COLUMBIA, Mo. — Sophie Cunningham has known Robin Pingeton for more than eight years. Their relationship goes back to when Cunningham committed to Pingeton and the Missouri women’s basketball program when she was in eighth grade.
So it was fitting that Cunningham was the one who willed Pingeton to her 500th career victory on Sunday with a 69-46 win over Vanderbilt. Cunningham drained four straight 3-pointers to start the game and ended with 27 points in the win that took a backseat to Pingeton’s milestone.
This one, Cunningham said, was for Pingeton, who coached at Illinois State before taking the Missouri job. Pingeton posted a 144-81 record with the Redbirds from 2003-10.
“No words can do it justice, how much she’s impacted my life,” Cunningham said with tears in her eyes. “Maybe one day I can come around and try to tell her, but when I’m playing with her, I’m trying to go to war with her every day. What we have right here is super special, and I wouldn’t take any other coach or play for any other coach at this level.”
It’s difficult to put the spotlight on Pingeton because the coach, now in her ninth season with the Tigers, won’t allow it. Instead, she focuses on the players and the people around her, giving credit to them instead of heaping it on herself.
“It’s hard to have a day for her, it’s hard to crack her, because she never accepts it,” Cunningham said. “The only time where she’s like, ‘Yea, I was a big dog,’ is when we’re kind of – when she’s like, ‘Well I scored this much when I was hurt,’ or ‘Oh what is this, are you going to back that up?’
“It’s so hard to celebrate her because she really is so selfless, and there really isn’t a coach like that around the country.”
When Mizzou finalized the victory, the players – all of whom logged minutes in the win – immediately swarmed Pingeton on the court. As she did her postgame interview with SEC Network, Mizzou administration had a ceremony prepared for her.
First, there was a video tribute to Pingeton on the big screen above the court, complete with former players and current coaches telling the Mizzou Arena crowd how much Pingeton impacted them.
Pingeton and her team watched the video, laughing, smiling and cheering as Missouri athletics director Jim Sterk stood by with a commemorative framed poster and flowers.
But in the postgame news conference, Pingeton stayed true to her focus.
“This is about a lot of people,” Pingeton said, with silly string from the locker room celebration drying on her hair and clothes. “Are you kidding me? I’ve coached some great players. I’ve had some great assistant coaches. I’ve had some great administration. Great fan bases. This is so much bigger than one person.”
Pingeton ranks second in winning percentage – .586 – in program history, trailing only Mizzou Athletics Hall of Fame member Joann Rutherford, whose clip was at .617. With Pingeton as head coach, Missouri is one of 15 Power 5 programs with at least 22 wins and an NCAA Tournament appearance in each of the last three seasons.
She’s rebuilt Missouri women’s basketball into a program that continues to grow in attendance and is recognized nationally.
But it isn’t the wins that people want to mention when talking about Pingeton. It’s clear that Pingeton’s success goes beyond the court.
“I’ve been around a lot of programs at every level, and (Pingeton has) created a special environment,” said Bill Roundtree, the father of junior guard Jordan Roundtree and a former Mizzou player under former coach Norm Stewart. “She’s a coach that will get on their tail when she needs to, and they have respect for her during those time frames. And then she will hug you and just love on you at other times. She just has a sense of when those behaviors need to occur.
“There’s a level of respect that’s in that locker room that starts with Coach P, and I think it flows through every member of that team.”
Sunday might have been about the number 500 for the fans, players and Missouri administration. But for Pingeton, it was an important win for her team this season, maintaining the momentum coming off an overtime win to No. 18 Texas A&M.
After all, the season doesn’t stop. Missouri heads to No. 6 Mississippi State on Thursday. And as soon as she washes that silly string off of her hair and clothes, it’s on to prepping for the Bulldogs.
“We’ve got games to play,” Pingeton said. “We’ve got work to do. This train is moving.”