What does it take to get noticed in today's college football? Team M would like an answer.
Oh, you don't know Team M? Here's an introduction: It has 76 wins in the past eight seasons. During that span, it owns five division titles, three in one Power 5 conference and two in another. It has five bowl wins, two in the Cotton, and five 10-win seasons. Impressed yet?
OK, you want NFL draft picks? How about 17 selections in the past six drafts? Team M also ranks in the top five nationally in most first-round picks since 2009 (with six). It will add a seventh, defensive end Shane Ray, on April 30 in Chicago.
Normally, such accolades would make Team M's head coach a national celebrity and put his assistants at the top of wish lists for top jobs. Not at Missouri, the most overlooked successful program in major college football.
Most college football fans have heard the name Gary Pinkel. But how many current or former Pinkel assistants can they name? Could they instantly identify this logo or this stadium? In a sport where seemingly every Power 5 team is magnified, Missouri's success under Pinkel often gets swept aside.
"The world is enamored with the beauty of certain programs," said Dave Steckel, who spent the past 14 seasons on Pinkel's staff at Missouri before becoming Missouri State's head coach in December. "If you go into any bar across the country and you say, 'What's the most successful school that starts with an M, everybody’s going to say Michigan.' Well, they’re nowhere. Now [Jim] Harbaugh’s a great guy. He’s probably going to do a phenomenal job there.
"But the M-word's Missouri."
The M-word, despite all those W's, remains a mystery to many. The team that represents the Show-Me State might have one of the least showy coaching staffs in the country. Pinkel and his assistants, several of whom have been with him for more than a decade, quietly go about winning games and producing NFL talent.
They're not credit seekers or career climbers. They're unquestionably under the radar, but given the results, they don't mind it there.
"We all know the more you win, the more credit you get," Pinkel said. "That's part of the deal when you’re in a program that’s now earning more respect. [The lack of attention] was frustrating sometimes. It happens. The last two years have been definitely different being in this league.
"We're proud of our numbers and we're starting to get some of the recognition."
Missouri's quiet success is rooted in coaching continuity, a hallmark of Pinkel's career. While coaching at Toledo, he turned down opportunities to interview elsewhere so his three children could graduate from the same high school (they did). When he took the Missouri job in November 2000, he brought most of his staff from Toledo.
Three assistants who made the move with Pinkel from Toledo -- Cornell Ford, Brian Jones, Craig Kuligowski -- are still at Missouri. Quarterbacks coach Andy Hill was on the previous Missouri staff and has remained throughout Pinkel's tenure. Defensive coordinator Barry Odom was on Pinkel's staff from 2003-11, left to become Memphis' defensive coordinator, and then returned in December to replace Steckel.
"We've been very fortunate to have a lot of loyal guys," Pinkel said. "There's certainly a sense when you go to the [American Football Coaches Association] convention and you see all the guys unemployed, walking around, it gives you a sense of security here in a very insecure business."
Pinkel credits the staff stability for shepherding Missouri from the Big 12 to the SEC. No Power 5 team during realignment madness has had a smoother transition than the Tigers, who have won consecutive SEC East Division titles.
"I wouldn't put up with me for this many years," Pinkel joked, "so I don’t know why they stuck around."
There are several reasons. Pinkel, a longtime Don James assistant, uses James' management style. Assistants know where they stand with Pinkel. He demands hard work but encourages the staff to be with their families at night. He doesn't conduct six- or 12-month evaluations, preferring to address issues immediately.
Grudges aren't held.
"You know exactly what to expect," Odom said. "You know the standards that he wants the program to live by and at the end of the day, you look around the country, you want an opportunity to go in to work every day and really enjoy it and have the ability to be your best. He fills out the checklist on all those things."
"Florida's struggled over the years, but everybody talks about Florida. Texas has struggled over the years, but everybody talks about Texas. But what about Missouri, which has built a phenomenal program? It's the designer jean thing. Missouri's just Levi's, man. It's blue collar. Pink has built a great football program that should have national notoriety."
Missouri State head coach Dave Steckel, who spent 14 seasons as an assistant at Missouri
Pinkel encourages career advancement and notes that the few assistants who have left -- just six in 14 years -- did so for loftier positions. But he also doesn't want assistants who are job-seeking every six months.
Steckel claims Pinkel's assistants have had "numerous" opportunities to leave. While some are known -- Kuligowski, who has coached eight all-conference defensive linemen in the past eight seasons, turned down a coordinator offer at Illinois in January -- many are not.
"It hasn't been public knowledge on how many coaches could have left that desk, and the only ones who left were to better themselves professionally," Steckel said. "It's a shame that more guys out of that program haven't had more head-coaching or grander opportunities."
Perhaps it's Pinkel's understated approach. "He's not a guy that's going to go around and pat himself on the back and say, 'Look at me,'" Odom said.
Some devalue Missouri's accomplishments because they happened in the weaker divisions (Big 12 North, SEC East) and didn't culminate with league titles. Because there's so little staff turnover, Missouri hasn't made the seismic assistant hires of fellow SEC members Auburn (Will Muschamp), Alabama (Lane Kiffin) and LSU (Ed Orgeron).
Steckel thinks the problem is that college football coverage remains dominated by brand names.
"Florida’s struggled over the years, but everybody talks about Florida. Texas has struggled over the years, but everybody talks about Texas," he said. "But what about Missouri, which has built a phenomenal program? It’s the designer jean thing. Missouri’s just Levi’s, man. It's blue-collar. Pink has built a great football program that should have national notoriety.
"They should be building statues of him; they should be paying him about $6 million a year."
Pinkel, who makes $3.1 million, sees Missouri's profile growing with its SEC success. Others are figuring out what he's known for years about his staff.
Maybe the buzz is finally building, but Pinkel and his assistants know they must keep the wins coming.
"There's a special thing going," Odom said. "It's our job to take it to the next level. If respect and notoriety comes with that along the way, that's awesome."
Sam Khan Jr. contributed to this story.