By now, most of you heard the breaking news earlier this week - University of Missouri Linebacker Michael Sam declared to the world he was gay, setting up the chance that the NFL will have it's first openly gay player in history. Sam's projected to be a 3rd to 5th round draft choice and was defensive player of the year in the powerhouse SEC, so it's hard to see where he won't be on an NFL roster when the NFL regular season rolls around in September.
I'm not qualified to talk about many of the issues surrounding this, but I wanted to put a light on someone who got it right related to Sam over the last year - Mizzou head coach Gary Pinkel.
Let's take a look at some notes from ESPN related to Pinkel's reaction to Sam coming out before Mizzou's regualar season, and how the team reacted with that leadership:
As it turns out, Pinkel had set up small groups designed to help the players get to know each other, which was one important mechanism in Sam feeling comfortable enough to share who he was.
"Periodically throughout the year, Pinkel said, each Missouri coach will invite about 15 players from different position units to his home for "cross-over dinners."
"They'll all come over, having dinner at my house, and I'll stand up and say, 'I'm Gary Pinkel, I'm from Akron, Ohio,' and I start talking about my family, everything about my family. And everybody unloads everything about themselves. It's remarkable."
Sam was at an assistant coach's house when he told his teammates he is gay.
"In August he was in another group, and I got a call from the coach right afterward that Michael told the whole group that he's gay," Pinkel said. "That's when I first heard of it."
Nice. Small groups, a leader OK with others leading each other. But Pinkel was on the brink of loosing his job:
"Michael Sam's sexual orientation probably wasn't the most pressing thing weighing on coach Gary Pinkel's mind at the start of the 2013 season. He was close to losing his job after going 5-7 in an injury-plagued 2012, a year in which his team looked as if it had no business playing in the SEC. That Pinkel, who is 61, from Akron, Ohio, and widely known as being an old-school coach, had no experience on how to handle an openly gay player when Sam came out in August.
Duely noted. As a kid who grew up in Missouri, there's no question his job was on the line, which makes his reaction to the news an even better story for leaders everywhere. Pinkel didn't overreact.
"Pinkel knows players. He knew that Sam was widely respected, popular and one of the best players on the team. He knew he had a strong senior class full of leaders. He told the Tigers that if they wanted to be successful, they had to come together and protect their family members, everybody from the freshmen to the coaches to the video staff."
He leaned on his captains, and in the days after Sam came out to the team, he met with them daily, asking, "How's the team doing? What's going on?"
Again, allowing and expecting others to lead. Showing them he expected it. Nice. But the coach changed in the midst of possibly losing his job and having a national story on his hands. He loosened up, rather than trying to rule the situation with an iron fist.
"Pinkel changed, too. Faced with so much pressure, he let it go and loosened up. The most noticeable difference was at practice. At the urging of the seniors, Pinkel allowed the team to play music during warm-ups. In all of the years that any of them had known Pinkel, he'd never had music during warm-ups. The change allowed the players to be more relaxed and comfortable.
Pinkel trusted his team. He never asked them to keep Sam's announcement a secret, even though he knew if the news had leaked, it would've been a big distraction. He just told them to respect each other and protect each other. "Coach Pinkel didn't have separate meetings pointing out how we should handle it," senior offensive lineman Justin Britt said. "I think he kind of let us learn as we went along."
Ponder this. Pinkel was about to lose his job and has a potential huge distraction dumped on him before the season. But rather than try to control it, he went the other way, trusting everyone around him. Mizzou responded with a magical season, going to the SEC title game, finishing in the top 5 nationally and cementing Pinkel's security as the Mizzou coach for years to come.
Did that happen by chance? I think not. The team responded to Pinkel's cool and took his lead. In doing that, Mizzou showed the world how to handle diversity and had the best season in the history of the program.
That's leadership. Go Mizzou.