Pinkel likely won’t even be coaching in a bowl game during his final season before retirement.

There have ups and downs – more of the former – during his tenure in Columbia. Here’s a look at the biggest wins and worst losses:

BIGGEST WINS

daniel1. Missouri 36, Kansas 28 (Nov. 25, 2007): A dream season for both programs culminated in a showdown at Arrowhead Stadium with the No. 1 ranking on the line. This remains the most electric sporting event I’ve attended.

On a frigid night, Chase Daniel shredded the Jayhawks for 361 yards and the Tigers built a 21-point lead before hanging on to clinch a spot in the Big 12 championship game. The image of Todd Reesing walking off the field with grass and sod wedged in his helmet will always be a favorite for Tigers fans.

2. Missouri 28, Texas A&M 21 (Nov. 30, 2013): Some will argue the Georgia win that season was bigger, but the Tigers secured a spot in the Southeastern Conference championship game with a victory over Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel.

The go-ahead touchdown run by Henry Josey, two years removed from a horrific knee injury, was the icing on the cake.

3. Missouri 41, Nebraska 24 (Oct. 11, 2003): Twenty-five years. That’s how long it’d been since Missouri beat Nebraska. During that span, the Huskers annually humiliated the Tigers. Nebraska also owned arguably the most devastating loss at Mizzou for decades in the infamous flea-kicker game in 1997.

This game ended years of frustration and catapulted the Tigers to their first bowl bid since 1999. It is one of the games that served as the foundation for Pinkel’s program and snapped Missouri’s 45-game losing streak against top-10 teams.

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4. Missouri 36, Oklahoma 27 (Oct. 23, 2010): Another electric night at Faurot Field, as the Tigers knocked off the top-ranked Sooners for the first time since 1998 behind Blaine Gabbert, Jerrell Jackson, Aldon Smith and Gahn McGaffie.

McGaffie’s return for a touchdown on the opening kickoff is the loudest I’ve heard Memorial Stadium. Storming the field with my 65-year-old father will always be one of my fondest memories.

5. Missouri 41, Georgia 26 (Oct. 11, 2013): This game announced the Tigers’ arrival in the SEC. One season after an awful debut in its new conference, Mizzou rolled into Athens and floored the seventh-ranked Bulldogs.

The victory was one of several memorable wins in a 12-2 season that include an SEC East title and Cotton Bowl win.

WORST LOSSES

1. Troy 24, Missouri 14 (Sept. 9, 2004): Coming off a bowl season and anchored by star quarterback Brad Smith, it looked like the Tigers had arrived. They led this game 14-0 and appeared to be on cruise control when the Trojans, led by future Pro-Bowler DeMarcus Ware, took over and rolled to a 24-14 win.

Missouri never recovered, blowing big leads against Oklahoma State and Kansas State, coughing up a lead at Texas and wilting against arch-rival Kansas at home. The Tigers lost five straight games and finished 5-6, putting Pinkel on the hot seat.

alg-oklahoma-wins-jpg2. Oklahoma State 28, Missouri 23 (Oct. 11, 2008): A year after contending for a national title, the Tigers hosted Dez Bryant and the Cowboys at Faurot Field. The Tigers marched down the field on the opening possession but failed to score a touchdown despite having a first-and-goal at the 1.

Rather than go for the touchdown on fourth-and-goal inside the one, Pinkel elected to kick a field goal. It zapped the crowd of its energy and the offense of its confidence. The Tigers never recover, enduring a beating at Texas the next week and choking late against Kansas before being routed in the Big 12 championship game by Oklahoma.

3. Navy 35, Missouri 13 (Dec. 31, 2009): One of the most embarrassing losses during Pinkel’s tenure, as the Midshipmen dominated a Missouri team that appeared to have no interest in playing in the Texas Bowl.

The coaching staff’s refusal to adjust to a Navy defense that dared the offense to run was maddening to watch. The Tigers felt snubbed to be playing in the Big 12’s lowest-tier bowl, but did nothing to back it up.

baggett4. South Carolina 27, Missouri 24 (Oct. 25, 2013): The only blemish on an amazing regular season in 2013, as the Tigers coughed up a 17-0 lead in the fourth quarter, allowed a game-tying touchdown on fourth-and-long in overtime and missed a chip-shot field goal for the tie in the second overtime.

To its credit, Missouri rebounded to win four straight games and reach the SEC championship game.

5. Texas Tech 24, Missouri 17 (Nov. 6, 2010): A classic case of letting one loss become two. One week after Nebraska ended their undefeated, the Tigers blew a 17-3 lead in Lubbock in a loss that ultimately cost them a spot in the Big 12 championship game.

Kendial Lawrence and Marcus Murphy barely touched the ball after combining for 170 yards and two long touchdowns runs on nine carries in the first quarter, even though Gabbert was 12 of 30 for 95 yards.

 

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Team with a big heart takes a small town to the big time

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Burlingame football field

Burlingame fans lined up down the sideline and filing into the bleachers for Friday’s state semifinal game, the first at Burlingame in more than four decades. Every graduating class from 1958 to 2014 had at last one member at the game.

The drive to Burlingame on Friday was similar to our previous trips back home. As you head into town from the east and the hustle and bustle of Kansas City into the sleepy confines of Small Town, America, the view rarely changes.

Past the city limits, just north of Highway 56, are the remnants of an old café, Jo’s Place, where my wife worked during high school. The old, red brick road covering two blocks of downtown is still there. It’s a road those of us who grew up in Burlingame spent hours on during our youth, circling the main drag after school and on the weekends.

Downtown Burlingame is one of the few areas in town marked by change. Several buildings are gone, including the defunct Osage County Chronicle building where I learned more about writing and newspapers from Kurt Kessinger than I have anywhere during my career as a journalist.

Across the street, the old grocery store and another café, both closed, continue to decay. For years, the town lacked energy.

As we walked from my in-laws’ house across a park on the north side of town, bright lights exploded into the sky, and the roads leading into the Burlingame High parking lot were flooded with red tail lights for blocks to the north and south.

IMG_4631It was quite a sight: Friday Night Lights in Burlingame. Hundreds of people lined up just off the track circling the football field, the stands full of purple and white, electricity in the air. All due to a football team that served as a shot of adrenaline for a community that needs – and deserves – a big winner.

“This is what we wanted, what we hoped we could do,” Robert Hutchins, a senior running back, said after the Bearcats’ loss to Hanover in an Eight-Man Division I semifinal. “It was amazing to see this town like this.”

Until Friday, I assumed the community was in a frenzy because its football team was 11-0, something that hadn’t happened since the 1972 team won the Class 1A state championship. After I met Hutchins, I realized the connection was much deeper than that.

As I walked off the field following Hanover’s 56-32 win in a game that was much closer than the score, I noticed Hutchins taking photos with several friends and classmates. I stopped briefly and said, “Robert, you had a great season. You should be proud.”

Tears welled in eyes already red and weary.

“I’m Ernie Webb,” I said.

“I know. Thank you for those stories you wrote,” he said. “And for that email you sent me.”

That didn’t register. I didn’t remember Hutchins at first, but I said “You’re welcome” and walked away after wishing him luck. Then it hit me: Was this the kid I exchanged emails with when he was an eighth-grader?

I turned around and said, “Robert, are you the one who emailed me after Ms. Day contacted me?”

As it turns out, this was the young man who I emailed several years ago. Twenty years earlier, the late Ms. Day, a wonderful art and science teacher, had been kind to a young man from Missouri who continued to root for his favorite college team despite living among Kansas and Kansas State fans.

Ms. Day contacted me years later and asked me to reach out to a student who needed a little guidance as a Missouri fan in the heart of Kansas. I readily sent him an email, never realizing the impact it had.

Nearly five years later, I introduced Robert to my wife and spoke with him for a few minutes, extremely impressed by his thoughtfulness and gratitude over the email, especially after he’d just finished his high school football career with a loss one game short of the state championship.

At that point, I realized why this community, so desperate for a big winner that at least one member of every graduating class from 1958 through 2015 was in the bleachers, loved this team so much: not only were these guys great football players, they were fine young men, many of whom will be back next season to make another run at the school’s first state title in 43 years.

The Bearcats lost on Friday night, but this team will always be a champion in the eyes of Burlingame.

Dreaming big in Burlingame

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My stepson, wife and in-laws at Saturday's Eight-Man Division I state quarterfinal.

My stepson, wife and in-laws at Saturday’s Eight-Man Division I state quarterfinal.

A few days into our tenure as members of the Burlingame school board, my best friend and I attended a welcome-back-to-school barbecue for faculty and staff. One of the first people we spoke with that steamy August day in 1997 was a new history teacher and football coach with big dreams.

As an alumnus and supporter of the Bearcats, I was curious what this new coach had in mind for a football program coming off a winless season. So, I asked him what his goals and expectations were for the season.

“To go 13-0 and win a state championship,” he said.

Steve and I looked at each other and literally laughed. A few years later, that teacher/coach was gone.

The highs have been few and far between in the nearly 20 years since. Going into the 2014 season, Burlingame had not had a winning season since 1990. From 1992 to 2014, the Bearcats had one playoff team, a 5-5 squad that slipped into the playoffs as the district runner-up.

To say Burlingame was in a drought would be an understatement. Imagine walking through the Sahara for two decades with a shot glass of water to hold you over. The only time the Bearcats made news was during a long losing streak. A feature story about the team ending a losing streak happened at least twice in local papers.

Friday Night Lights. Dreaming big. Daring to believe. These things amounted to a leprechaun riding into town on a unicorn while sipping from the Holy Grail.

After years of hopelessness and frustration, that began to change in 2014. A group of kids I’d been hearing about for years welcomed a young, energetic coach to town. It didn’t take long for the community to fall in love with football again.

The Bearcats didn’t make the playoffs in 2014, falling a touchdown short of ending a 10-year drought during a 6-3 season. As it turns out, they were building the foundation.

The kids bought in, the coach’s energy was contagious. Big crowds started traveling to road games again, just as they’d done during a three-year run in the early 1990s that included three straight district championships.

Finally, it all came together in 2015. The Bearcats stampeded through the regular season, going 9-0 with a series of blowouts to win league and district championships, the latter the first in 24 years.

Last week, Burlingame ended one of the longest playoff droughts in the state, knocking off a tough Rock Hills team 40-18 to improve to 10-0. It was the school’s first playoff win in more than 15,000 days (43 years).

Many of us traveled to Burlingame’s first quarterfinal game since 1972 on Saturday, driving through scenery straight out of “Children of the Corn” to watch the Bearcats’ fight off Central-Burden in southeast Kansas on their way to sub-state, one win away from the state championship game.

As a stringer for the Capital-Journal, I got to cover the game in Burden and write a story that wrote itself. For the first time in a generation, they’re dreaming big in Burlingame.

Lasting memories: Royals and rocks

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Thirty years in the making, a champion for the ages. The 2015 Kansas City Royals

Thirty years in the making, a champion for the ages. The 2015 Kansas City Royals.

As a boy growing up in rural Missouri, I spent hundreds of hours hitting rocks from our driveway into an open field across the highway. I must have delivered the game-winning hit thousands of times in Game 7 of the World Series, usually a long home run to right field at Kauffman Stadium.

I thought about that Sunday night when Christian Colon, who spent most of the season in the minor leagues, rifled a singled to left field to drive in the winning run for the Royals in Game 5 of this year’s World Series.

I also thought about all of those amazing comebacks throughout the playoffs this year. Down four runs in the eighth inning of Game 4 in the American League Division Series. Trailing 3-0 against David Price in the seventh inning of Game 2 in the American League Championship Series. Rallying from an eighth- or ninth-inning deficit three times in the World Series.

My wife and I at Game 1 of the 2015 ALCS.

My wife and I at Game 1 of the 2015 ALCS.

An unbelievable run by a tough, gutsy team few outside of Kansas City believed in was the stuff of dreams. “Is this real?” My wife and I must have asked each other that 10 times as the Royals battered the Mets for five runs in the 12th inning.

Sharing that moment with my wife, a lifelong Royals fan, too, brought back another childhood memory, one I cherish more than any.

As a 9-year-old in 1985, I lived and breathed baseball. I read every box score in the newspaper when I woke up. I played baseball most of the day, then went to Little League practices or games. I fell asleep listening to Denny Matthews and Fred White discuss the intricacies of the 4-6-3 double play.

Throughout 1985, I woke up and asked my dad the same question every morning: “Did the Royals win last night?” I vividly remember crying when he told me they had lost … on the second day of the season. He laughed. “There are 160 games left, son.”

I remember jumping for joy several months later when George Brett, an idol to so many of us, circled the bases for a three-run, inside-the-park home run against the California Angels. The Royals moved into first place that night and won the division a few days later.

I remember being devastated after an extra-inning loss to the Blue Jays in the ALCS, and rejuvenated when Brett willed his team back into the series with a performance for the ages (4-for-4, two homers, game-winning run) in Game 3. Several days later, Kansas City advanced to its second World Series.

Those memories, however, are a distant second to Game 6 of the 1985 World Series. It’s one my dad talks about to this day. The Royals trailed 1-0 in the ninth inning. Dad and I were in Oklahoma on one of his business trips, and I had buried my head under a pillow, tears streaming down my face.

My father and I at a game in 2013, before the Royals' memorable two-year run.

My father and I at a game in 2013, before the Royals’ memorable two-year run.

When Jorge Orta reached on a “single,” I lifted the pillow just enough to see the TV. Moments later, I was sitting on the edge of the bed with dad. Bases loaded, one out, Dane Iorg. The chance of a lifetime. One I’d played out so many times in our driveway.

“And there’s a looper into right field! Concepcion scores! Here comes Sundberg! He slides … we go to a seventh!” Both of us were jumping around the hotel room, two kids living out a dream.

The following night, on the way home while driving along I-44, we listened to Denny count down the final outs as the Royals hammered the Cardinals in Game 7, honking the horn while celebrating Kansas City’s first championship.

At age 9, I thought that was just the beginning. The Royals will do this every year. What they did for most of the next 30 years was lose. A lot. No division titles from 1986 to 2014. Twenty-nine years between playoff bids. From innocent boy to jaded, often angry on Twitter, man.

That all went away in one magical night. The Kansas City Royals, those gritty, relentless, confident Kansas City Royals, are world champions again. Don’t be surprised if you see a middle-aged man hitting rocks in his driveway tonight.