MISSOULA — Little did Jamie Pinkerton realize his kind gesture three decades ago would kick-start a wonderful career.
Call it a serious case of good karma that keeps on giving.
“Actually it was by mistake,” Montana’s softball coach said of his humble beginnings in his early 20s. “I have a sister that’s 10 years younger than me and she was trying out for a softball team and wanted to pitch.
“She wasn’t going to be a pitcher on the team she was on so we took some other young ladies that didn’t make travel teams and put together our own (16U) team, much like the Osprey or Avalanche here in Missoula.”
Actually Pinkerton’s father and a family friend planned to coach the team initially.
“But their jobs didn’t allow them to be there all the time and I kind of got talked into it,” Jamie said with a grin. “It was something I wanted to do. But it was also something I had no idea when it started it would lead down a career path.”
Born in Arkansas and raised in Oklahoma, Pinkerton took to coaching in an instant and honed his craft by listening.
“At that point I was like a sponge,” said Jamie, who will finish up a fortnight of Grizzly player tryouts this week. “I’d go to clinics and listen to other coaches talk. I’d go to ASA clinics. Get books.
“I still have some old drill books. I relied on my (American Legion) baseball background a little. Back when I was a kid, you played and you watched.”
Spend a few minutes with Pinkerton and it’s easy to understand why he’s lasted so long in a profession that requires patience and persistence. He’s an amiable and humble sort who looks you in the eye and gives it to you straight with a distinct southern accent.
Most important for the Grizzlies, he’s a proven program builder. When he accepted his first head coaching job at Tulsa 13 years ago, the Golden Hurricane had not posted a winning record in its near-decade-long history. In Pinkerton’s second season, Tulsa went 48-16.
Jamie was so good – the 30 1/2-game turnaround has not been topped by an NCAA program since – that Arkansas hired him away in 2005. He led the Razorbacks to NCAA tourney appearances in 2008 and 2009 before resigning.
“I get asked the question all the time: You were successful, why did you leave Arkansas?” Pinkerton confided. “It was just one of those things the new athletic director Jeff Long wanted to go a different direction.”
Pinkerton moved on to Iowa State where he served as an assistant coach in his wife’s home state. He was happy there and learned some things from Cyclones skipper Stacy Gemeinhardt-Cesler.
But when he learned about the Montana opening, he jumped.
“It’s not an every-year thing where someone starts a program,” he offered. “There was a sense of excitement for me.”
Since arriving in Missoula in September, Pinkerton has been knee-deep in recruiting. In November he signed what the Grizzly sports information department calls “The Original Six,” all of whom are out-of-state preps.
Four hail from Washington and there’s one each from California and Oklahoma.
“They all have their story, reasons why they were still available and want to be part of the program,” Pinkerton said. “A lot of it when you get into recruiting is it’s about bells and whistles. They want to see the locker room and the facilities and the campus.
“With this, I think the intrigue of it is being new. They’re going to be the first team to ever put on the Griz uniform, wear the Griz colors. We sold that a lot. It sure wasn’t our (playing) facility because we haven’t built one yet.”
Pinkerton and his assistant, Missoula native Melanie Meuchel, are now up to 11 prep signees and are looking forward to making the rounds at high school games in Montana. They expect to have a roster of 18 to 20 players before their first official practice in September.
“Obviously state traditions and kids growing up in Montana, there’s a sense of pride and they know the tradition, you don’t have to teach them to love the Griz colors,” Pinkerton said. “You always want in-state kids but you also want to be able to sustain your program and win. There’s a fine balance there.
“I’ve been fortunate to pick up assistants that blend with my personality and are good in the areas I’m weaker in. I picked up a gem in Meuchel. She knows the high school coaches and where to go in Montana to see players.”
Pinkerton, who has one Montana recruit in catcher Dani Walker of Deer Lodge, wants to fill at least a few of his remaining roster spots with college veterans. He believes it’s integral to set an early tone and build chemistry.
“Picking up some junior college kids that have the right personality is important,” he said. “The (freshmen) are going to need direction.
“There’s a lot of young ladies that have been in the office wanting to try out. If we can find that right mix and get the right leadership .... Obviously pitching is going to cure a lot of things. And when you win, chemistry takes care of itself.”
Once September rolls around, Pinkerton and Meuchel will have a 45-day window in which their team may practice 20 hours a week. The Grizzlies will fine-tune their skills at Missoula Sentinel before playing four games at an MSU Billings tourney on Sept. 20-21. After that Pinkerton hopes to play a few home games at Frenchtown High School.
“A lot of the problem with the fields here is that they’re not college-ready,” he said. “There are nice fields ... But the fences are short.”
In mid-January practices will start up again in preparation for the season opener on Feb. 6 at New Mexico State’s Hotel Encanto Classic in Las Cruces, N.M. Weekend tournaments will follow in California and Idaho.
The Grizzlies will make their home debut on March 18 against Carroll College. Three days later, Montana will start its 21-game Big Sky Conference slate.
Pending approval by the Montana University System Board of Regents, the Grizzlies will play 13 home games next spring at their new stadium at South Campus. Funding is in place and designs have been mostly finalized.
The proposed field will be constructed east of Montana’s soccer stadium and will feature synthetic turf in the infield and outfield.
Pinkerton has the distinction of being a pool coach for the USA Softball national team, but he still considers himself extremely fortunate to have landed the job as Montana’s first skipper. He says the size of the university and its athletic department fit his personality.
“Everyone stops and says hello,” he said of his Grizzly coaching peers. “That’s my personality.”
One of Pinkerton’s top priorities is to impress on his players he cares about them on the field and off. He’s able to check his ego at the door every morning, which helps him stay in tune with others and prevents him from becoming complacent.
“I joke with my dad, ‘I’m 10 games below .500 in my career coaching,’” Jamie said. “He says, ‘Yeah, but take out the first years at each program you turned around.’ He’s always been my pick-me-up.
“With the bunch of players we have here, will there be bumps along the way? Absolutely. The first couple years, when you have that many freshmen, there’s going to be trials and tribulations. If we can weather the early storm I think we can do something pretty special here.”