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- American college football player, college football coach
The 2003 season was a touch-point for Mike Alden.
The former Missouri athletic director was in year three of a new football coach, and it was all starting to come together in an eight-win season.
That was Gary Pinkel's initial breakthrough season in Columbia, the beginning of an upward trajectory that would eventually earn Pinkel the honor of being a member of the College Football Hall of Fame's Class of 2022.
"It was the stability. It was just like a corporate company," Alden said. "There was such a solid foundation that was gonna build from there."
The winningest head coach in Missouri football history was just beginning to touch the lives of nearly everyone involved with his program.
Pinkel dug the Tigers out of a rut, taking the program to 10 bowl games — including a bowl in seven straight seasons.
"Mizzou rose up from being one of the worst teams in the Big 12 to one of the best," said former Missouri tight end Michael Egnew, now the head coach at Tolton. "It was an honor to be a part of that."
Yet, in his over 20 minutes of speaking with the media at Shakespeare's Pizza South on Tuesday, Pinkel never took credit himself.
He mentioned how grateful he was for his players, fellow coaches and administrators for allowing him time to grow into a high-level coach and to build a program.
That first instinct to give credit to others is part of what makes Pinkel special and why he was so beloved as a leader, Alden said.
"He's a consummate servant leader because he absolutely recognizes that you have to flip the pyramid," Alden said. "Most people see the head coach up here, right? And so if you can flip the pyramid and have the head coach down here, feeding into all of these other things, I think that's truly a transformational leader."
Pinkel's success as a leader is evident in the best teams he was able to put together.
The Alabamas, Ohio States and LSUs of the college football world were built on the top recruits across the nation. In the 2007 and 2013 seasons, Pinkel reached No. 1 and No. 5 overall in the AP Top 25 polls and was close to playing for a national championship.
Pinkel reached those heights without top-rated prospects, as he proved a penchant for being able to develop two- and three-star players into four- and five-star talents.
"He looked at the person," former Missouri wide receiver L'Damian Washington said. "That's why he had a lot of success, and that's doing something that's rare."
Pinkel said Tuesday he never read a word of what the press wrote about him during his career, and Washington confirmed that.
Pinkel had a system in place that his staff and players bought into.
"He believed in what he believed in," Washington said. "He believed his staff's eyes. If a player fit the DNA and was a good person, he brought them to the program, because he knew he could develop them."
That leadership carried over when Pinkel began to have consistent success, which then brought suitors from other high-major schools in need of that leadership, too.
Michigan tried to lure him after firing Rich Rodriguez in 2010; Pinkel turned the Wolverines down, Alden said. Washington was interested twice, once in the late 1990s and again in 2013, appealing to Pinkel's coaching roots when he spent 12 seasons on the Huskies coaching staff from 1979 to 1990 under Washington coaching legend Don James.
Pinkel was transparent with Missouri about all of those situations, Alden said, which made it easier on MU to find ways to keep its head ball coach. That doesn't mean it was a stress-free time, however.
"We're sweating bullets. We're sitting there going, 'Holy cow,'" Alden said. "I was laying up awake at night thinking, oh man, we've got to do whatever we can. This coach is pretty important to our program."
Pinkel's leadership ability resonated beyond the administration. His players were able to understand the most important aspects of what Pinkel was trying to teach.
"It was all about the team," Egnew said. "It wasn't about the individuals. I think that's one of the things that coach Pinkel instilled."
Egnew was a tight end for Pinkel from 2008-2011. He was a finalist for the John Mackey Award, given to the nation's best tight end, and was in the NFL from 2012-15.
Several Missouri alumni from Pinkel's tenure have similarly earned the chance to lead prep programs, such as Egnew, former Battle head coach Atiyyah Ellison and former DeSmet head coach Robert Steeples.
When Egnew transitioned to coaching, he drew from what Pinkel taught him as a Tiger.
"One of the biggest ones is just trying to do all the little things," Egnew said. "A lot of people just focus on the big things, but it's your day-to-day activity. It's all the little things in practice. And for my players, it's all the things in school. All the little things in school and all the little things in practice."
Egnew helped the Trailblazers earn their first winning season since 2015 this past fall.
Washington has also begun a career in coaching. He was the director of player development at Missouri before taking the wide receivers coaching position at Southern University.
Washington puts Pinkel's positive affirmation to use in his coaching strategies, he said.
"If you invest in (your players), you can demand whatever you want," Washington said. "It wasn't about, 'I think I'm going to make this happen; I hope I'm going to make this happen.' No. I'm going do it."
Pinkel will be remembered for turning Missouri football into a program respectable enough to earn an invite into the Southeastern Conference from the Big 12 Conference.
As his peers and former players reflected Tuesday on the coach's 15 seasons at Missouri, however, they didn't dwell on games or football success. They focused on his persona and the person he helped them become.
Washington said he would be the first to sign on for a Pinkel statue outside of Faurot Field and laughingly said he wants to put a copy of that statue in Pinkel's boat.
During serious and joking moments, former players and colleagues alike gravitated toward Pinkel's presence as a leader, role model and friend.
"He's a very special person in my life," Alden said.
Chris Kwiecinski is the sports editor for the Columbia Daily Tribune, overseeing University of Missouri and Boone County sports coverage. Follow him on Twitter @OchoK_ and contact him at CKwiecinsk@gannett.com or 435-414-3261.
This article originally appeared on Columbia Daily Tribune: Ex-Mizzou players praise Hall of Fame coach Gary Pinkel's leadership