While celebrity sightings are fewer in Southwest Florida than in, say, Magic City, many retired professional athletes and coaches live their best lives among us. Two all-time greats—Mark Dantonio, the winningest football coach in Michigan State University history, and Gary Pinkel, a 2022 inductee in the prestigious College Football Hall of Fame—share thoughts with Naples Illustrated on football, family, and leisurely life in the Sunshine State.
Camaraderie and winning make great memories, but he finds retirement has many perks
NI: What made you want to go into coaching?
Dantonio: After I got done playing college football at the University of South Carolina, I thought coaching might be right for me. It was something I was passionate about and seemed like it wouldn’t really be like work. Plus, I like watching people grow. I love the Xs and Os, but the camaraderie of it all is what drew me.
You’re the winningest football coach in Michigan State University (MSU) history. What’s your fondest memory from this tenure?
It’s hard to say because there are so many people involved, whether it be all the coaches or players. Winning the Rose Bowl was a great one, along with the wins over the University of Michigan. The latter were huge program wins and set up Michigan State football for the future. Along the way, all I can say is there were a lot of people working in the same direction. So, maybe the Rose Bowl win. Maybe the first Big Ten Championship. Maybe the second. More generally, it’s winning. Winning is always good, and it’s hard to win.
Do you have any games that stand out as favorites?
From when I arrived at MSU in 2007, there were certain games from each season of that era that were pivotal. There were a lot of walk-off wins, where we won at the end of the game. There were some walk-off losses, too, but a lot more wins. Winning at Michigan the first time was big, of course. There were a lot of great moments, but honestly, I really feel like I’m doing a disservice to the players who played by picking only one.
Who were your coaching mentors?
I have more than one. First off, though, is Dale Evans. He was my college position coach at the University of South Carolina. Also, a guy by the name of Randy Hart; he initially brought me to [The] Ohio State University as a graduate assistant coach. He was instrumental in getting me to the place where [my career] really sprang from. Certainly Jim Tressel. I was at Youngstown State University and later, of course, at Ohio State with him. Also Nick Saban—I worked with him for five years and learned a ton of football and organizational skills. The latter applies to Jim Tressel, too. And I would say Bob Goin, former athletic director at the University of Cincinnati, who gave me a head coaching opportunity. There were others along the way, but those five individuals were crucial.
Are you involved in football since retirement?
I’ve done some clinics and leadership talks. I’ve been offered various positions in a consulting capacity. But to me, those jobs demand a certain level of commitment, so I try to do what I can for people who ask. I’ve taken trips to visit different programs and preseason camps to get my football fix.
Are you able to kick back, relax, and watch games like a fan would, or are you still dissecting plays and managing the clock in your mind?
Yeah, that’s interesting. I guess it depends on the moment. Sometimes, I find myself questioning a particular play, or on the flip side, admiring something that was really well done. Then, other times, I miss a play here or there to go get some chips. It’s not as much life and death anymore.
Is there anything you absolutely don’t miss about football?
I don’t miss having to be 24/7, 365. Because that’s what it has become, and that’s what it is. Certainly, I don’t miss losing a football game. And I don’t miss some of the necessary administrative tasks that pulled me away from my own coaching to-do lists.
You still live in Michigan part of the year but spend your winters in Bonita Springs. Why there?
My wife, Becky, and I started coming down here in 1991. We really liked the community and knew our way around. Because of that, we thought this was the place to buy our retirement home. We looked for five years to ensure we found the right spot. Actually, I wasn’t looking—Becky was. We bought our place in spring of 2018.
What are your hobbies here?
I golf quite a bit. I love to walk our dog along the lake, and I exercise every day. I spend a lot of time with our two daughters and our grandchildren. That’s been great. Becky and I have met many good people here, so we do social things. After a lot of 80-hour work weeks, I will say this about retirement: Everyone should try it once.
The Dantonio File
1980, University of Ohio (graduate assistant)
1981, Purdue University (graduate assistant)
1982, Butler Community College (defensive coordinator)
1983-1984, The Ohio State University (graduate assistant)
1985, University of Akron (defensive backs)
1986-1990, Youngstown State University (defensive backs, defensive coordinator 1990)
1991-1994, University of Kansas (defensive backs)
1995-2000, Michigan State University (defensive backs)
2001-2003, The Ohio State University (defensive coordinator)
2004-2006, University of Cincinnati (head coach)
2007-2019, Michigan State University (head coach)
3 Big Ten Championships; 1 Legends Division Championship
2 Big Ten Coach of the Year honors
2014 Rose Bowl victory
2015 Cotton Bowl victory
2015 College Football Playoff appearance
7 Associated Press Top 25 Finishes at MSU
14 bowl games in 16 years as head coach
Winningest football coach in MSU history
As a football coach and as a retiree, helping kids matters—and now, so does taking time to take care of himself
NI: What was your college football experience like?
Pinkel: I went to Kent State University, where I played tight end. From there, the rest is kind of history. Don James became the head coach there. My teammates included a guy by the name of Nick Saban and Pro Football Hall of Famer Jack Lambert. We were all part of Kent State’s first Mid-American Conference Championship. I’ve been very blessed. I’ve always been surrounded by good people in football.
How did you get into coaching?
I really wanted to be a high school administrator because I’ve always liked to be around and help kids. But I spoke to my college head coach Don James about coaching and became a graduate assistant coach at Kent State after I graduated.
Do you have a favorite coaching memory?
Oh my gosh—that’s difficult. When I was at the University of Toledo, during my last year as head coach there, we played Penn State University at Penn State. We ended up winning the game, which was a huge upset. This had a large impact for the Mid-American Conference, let alone the University of Toledo. Also, when I was at Toledo in 1995, we were undefeated and won the Las Vegas Bowl in an overtime game. What’s interesting, however, is that it was the first overtime game of a major college football bowl game. There was no tie—we played it out. So, my goodness, it was amazing. At Mizzou, we played in the Cotton Bowl and won. That was a great one, too.
You were selected for induction into the College Football Hall of Fame this year. How did you react when you learned about this?
One day, not uncommon, a box came to my doorstep. But when I opened it, there was something that read, “Of the 5.54 million who have played and coached college football since 1869, only 1,038 players and 223 coaches have been inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. Welcome to the club.” Immediately, I just started crying. I never really thought I’d get in. However, this is about a lot more people than just Gary Pinkel. Many people contributed, and I recognize and appreciate that.
Are you still involved in football in any way?
No, not really. I was asked early on about doing some radio and TV commentating. But that sounds too busy. I’m a cancer survivor, and that’s not how I want to spend my time right now. I have a foundation dedicated to helping kids called GP M.A.D.E. Foundation. I spend a good portion of my day working on that.
When you watch a football game now, do you find yourself managing the game in your head?
To be honest, I do. I find myself tracking the down and distance, field position, personnel sets, how many time-outs are left—that’s what I did on the headset on game day. Funny, I was watching football with my wife, Missy, and she told me to quiet down because she wanted to hear the commentator. I looked at her, and jokingly asked, “Do you think that commentator knows more than I do?”
What was your favorite thing about coaching football?
Through my mentors Don James and Dick Fortner, my high school coach, I learned that coaching is an opportunity to help young people. It’s a chance to help teach them to be more responsible, to always respect women, to be on time, to be accountable, to be hard-working. At the end of the day, I really cared about the players and tried to help them be better people.
You retired from the University of Missouri shortly after being diagnosed with cancer. What was that like?
I was diagnosed with lymphoma on my birthday in 2015. I had just signed a six-year contract at Mizzou. But that’s when I decided I needed to use my time right; I wasn’t going to spend it working incredibly long weeks and frequently traveling. After the 2015 season, I retired. It was something I had to do for myself.
You have homes in Missouri, too, but where do you reside in Naples?
We used to live in North Naples. We had a condo there for about 15 years. Very recently, we built a home in Fiddler’s Creek. We love it there. The people are kind, and it’s great to be close to both downtown and Marco Island.
How do you and Missy spend your time when you’re in Southwest Florida?
I play some golf. I really try to take care of myself. Missy and I are active. We like to visit different places to sightsee and go to the beach; we really enjoy music and concerts, too.
The Pinkel File
1974-1975, Kent State University (graduate assistant)
1976, University of Washington (tight ends)
1977-1978, Bowling Green State University (wide receivers)
1979-1983, University of Washington (wide receivers)
1984-1990, University of Washington (offensive coordinator)
1991-2000, University of Toledo (head coach)
2001-2015, University of Missouri (head coach)
Mid-American Conference Championship
3 Big 12 North Division Championships
2 SEC East Division Championships
3 Mid-American Conference Division Championships
2 Mid-American Conference Coach of the Year honors
SEC Coach of the Year
Big 12 Coach of the Year
Winningest football coach in University of Toledo history
Winningest football coach in University of Missouri history
College Football Hall of Fame member