Before becoming a head coach, Gary Pinkel served as an assistant at the University of Washington under Don James from 1979 through 1990, the last six of those years as an offensive coordinator.
Born in Akron, Ohio, Pinkel graduated from Kenmore High School and attended Kent State University, where he played tight end for the Golden Flashes under head coach Don James. Pinkel received his bachelor's degree in education in 1973 and began his coaching career as a graduate at Kent State under James, who left after the 1974 season for Washington. Pinkel joined him in Seattle for a season in 1976, spent two years at Bowling Green, then returned to Washington for 12 seasons.
Pinkel and Alabama head coach Nick Saban were college teammates. Pinkel took over the head coaching job at Toledo in 1991 when Saban left to become defensive coordinator for the Cleveland Browns.
His roommate at Kent State was Jack Lambert, who would have a Hall of Fame career as middle linebacker for the legendary Pittsburgh Steelers teams of the 1970s. . Pinkel did post-graduate studies at Kent State and Bowling Green State University, and was inducted into the Kent State Varsity "K" Hall of Fame in 1997.
Pinkel posted a record of 73-37-3 (.659) in 10 seasons at Toledo, including a 53-23-3 (.690) record in conference. He compiled three West Division titles and the conference championship in 1995.
In 1995, Pinkel's Rockets finished 11-0-1, won the Vegas Bowl and finished ranked in the Top 25 (AP Poll). They were one of only three teams in the nation to finish the regular season undefeated. The others were Nebraska and Florida, who played for the national championship.
In 2000, Toledo went to Penn State and defeated Joe Paterno's Nittany Lions 24-6. Pinkel guided Toledo to a 10-1 record that season, 6-1 in conference play.
Arriving at Missouri after the 2000 season, Pinkel led the Tigers to ten bowl games in fifteen years, winning six. The first was in 2003, a 27–14 loss to Arkansas, and the second was a thrilling 38–31 come-from-behind win over the University of South Carolina on December 30, 2005. Missouri then lost to Oregon State, 39–38, in the Brut Sun Bowl. In 2007, a historic year for the Mizzou program, Pinkel led his team to a No. 1 AP ranking at the end of the regular season after finishing 11–1. They fell to Oklahoma in the Big 12 Championship game, and played in the Cotton Bowl Classic against Arkansas. The Tigers throttled the Razorbacks, strolling to an easy 38–7 victory and a final season ranking of No. 4 in the AP Poll.
Pinkel's other accomplishments while at Mizzou include ending the Tigers 24-year losing streak to Nebraska in 2003 with a 41–24 win in Columbia. Since this win, the two schools have had an intense rivalry, with Missouri falling short in the series only 3–4, until both schools left the conference.
In 2006, Pinkel led the Tigers to a 6–0 start, the team's first 6–0 start since 1973. However, the team finished 8–5.
During the 2007 season, Pinkel guided the Tigers to a 12–2 season with an average of 40 points per game, a Big 12 North Championship, and a 38–7 Cotton Bowl Classic victory over Arkansas. The season's most memorable moment came when Missouri defeated rival Kansas 36–28 on a nationally televised game at Arrowhead Stadium. The win propelled Missouri to the No. 1 ranking and ruined Kansas' previously unbeaten record. The only losses during the season were against the Oklahoma Sooners. The first loss was on the road in Norman and the second was in the Big 12 Championship. Pinkel’s Tigers were tied with the Sooners at half time but ended up losing. If the Tigers had won they might have retained their then number one BCS ranking and could have played for the BCS National Championship.
In 2008, Pinkel guided his Tigers to a second consecutive Big 12 North title and a chance to have back to back double digit win seasons. Despite four tough losses, the 2008 campaign concluded with a Big 12 North Championship, the first back to back 10 win season in Missouri history and an Alamo Bowl Championship.
On November 25, 2008, Pinkel signed a new seven-year contract that would bring him $2.3 million per year, from January 1, 2009 through December 31, 2015.
On October 23, 2010, Pinkel guided the Tigers to their first win over the Oklahoma Sooners since 1998, winning 36–27. The Sooners were ranked No. 1 in the BCS Poll at the time, leading to the third straight week that a No. 1 team lost. The Tigers finished the regular season 10-2 (6-2 Big 12) and tied Nebraska for the Big 12 North Championship, Mizzou's 3rd in 4 years.
The Southeastern Conference asked Missouri to join in 2011 in part so the league would not have an uneven number of teams after Texas A&M became the SEC's 13th member. Pinkel's 2012 team finished 5-7 in the SEC East Division and was the first in eight seasons to not go to a bowl game; Florida president Bernard Machen later said that other members saw Pinkel as a "quality guy" but "didn't think Missouri had been that good of late". The 2013 and 2014 teams were very successful, however, winning the division in both years; "We had no idea Pinkel was gonna turn around and beat us and be that good that quick", Machen added.
Beginning with the 2002 NFL draft, Pinkel has had 26 players selected, including seven first-round choices since 2009.
On November 13, 2015, Pinkel announced he would retire at the end of the season. He stated that he has non-Hodgkins lymphoma, and wants to spend his remaining years with family and friends.
Pinkel is the record holder for all-time wins at both Toledo and Missouri.
For his accomplishments at Toledo, Pinkel was inducted into the school's athletic hall of fame in February 2009.
Assistant coaches under Gary Pinkel who became NCAA head coaches:Barry Odom: Missouri (2016–present)
Dean Pees: Kent State (1998–2003)