Why everyone’s talking about Robin Pingeton’s ‘Blue-Collar Basketball’
Robin Pingeton’s vision was to build a lasting basketball program at Missouri. Now that the task is accomplished, she and her Tigers want more.
No impression of Robin Pingeton is complete without her arms spread wide, her knees bent, her feet pumping furiously and a look of sheer intensity knitted across her face. This is how the coach of seven years would like her charges on the Missouri women’s basketball team to play defense. If they’re not living up to this standard, she’s surely taking a second out of practice to show them exactly how she wants it done.
“She’ll be getting after someone and drop down in a stance and be like, ‘If I can still do it, you guys can do it. We kind of give her trouble. I think she’s still got it.” That’s senior guard Lindsey Cunningham talking about “it.”
If that “it” refers to the athletic prowess to match up with today’s Division-I athletes, nearly 30 years after the close of her playing career, Pingeton would have to disagree.
“Even though my mind is younger than, maybe, my body, I don’t think any of our girls are expecting me to come out and dominate a game of one-on-one,” she says, laughing. “I stick to the treadmill, where it’s safe.”
If Cunningham was referring to the passion and grittiness that have gotten Pingeton this far, well, then she certainly does still have “it.”
Last season, every day before practice, Pingeton and guard Carrie Shephard teamed up for a series of two-on-two games against guard Juanita Robinson and forward Cierra Porter.
Senior guard Lianna Doty has seen Pingeton dive on the floor for a loose ball — this one was during a half-court game of four-on-four starring coaches and members of the Tigers’ staff. If you’re going to preach “blue-collar basketball” as Pingeton does, you had better practice it as well.
She’s been preaching — and practicing — for her entire 21-year coaching career.
“She’s all about something so much bigger than herself,” Doty says. “She wants to build something special here, and she wants to do it the right way, based on a foundation of relationships and hard work and a family that’s real.”
After nearly seven years at Missouri, Pingeton and the Tigers are on the cusp of greatness. It began with losing seasons in her first two years at the helm. That was followed by three straight Women’s NIT berths. All were stepping stones toward last season, when the Tigers posted a 22-10 record — their most wins since 2000-01 — and beat BYU to post the team’s first NCAA Tournament win in 15 years.
As the playbook would show, Pingeton wasn’t interested in quick fixes. She took the job ahead of the 2010-11 season focused on digging in, working hard and building something that would last — just as she was at Illinois State for seven years prior to coming to Columbia; just as she was at her alma mater, St. Ambrose, as a 23-year-old, first-time head coach in the early ’90s; just as she was when she played as an undersized post for the university’s Fighting Bees, setting program career records in points and rebounds; and just as she was pitching around her family’s farm and salvage yard growing up.
Pingeton has never known any other way: show before you tell. Set the example, and everything else will fall into place.
“Players don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,” Pingeton says. “My goals are to compete for championships, but my passion is to impact people’s lives and make a positive influence. It goes way beyond the sport.
“Sooner or later, the ball’s going to stop bouncing. What’s going to last are the relationships.”
Pingeton knew what she was doing. Her sister, Lisa, knew what she was doing as well. But neither really mentioned it.
College coaches came to the Becker house in Atkins, Iowa, a town of less than 1,000 people about 20 miles west of Cedar Rapids, to see Lisa, the best female high school basketball player in the Hawkeye State. Robin, three years her junior, would make sure she was putting up shots in the driveway as the coaches made house calls.
Just in case one of them wanted to give her a look.
“There was a lot of attention around me at that time, and I think she took that personally,” her sister, Lisa (Becker) Porter says. “She knew what she was capable of as a player, and she was always striving to show me that she was better than me. Now we look back at it and laugh at some of the situations in which we found ourselves.”
So the sisters were a little competitive with each other. They also had a close bond and the desire to push each other to be their best — sound familiar? It’s the same competitive/loving nature as some of the sister duos Pingeton coaches today.
Arlo and Judy Becker didn’t give their four children a choice other than to earn everything they received. They put them to work after school and on the weekends. Tractor pulls, demolition derbies, stock-car races — everyone did their part.
“We did everything: pit passes, entry fees, concession stands, selling trophies, presenting trophies. My brother was the PA announcer,” Pingeton says. “We actually provided some of the cars, too, from the salvage yard.”
The only times the four weren’t expected to help out around the house or at Becker Auto Salvage were when they were active in sports. That’s where Pingeton’s true passion lies: in athletics. Even with her impromptu driveway shooting displays, she didn’t get the same major-college attention as 6-foot, 4-inch Lisa. A 5-foot, 10-inch post player like her sister, Pingeton got her name out there largely through highlight tapes her mother compiled and circulated. She chose St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa, in part because she could be a two-sport athlete. Pingeton also played softball, and by the end of her college career, she was an NAIA All-American in both sports.
“She was arguably the best player we were able to recruit,” says Lisa Bluder, head basketball coach at the University of Iowa, who coached Pingeton at St. Ambrose. Bluder is now the winningest women’s basketball coach in Iowa Hawkeyes history. “She was the hardest worker I had. That’s what you always want, is when your best player is your hardest worker. She definitely was.”
Pingeton — or “Robin Becker,” as notated all over the St. Ambrose record book — finished her career with 2,502 points and 1,261 rebounds. During her time on campus, the Fighting Bees posted a record of 127-11, including a 68-3 mark over her final two seasons.
The Missouri players who know about Pingeton’s collegiate greatness have probably pieced it together through the grapevine. She never brings it up.
“She actually gets a little bit awkward when it’s about her,” Cunningham says. “I heard she was a pretty good ballplayer, but she wants none of the glory from it. She wants us to enjoy the experience.”
When the final horn blew on her playing career, it “ripped out (her) heart.” Coaching wasn’t on her radar until that point, only playing ball and finishing her business degree, but it was time for the next phase.
Lisa knew how her sister would approach it. “From the very get-go, she was a go-getter,” Porter says. “I think it made her have that edge a little more. Like, ‘I have something to prove here.’”
St. Ambrose wasn’t much of a consideration for Jenny DeSmet. She was from nearby Moline, Illinois, and wanted to get out of the Quad Cities for collegiate ball. At the very least though, she wanted to give sixth-year St. Ambrose head coach Robin Becker the courtesy of listening to the pitch.
“I was almost going to turn her down immediately. But, just listening to her, she had me sold with her vision, her passion,” says Jenny (DeSmet) Putnam, who played for Pingeton 1997-2000.
Putnam has been with Pingeton as an assistant coach for the past 14 years, through her tenures at Illinois State (2003-10) and now Missouri.
Although Pingeton has never been afraid to adapt with the times, she has also stayed true to the core tenets she sold Putnam on nearly 20 years ago.
“There’s so much more to people in life, [those who] have had to do all the little things, [who] are not afraid to do the dirty work,” Putnam says. “Nothing’s above her. Nothing’s below her. She’s just been self-made, and she has worked her tail off.”
Bluder gave Pingeton her first shot as an assistant straight out of college, working with the post players and helping recruit at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. After only two years, before the 1992-93 season, Pingeton got her first head coaching job back at St. Ambrose.
She had the unenviable task of continuing the winning tradition laid down by previous coaches, Bluder included. She also had to serve as head coach to players who, just two years prior, had been following her lead as a senior.
“Someone gave me great advice. They said at such a young age, it’s always better to come in maybe a little stricter and tougher, because you can always lighten up a bit,” Pingeton says. “That’s versus coming in trying to be their buddy and then, a couple years later, trying to shore things up and get them to toe the line.
“I’m still not a good loser, but I was a really, really bad loser back then,” she adds, with a laugh. “And my poor players had to get in my van on those long road trips.”
Because, you see, she drove the team van as well. And served as the equipment manager. And the strength and conditioning coach. All because St. Ambrose was such a streamlined operation that she was basically — outside of a couple of graduate assistants — the coaching staff.
Her players still see that ethos at work in her today. On road trips, she’ll send the players from the bus into the hotel while she unloads their luggage.
“It’s just built so much character,” Doty says. “She has not gone away from that. She has the perspective of being able to succeed with whatever you have.”
Pingeton went 192-76 over eight seasons at St. Ambrose, advancing to the NAIA quarterfinals twice. After three seasons assisting coach Bill Fennelly at Iowa State in Ames, Iowa — years during which the Cyclones made two NCAA Tournaments and won the 2001 Big 12 Tournament — she got her first crack as a Division-I head coach at Illinois State in Normal, Illinois. After two losing seasons in her first three years, the Redbirds ripped off four straight 20-win campaigns.
As her two college coaching mentors, Bluder and Fennelly, headed established major-conference programs in her home state, Pingeton was positioning herself to start one of her own.
“All Robin needed was an opportunity, and she was going to run with it,” Bluder says.
As the 2009-10 season wound down, then-Missouri athletic director Mike Alden made it clear to Pingeton that she was on his short list for the Show Me State job. She, in turn, made it clear to him that, although flattered by the attention, she had a WNIT to coach. They’d talk after.
So Alden sent spies from the athletic department to Illinois State’s games. They didn’t wear Missouri gear, didn’t identify themselves as representatives from Columbia. They were there to monitor Pingeton in her natural habitat.
They found two things. One: all the good things they’d heard about Pingeton were absolutely true. Two: she was costing Missouri an awful lot in travel expenses. The Redbirds didn’t stop winning until the WNIT semifinals.
Alden and the rest of the search committee met with Pingeton in a hotel near the St. Louis airport and listened to her talk about building a program based on hard work, selflessness, respect and positivity. She was reading straight from Alden’s handbook, and she didn’t even know it.
“She set a foundation that has an opportunity to have long-term success,” Alden says. “That’s exactly — exactly — what she talked about in that interview all those years ago.”
Porter has had the opportunity to view Pingeton’s time at Missouri through a number of different lenses. They’re sisters, of course.
And until May, Lisa’s husband, Michael, was employed as a director of operations, then assistant coach, on Pingeton’s staff at Missouri. But the Porter family moved to Washington, where Michael was hired as an assistant men’s basketball coach.
Except, here’s the thing, daughters Bri and Cierra still play for their aunt at Missouri. Bri is a junior. Cierra is a sophomore. Both are post players, like their mother and aunt.
“I’m hearing things from my girls, my husband and my sister, and there is so much that goes into building a program like what Robin has done and continues to do,” Lisa Porter says. “The cool thing about seeing this come to fruition is seeing that it’s not just talk, that her priority is the people. The same way she strives to be the best version of herself, she’s striving to help them become the best versions of themselves.”
Pingeton keeps two families in balance: her biological one and her basketball one.
She transfers the brand of love that she’s learned from the former to the latter. That everything is earned, not given. That a job’s not worth doing unless it’s done right.
“It’s about planting your feet, rolling up your sleeves and going to work,” Pingeton says. “Every step along the way has impacted me greatly as a coach and person, just to be surrounded by the people I have.”
Her players can expect some vitriol out of her. If they’re not doing what they’re supposed to be doing, she’ll let them know. If the freshmen aren’t grasping something, she’ll make sure they get where she’s coming from, like she did during a recent individual workout session. Doty and Cunningham shot each other knowing glances. They’d been there before.
“She demands so much from you, but she loves so hard too,” Doty says. “It’s one of those relationships where you know she’s going to get the absolute best out of you because she cares so much about you. She has a really soft side, a really understanding side and she has a really hard, ‘let’s get our nose to the grindstone and go to work’ side.”
Doty and Cunningham can’t get anything by her at this point, and Pingeton can tell by their body language if something is troubling them. She knows, without prompting, when to push, when to console, when to encourage, when to motivate.
During the 2014-15 season, before a road game at Florida, Cunningham got a call from the front desk at the team hotel. Someone had left her something.
She came down and found a two-page, handwritten note from Pingeton telling her how proud she was of her and how she had developed as a point guard that season, how encouraged she was by the way Cunningham had rebounded from the early season adversity that beset the team.
Pingeton knows her team. She knows her players’ rhythms. But she’s not naive enough to think she knows it all. That’s why, Cunningham says, Pingeton has meetings with players and staff members on this theme: “What can I do to be better for you?”
“I want to keep learning and growing until the day I die,” Pingeton says. “So every day I wake up and think, ‘How can I be better today?’ Every day I’m trying to grow and get better. Hopefully, I’ve gotten wiser with my years.”
At Missouri, that philosophy has translated into a program that has posted four straight winning seasons for the first time since 1986-90. It has led to a Tigers team on the rise, with upperclassmen including Cunningham, Doty, Sierra Michaelis and Jordan Frericks (out for the season with a torn ACL) mixing with talented sophomores Cierra Porter and Lindsey’s younger sister, Sophie, who was last year’s SEC Freshman of the Year.
Missouri has reached a peak, but also wants to keep climbing. And a Becker knows her work is never truly done.
“Every year we’ve taken the program in the right direction, when you look at what we’ve been able to accomplish,” Pingeton says. “But under no circumstances are we satisfied.
Very driven, very hungry. “We want more.”
Photos: Travis Smith | ContentAllStars.com