Late last week, Missouri Tigers head coach Gary Pinkel became the latest head coach in the SEC to earn a raise that pushed his annual income over $4 million per year. In and of itself, this comes as no surprise when you consider everything that Pinkel has accomplished since his program’s transition into the conference. What is shocking is how dramatically underpaid Pinkel was when you consider this raise barely levels off his salary in comparison to his contemporaries.
At 62 years old, Gary Pinkel is already the most-winning coach in the history of Missouri football. And despite pretty heavy scrutiny from the SEC’s entrenched that Missouri’s style would never mesh with the league’s standard operating procedure–dominant defense and ground-oriented offense–he’s managed SEC East titles in back-to-back seasons.
Of course, when Missouri arrived in the SEC, some of that not-so-forward thinking seemed validated as the Tigers struggled to a 5-7 season, missing a bowl game for the first time since 2004. That first Pinkel squad in the SEC was ravaged by injuries, and the weekly grind of the toughest conference in football proved to accelerate the war against attrition in losing favor.
However, during that 2012 season there was reason to see a flower forcing it’s way through the cracks in the concrete jungle of the SEC.
For starters, the law of averages almost had to tilt in Missouri’s favor in 2013 after the brutality with which injury dismantled their attempts at competing in 2012. Quarterback James Franklin had proven as a sophomore to be dynamic both through the air and on the ground, but in 2012 an injury made him a one-dimensional player that sapped his effectiveness.
He returned healthy (or at least healthier) for his senior season, and Missouri actually managed to keep a consistent group of offensive linemen in front of him to give the offense continuity and allow them to get the ball to the playmakers that they had on the outside. What resulted was an offense of an entirely different makeup.
After scoring 25.4 points per game the previous season, Missouri increased their scoring average by nearly two touchdowns in 2013 to 39.1 points per game. Franklin and his backup Maty Mauk distributed the ball to dynamic talents on the outside like Dorial Green-Beckham, L’Damian Washington and Marcus Lucas while a trio of talented backs gave the offense balance in Henry Josey, Marcus Murphy and Russell Hansbrough.
Defensively they proved to be more formidable, as well, with Michael Sam, Kony Ealy, Markus Golden and Shane Ray forming the core of a defensive line that was one of the most disruptive in the country. On the season, Missouri managed 41 sacks after managing just 21 in the previous year.
With the improved health and productivity, Missouri increased their win total by seven games, winning the SEC East before losing a shootout with Auburn in the SEC Championship Game and then rebounding to beat Oklahoma State in the Cotton Bowl.
Last season, they won the division again, going 10-4 and establishing their place among the conference’s elite programs. They were even better defensively, and all of a sudden it seems silly to have ever questioned whether Missouri and Gary Pinkel ever belonged in the SEC to begin with.
Thus, the raise.
The increase in Pinkel’s salary mostly comes as a conversion of performance incentive to base salary and makes him the 10th coach of 14 to hit the $4 million mark among SEC head coaches. That’s an astonishing number because the conference now seemingly has the highest threshold for pain of any in the nation, and by that I mean that no league is as punishing financially in the event of a poor coaching hire than the SEC. Between paying a buyout and having to flaunt $4 million+ to potential replacements, a bad hire can cost an institutions tens of millions of dollars.
With established powers like Florida, Alabama and LSU driving that price up seemingly every day, Missouri athletic director Mike Alden used his last day in office to give the most successful coach he’s ever hired a raise that essentially moved him to the middle of the pack among SEC coaches. It’s a move that undoubtedly gives administrators at Missouri pause, but that’s the cost of competing in the SEC and on a national scale in 2015.
Gary Pinkel has earned a raise by doing what everyone said he couldn’t and making Missouri an annual contender for an SEC crown. There’s nothing surprising about the fact that he’s been rewarded for doing so.
But, when you consider that nine other coaches made it to the $4 million mark before Pinkel, including Bret Bielema and Hugh Freeze, it tells an interesting story about just how much this league is willing to pay just to keep up with the Alabamas of the world.