The text from my buddy made me panic a bit. He said, “Coach can talk to you in 15 minutes. You can make that work, right?”
I scrambled around my office a bit. “For sure man,” I wrote back.
Crap. Not even close to prepared for this, but when a longtime friend calls in a favor to an SEC head football coach, you climb through the open window when it appears.
I jotted down the first three questions that came to my mind, probably not the most well thought out interview, but it was relevant.
My buddy got me in front of Gary Pinkel, the head coach that put Mizzou back on the map. The resurrection of a dormant football program that now became the inviting, tidy front porch to my alma mater.
I’d worked near, not for, Coach Pinkel for three years. Three of his tough 15 years at Mizzou. Near the beginning, while he was still building it. I was there from 2004-2006 while he was in the middle of transforming a lifeless football program and awakening what many called “a sleeping giant.”
Mizzou never won huge in those three years, but they started to win. More that could have been said consistently before his arrival. And more than the budding wins, he was building a program that said the word “family” more than any I’d heard of before.
You hear a ton about discipline, hard work, commitment and other tough words when football programs are being described.
You don’t hear many softer words like family. Team, sure. But family? Not often.
But that’s exactly what he was building. Piece by piece. Year by year.
So back to my friend. The one that got me this one-on-one interview with Coach Pinkel.
It was a warm January day in KC, but Coach was on vacation. He agreed to the call anyway.
“10 minutes max” I told my buddy as I was building my case for the interview.
“I won’t talk football at all, strictly want to ask him about parenting. And grand-parenting.”
My friend said, “cool, he’ll love that.”
“Coach can talk to you in 15 minutes….”
Um, ok. Let’s roll.
“Hey Coach, Justin Ricklefs. Really appreciate your time. Know you’ve got a ton going on.”
He immediately made me feel welcome, said it was his pleasure.
“I worked close to the program for a few years, with Learfield Sports, in your earlier years at Mizzou. As an alum, certainly grateful for the program you’ve built. I don’t expect you to remember me, but I’m honored to be able to ask you a few questions today. Specifically about parenting.”
Again, welcoming. Inviting. More than willing to talk.
I could hear a grandkid or two in the background.
I was sitting in my car, outside my office, not really believing my buddy got this done for me.
“Coach, first of three quick questions for you. What would you tell a new parent as they left the hospital for the first time with a new baby?”
Likely not my finest question ever, but my boy only gave me 15 minutes to prepare.
Without hesitation, he went into a five minute answer that boiled down to these two main points:
- Love Them Unconditionally – verbally, physically, emotionally, spiritually – he said to show them this on a daily basis, don’t ever let them doubt your love for them. He emphasized how critical and important this is. He said for dads especially, we are to lead the way in healthy, appropriate physical love to our children. Show them that a dad can be tender, not just tough.
- Understand That Your Job is to Prepare Them for the World – He rattled off a number of examples centered around a parent emotionally and practically preparing their children for the world. He described the significance of preparing your children for adversity, but also success. How a child handles each will speak volumes to his/her character and values. He contended that it’s important to teach them how to respond to tough situations and stay in the game.
In and of themselves, these thoughts aren’t earth-shattering or ground-breaking.
But they’re foundational. And meaningful.
We covered another couple quick questions, and I kept my promise of staying under 10 minutes.
As we were near the end of our call, Coach said, “This was great. Know that I’d be willing to expand on any of these points. Email me or call me any time. I love this stuff.”
My buddy was right, he loved it. He could have gone for another hour, I almost let him.
I had no idea during that call in January that it was precede his final season coaching at Mizzou.
It will be an emotional night tonight as Pinkel hugs those seniors, and all of those players, during his last home game as the head coach of the Tigers. On a sideline he’s roamed for 15 years, a locker-room he’s held together through highs and lows, a fan base he breathed life into after years of apathy.
There are plenty of ugly sports stories out there, it doesn’t take much time to find them. And heck, Pinkel himself has had his own struggles through the years.
But to me, that’s what makes his exit that much more emotional. He’s done for his players exactly what he told me a new parent should do.
He’s loved them unconditionally and prepared them for the world. One where he won’t be their head coach any longer.