George McDonald remembers when he met Eliah Drinkwitz.


McDonald, now the wide receivers coach at North Carolina State, hadn’t moved to Raleigh yet, where he and Drinkwitz would soon work together for several years. Neither had Drinkwitz, now Missouri’s head football coach.


This story takes McDonald back to 2012, when he was in his second season as the passing game coordinator and receivers coach for Miami.


Drinkwitz, meanwhile, was the running backs coach at Arkansas State.


To develop knowledge that could translate into success for the Hurricanes, McDonald traveled the country to look at different systems and strategies. One of those stops was in Jonesboro, where McDonald met with then-Red Wolves head coach Gus Malzahn and Drinkwitz.


Upon McDonald’s return to Coral Gables, he wrote his future Wolfpack colleague a thank you note, which Drinkwitz said he kept upon their reintroduction running an Atlantic Coast Conference offense together.


Drinkwitz’s time rising the ranks of college football coaching is no secret. He has been nomadic – with no task too small for him to take on.


That brief initial encounter with McDonald helped set the foundation for what so far has been Drinkwitz’s longest stay with a college program. Drinkwitz became the offensive coordinator at NC State in 2016, arriving one season after McDonald started coaching the Wolfpack receivers.


Drinkwitz began his college coaching career at Auburn in 2010 as a quality control coach. Then came two seasons at Arkansas State and two years at Boise State before he spent three years at NC State. His first head-coaching opportunity came in 2019 at Appalachian State, and after signing a six-year contract last December, he’s now at the helm of Missouri football.


Yet nothing along his path could have prepared him for the unusual circumstances of getting a Southeastern Conference team ready for a season in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.


"I think if you look at where he's been and who he's learned under, if anyone has a chance to thrive in this type of situation, I think it's coach Drink because he's an out-of-the-box thinker," McDonald said. "He's always looking for ways to get better and to motivate people. And I think, with all the guys I've worked with, he's one of the guys that I believe is an elite teacher of being able to break complex schemes down to very simple schemes and allow the guys to play without thinking."


In Drinkwitz’s three seasons with the Wolfpack, he coached players such as Nyheim Hines, Kelvin Harmon and Ryan Finley, who have since gone on to play in the NFL.


In each of those years, NC State won a bowl game or had at least nine wins.


One player Drinkwitz coached on those NC State teams was Cole Cook, who is now an offensive quality control assistant at Missouri, manning the same kind of position Drinkwitz held to start his college coaching career.


Another Drinkwitz-coached Wolfpack player who entered the college coaching realm himself is Gavin Locklear, who stayed in Raleigh after graduating the same year as Cook.


Locklear met Drinkwitz during an offensive personnel meeting soon after his hiring from Boise State. During that meeting in 2016, Drinkwitz quickly laid out his goals for the upcoming season.


"It's one thing when you get people who come in and they tell you they're going to do all these things for you and they're going to do all these things with you," Locklear said. "And then it's another when you get guys that come in and actually do it.


"Everything (Drinkwitz) said he was going to do for that offense and for our team and for our program and for the players, he really did."


When Drinkwitz was hired at NC State, he was tasked with finding a replacement for Jacoby Brissett, the now-Colts quarterback who was dynamic in Raleigh as well.


That man was Finley, who followed Drinkwitz from Boise State to the Wolfpack. Yet there was more than just identifying good players that made Drinkwitz’s three seasons at NC State stand out.


It became clear his time to lead an FBS program was coming.


Learning from former Auburn head coach Gene Chizik, Malzahn, current Boise State head coach Bryan Harsin and current Wolfpack head coach Dave Doeren had rubbed off on him.


"If you look at Drink’s track record, he's moved up the ranks the right way," McDonald said. "He's always earned everything he's got and I always believed it was just going to be a matter of time when he was going to get his opportunity. And I think the biggest thing that I learned from him is that he's always been preparing for that opportunity. So when it did come down, when it did happen, it wasn't a surprise. He was prepared for it. His opportunity hit and then he was ready to go for it."


Last season, when Appalachian State secured 12 wins and a Sun Belt Conference championship with Drinkwitz as head coach, represents the only year separating his time from NC State and Missouri.


His years at Carter-Finley Stadium may be the best indicator of how Drinkwitz handles long-term goals and builds relationships.


"You could tell that he was very confident," Locklear said of his growing impressions of Drinkwitz. "... He’s really big into his faith space and he's very passionate and he's very driven. And I think those are great qualities to have as a player, but also as a coach and also as a head coach.


"He tells you he's going to do something; he does it. He’s very smart. He's going to study his opponents; he’s going to know them inside out. He's going to know what he wants to do, how he wants to do it, why he wants to do it, and he can effectively communicate that."


Locklear remembers transitioning from a player to a coach and Drinkwitz spending time with him to break down film, just so a volunteer coach like Locklear could pick his brain and learn habits of a successful coach.


Now entering his third season coaching at NC State, Locklear remembers those lessons as he hopes to climb the coaching ladder.


McDonald, an established coach with stops at nine different FBS football programs, knows Drinkwitz has rare ability and tact.


One of McDonald’s favorite memories from Drinkwitz’s time with NC State was during an at-home visit on a recruiting trip to New Jersey with one of the Wolfpack’s top-priority wide receiver prospects.


During that conversation, Drinkwitz quoted a Bible scripture almost out of nowhere from memory. That player ended up committing to NC State later on. The player’s family was comfortable with the Wolfpack because of Drinkwitz’s focus on things other than football.


"I'm not in the meeting rooms. I don't know the talent. The one thing I do know is (Drinkwitz) will have the guys playing with a lot of energy and a lot of passion and they will play with great spirit and fight," McDonald said. "That's the one thing I do know that he'll bring to Missouri. ... It's going to be a really good product. It's going to be something that the fans will be excited about.


"It's like cooking: You never know how long it's going to take to get the meal right. But I know one thing he has is the ingredients. He is going to make sure that it's done the right way and the kids are prepared the right way."


eblum@columbiatribune.com