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Pinkel's legacy of loyalty secure

Gary Pinkel is never going to win any awards as one of college football's most dynamic personalities.

He's monotone during news conferences, isn't big on yukking it up in front of the cameras and probably isn't going to appear on "Saturday Night Live" any time soon.

But when you look deeper — really make an attempt to look deeper — there's a lot more to Pinkel than meets the eye. He has done a terrific job of leading Missouri into SEC waters, with East Division championships the past two seasons. But over and above his ability to coach football, he also has proved he can navigate some pretty choppy waters with dignity, purpose and, most important, loyalty.

Pinkel, who has been Missouri's coach since 2001, announced Friday he would resign at the end of the season after being diagnosed in May with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Pinkel pledged to fight on, which is something he has always demanded of his players, and added, "I don't know how many years I have left, but I want to turn my focus to life outside of the daily grind of football."

For those who genuinely know Pinkel, they know the hardest part of this for him is walking away from his players.

Earlier this week, Pinkel found himself in the middle of a firestorm when some of his players said they would boycott all football-related activities until Missouri president Tim Wolfe resigned. The players supported a group on campus, Concerned Student 1950, that wanted Wolfe out because it said he had failed to adequately address racial issues on campus. In particular, the players told Pinkel they were concerned about the health of fellow student Jonathan Butler, who was fasting in protest.

It's not a fight Pinkel went looking for, and he would later clarify he wasn't necessarily supporting the protest or aiming for Wolfe to lose his job. But he was going to support his players. He repeated it over and over again and made it crystal clear he was going to have his players' backs regardless of what anybody else might think or say.

The reality is Pinkel was in an impossible situation with tensions raging on campus, and the whole thing taking on a life of its own. But he stood firm and didn't flinch, and as a handful of coaches around the country have told me in the past few days, he did what he felt was best for that particular team and the entire program while faced with the kind of situation no coach wants to encounter.

Forget about what Pinkel might or might not have believed about the protest and whether it was the right way to bring about change. He believed in his team. He didn't want to take a chance on dividing it further. And anybody who has ever played or coached knows that being on a team is all about sacrificing for the good of the squad.

"Coach Pinkel brought people together," said T.J. Moe, a former All-Big 12 receiver at Missouri. "He created an environment of trust and hired the right assistants that could connect with players and understood that if you were going to have a good football team, you had to be a family. That's what we were at Missouri and why you're seeing the outpouring of love for Coach Pinkel from so many of his players."

This has been a gloomy season for the Tigers. They're 4-5 and head into Saturday night's game against BYU in Kansas City, needing to win two of their final three games to qualify for a bowl. That's after winning 10 or more games in five of the eight seasons before this one. Earlier this season, Pinkel had to dismiss his quarterback, Maty Mauk, from the team for disciplinary reasons after bringing him back from an earlier suspension.

Missouri played in the SEC championship game in both 2013 and 2014. After the 2013 season, star defensive end Michael Sam came out as gay. But Pinkel and the whole team had already known it, and it never became an issue. In fact, Pinkel and the players went out of their way to protect Sam in the media so that he could make the announcement on his own terms.

The Tigers were beset with injuries their first season in the SEC in 2012 and finished 5-7, but Pinkel didn't panic. He was convinced his system would work in any league, and he was right.

So as Pinkel says goodbye to coaching, there will be some who remember the protest and choose to play Monday-morning quarterback on how he handled the whole thing — what he should have done and what he shouldn't have done.

What I will remember is how he so confidently and successfully guided the Tigers into the SEC, invested in his "Mizzou Made" system of developing players, and was much more to those players than just a football coach.

As Moe tweeted Friday, "Gary Pinkel's final act as a head coach? Supporting his players regardless of what he thought or felt about a situation."

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