COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) -Earlier in his career, an unexpected windfall like third-ranked Missouri's sudden rise to the top of the college football heap would have simply ratcheted up the pressure for Gary Pinkel.
The Tigers' coach is a lot warmer and fuzzier these days, even with the biggest game of his life looming and perhaps more ahead.
Missouri's neutral-site, sold-out matchup against No. 2 Kansas in Kansas City on Saturday night for the Big 12 North title is an event he wants to savor.
``This is fun,'' Pinkel said. ``I told our players at our meeting, 'Does it get any better than this?' Are you kidding me?
``This is a blast, this is what you do this for. It's going to be quite a night.''
Pinkel struggled to get Missouri (10-1) back on its feet in his first several seasons after being hired in 2000. The stress of the challenge showed in his humorless demeanor, especially during the 2004 season.
``I said a few things I regretted saying,'' Pinkel said. ``I should have taken the high road and I didn't. A lot of times when people are taking shots at you, that's the way the business is and you understand that.
``But that's also part of the dynamics when I came here.''
Pinkel was a big success at Toledo, where he was 10-1 the year before replacing Larry Smith at Missouri. He discovered deep-seated roadblocks at Missouri, from alienated high school coaches to turned-off fans.
``There was a lot of negativeness in this whole state about Missouri,'' Pinkel said. ``It was amazing, the things we would hear.
``People were upset about things that happened 20 years ago and I knew that was going to be remarkably difficult to change all that. I didn't really know it was that bad.''
Pinkel dug in his heels on one issue. After going 5-6 in 2004, he refused to use offensive coordinator Dave Christensen as a scapegoat for the school's woes.
Instead, he blames himself for having ``probably my worst year of coaching'' along with strained coach-player relationships that were addressed in team meetings after the season.
And now? Christensen is the architect of one of the nation's most prolific offenses. Missouri is fourth in total offense with 506 yards per game, sixth in scoring at 42 points per game.
``I'm not going to make a coaching change just to make it look like I'm making this big decision just to all of a sudden fix something, when I know the coach is good enough to do it,'' Pinkel said. ``It'll eventually destroy your whole organization, in any business.
``There was no way in the world I was going to take a guy down just to make it like Gary Pinkel is making these big changes and guess what, it's going to get better.''
The death of 19-year-old linebacker Aaron O'Neal during a voluntary workout the following July reminded the coach that it is just a game. He has loosened up markedly in recent years, choking up during Senior Day a few weeks ago.
``Really, what got everybody through that was everybody just leaning on everybody else,'' Pinkel said. ``Crying, hugging, just being with each other.
``Everybody helped everybody through it and in a lot of ways we became a lot closer.''
Earlier in the season, he finally relented to quarterback Chase Daniel's long-standing request to allow players to wear ball caps on the sideline.
``I think with A.O. passing he realized there's more to life than football,'' Daniel said. ``He's really opened up, he's really relaxed a lot from years past.''
Missouri won eight games and went to the Sun Bowl last year, and Pinkel sensed the program was ready to take the next step when he called in his seniors in February to discuss goals for the upcoming season. The big one was sustaining momentum in November, a cruel month throughout his tenure with two losses each season.
This November, there have been no slip-ups. He'll lead a confident team into Arrowhead Stadium.
``This is really fun,'' Pinkel said. ``It's an adrenaline rush. I don't sleep much during the season anyway, but you're just real excited all the time about it.
``Our players, I'm sure they're the same way. Shoot, this is what it's all about.''

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