Mizzou was Right in Acting Fast on Pinkel

Twenty-six years ago, Bears coach Mike Ditka was pulled over and arrested for driving while intoxicated after his team returned to Chicago following the club’s only loss of the season. The reaction to the DWI was light-hearted, and came with a chuckle. That was just Ditka being a part of the rollicking Bears, and, well, boys being boys. There was never any talk of suspension or fine. Ditka returned to work the next morning, and time moved on.

We’re a much more enlightened society now, a people that understands the dangers of drinking and driving. Here in St. Louis, we witnessed the worst possible result when Susan Gutweiler’s car was hit by Rams linebacker Leonard Little’s SUV in 1998, and Gutweiler was killed while on the way to pick up her son from a concert. Time and again, we see the dangers of drinking and driving, but time and again, people are getting arrested for it.

Late Wednesday night, University of Missouri coach Gary Pinkel was arrested and charged with DWI by Boone County police after having dinner with friends.

Rather than cower from the spotlight that comes with the DWI territory, Pinkel and Mizzou confronted it head-on. He issued a statement that read, “Last night after practice, I met some friends for dinner. After dinner, I was stopped by a Boone County officer and received a citation for impaired driving. First and foremost, I am very disappointed in myself for my lack of judgment in this instance. Nobody should drink and drive, including me. My staff and I constantly reinforce with each of our players the importance of not putting yourself into a position such as this. I did not follow that here and for that, I sincerely apologize to the University of Missouri, to our administration, to the Board of Curators and to our fans. I have already met with our staff and communicated with our players and have apologized to them. I accept full responsibility for my actions and will abide by whatever course of action our leadership deems appropriate.”

That course of action included a one-week suspension, without pay. Pinkel will miss the Tigers’ game against Texas Tech, and rejoin the program on Thanksgiving Day. His contract is “frozen” for a year, meaning he gets no bowl bonus, no raise, and no extension for the next 12 months. He will need to perform 50 hours of community service by June; he will donate another week’s salary to the Missouri Wellness Initiative, and must write a public letter of apology.

Pinkel will also face the scorn of every stadium Missouri visits, starting with Arrowhead Stadium when the Tigers take on Kansas on Nov. 26. The loss of income computes to over $300,000, and the hit to the reputation of Pinkel’s program is enormous. And that’s before he has to deal with the legal system. He’s paying a big price for drinking and driving, as he should.

Times have changed in 26 years. When Ditka got his DWI, it was as much a joke as anything. Jim McMahon laughed as he told the story of driving by the pulled-over Ditka, honking and waving. As society should have, we started taking it seriously. MADD has had a dramatic influence, as has the legal system. Proper penalties have been put in place for those that drink and drive.

I applaud Mizzou for taking the initiative. In many situations, a school or a franchise will wait, saying they want the legal system to take its course. Or they’ll say the offender is being punished internally. Or they’ll simply levy a fine and slap the guy on the wrist.

Pinkel messed up in a bad way. He admitted it, accepted blame and punishment, and the school moved quickly to provide that punishment. This is the way to handle a crisis, and now Mizzou, Pinkel, and the football program can work through the suspension and move on. This DWI will linger with Pinkel for some time, but at least it won’t be a long-term distraction for his players. All parties should be lauded for handling it in the correct fashion.