Drinkwitz’s long, strange trip to debut with Missouri football
What a long, strange trip it’s been for Eli Drinkwitz since arriving in Columbia more than nine months ago — and he’s yet to coach a game.
Little for the 37-year-old has been conventional. While 2020 has been an unusual and challenging time for everyone in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, Drinkwitz may be suited to bring equilibrium to a world otherwise in flux.
His swift rise from seventh grade football coach in Northwest Arkansas to the helm of a Southeastern Conference program has been far from comfortable.
The last decade of his career alone, he’s called six different cities in five states home.
“He was a high school coach when we first got married, and he just wanted to be a high school coach and that’s what he was going to do, and I was an elementary teacher,” Drinkwitz’s wife, Lindsey, said after his introductory news conference as Missouri head coach in December. “And then, when our daughter was first born in March of 2010, he was offered a (graduate assistant) position at Auburn, which was very scary for us, just financially. You don’t get paid a whole lot, but we took the risk and it paid off and we’ve kind of been moving around as he’s gone up the ladder.
“And now, we’re here.”
Drinkwitz’s personal coaching carousel has brought him back to the conference where his college coaching career began. His journey has now brought him to Missouri, and he has built relationships and gained respect along the way.
He was rewarded with a six-year, $24 million contract as the 33rd head football coach in the school’s history, a major pay raise after making $750,000 in his one season at Appalachian State, his only other collegiate head coaching experience.
Since putting pen to paper that December day, Drinkwitz has set out to mold the Missouri program under his vision in the midst of coaching through a pandemic and the strongest call for social justice of recent memory.
“I think it’s unprecedented. I think it’s the only word to really describe it,” Drinkwitz said of his time leading the Tigers.
Drinkwitz’s approach at Missouri could be described as without parallel, too. The Tigers were led for the past two decades by Gary Pinkel and Barry Odom, whose suit-and-tie approach to public speaking was conventional and got the job done.
It’s a stark contrast to Drinkwitz, who has a telegenic nature in the age of social media that presents a change from coaches before him.
“I think anytime you are going to be portrayed to whoever wants to watch it, you want to make sure you’re putting your best foot forward,” Drinkwitz said. “I think authenticity is the best approach. This is just who I am.”
Who the Alma, Arkansas, native is may differ depending on who you ask.
Some would focus on his ideas that kickstarted offenses in the Sun Belt, Mountain West and Atlantic Coast conferences.
Detractors would bring up his one year as a college head coach was spent winning with a roster assembled by Scott Satterfield, who departed Appalachian State for Louisville in December 2018. Then again, 12 wins, a conference title and true road victories over South Carolina and North Carolina don’t happen by accident.
“I know (Drinkwitz) came in and we had a lot of talent, and we had a schedule that we felt really good about,” Appalachian State recruiting coordinator and tight ends coach Justin Watts said of the Mountaineers’ 2019 season. “But sometimes, the hard thing to do is not screw something up. And he came in, and if he would have done a complete 180 and gone in a different direction, we don’t have the year we had last year and he’s not sitting there at Missouri.
“What I thought (Drinkwitz) did an excellent job of was taking the things that he was really strong at and his beliefs, and inserting them into our program with also keeping ... our culture and our players, our coaching staff, our fan base, some of those things that they felt were important and kind of mixing those things together.”
The long, strange trip, originally coined from the 1970 Grateful Dead song “Truckin’,” hasn’t had Drinkwitz call one spot home for longer than three years.
His stints at Arkansas State, Boise State and Auburn were two-year terms.
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. His three seasons spent as North Carolina State’s offensive coordinator may give the biggest glimpse into his long-term plans for the Missouri offense.
It’s an uphill battle for the Tigers’ offense, as many players regressed statistically in 2019 and several starters graduated or forwent eligibility to play in the NFL.
Missouri had only three spring practices before the COVID-19 shutdown, meaning crucial time to develop techniques was spent over Zoom, not in-person.
“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,” said NC State wide receivers coach George McDonald, who was on the Wolfpack’s staff for Drinkwitz’s entire stay in Raleigh. “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.”
As part of Drinkwitz’s strategy for developing his offense, he’s pledged to not publicly name a starting quarterback before the Tigers’ season opener against No. 2 Alabama next Saturday, a different approach than his four previous occasions as an offensive coordinator overseeing an open quarterback competition in fall camp.
“The person who is going to play us first has no idea if they’re going to scout Washington tape, UAB tape, TCU tape, App State tape, NC State tape,” Drinkwitz said in August. “They don’t know which quarterback to prepare for, whether they’re going to watch high school tape from a kid. They don’t know if they’re going to watch the Arkansas game from last year, the Georgia game from last year, TCU games from two years ago.
“I’m just creating a workload for somebody, so poor (graduate assistants and quality control coaches).”
Drinkwitz then rattled off the names of five different schools that represent previous stops for him or members of his program.
Tigers wide receivers and quarterbacks coach Bush Hamdan was previously the offensive coordinator at Washington, and MU running backs coach Curtis Luper coached quarterback Shawn Robinson as the co-offensive coordinator at TCU.
Drinkwitz and three assistant coaches made the switch from Appalachian State to Missouri this offseason.
Casey Woods, the Missouri tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator, was an offensive assistant at UAB since the Blazers’ relaunch in 2017. Woods has described Missouri’s offensive approach as “pro ideals with a college spirit.”
“You can present different looks and different plays and different motions and you can do that while still keeping the fundamental techniques of a blue-collar football team,” Woods said. “We can have a downhill power run game and still be able to do that out of a bunch of different looks, out of a bunch of different personnels. We can simplify what maybe we’re doing internally while showing from a broader picture that it would appear that we’re doing much more.”
The catalyst for change within the MU program hasn’t only been results-driven for Drinkwitz. He’s been far from silent in reacting to the killing of George Floyd and last month’s shooting of Jacob Blake, both of which caused nationwide protests to bring awareness to racial injustice.
Drinkwitz has also stated multiple times he doesn’t speak for his players, whom he encourages to use their platform as Division I athletes as they see fit.
Even with limited time available to prepare for the season, the Tigers canceled practice Aug. 28 and instead held a team meeting that was focused on making change in their community. Although no part of their discussions involved Xs and Os, it may have given Missouri fans the best look yet into the culture Drinkwitz is cultivating.
“I can’t give y’all family business, but at the end of the day, I know coach Drink has my back and everybody’s back,” Missouri senior running back Larry Rountree said the day after the canceled practice. “He loves every single one of us like we’re his own sons.”
This coming Saturday, that long, strange trip finally sees the most normal professional activity Drinkwitz has partaken in since his arrival from Boone, North Carolina, to Boone County, the reason MU athletic director Jim Sterk brought him here: to coach a football game.
Even at that, Drinkwitz spent eight months envisioning his Missouri coaching debut would be against FCS-level Central Arkansas and his league opener would be against Vanderbilt, which hasn’t had a winning season since 2014.
With the SEC changing to a 10-game, conference-only schedule in late July, both his first overall and first conference test leading the Tigers is against powerhouse Alabama.
Not to mention, the game against the Crimson Tide is on national television in primetime, Missouri has already ruled out 12 players due to COVID-19-related reasons and Drinkwitz will match wits against six-time national championship head coach Nick Saban.
Alabama has won 91 straight games against unranked opponents, with its last loss of the kind coming in 2007 to Louisiana-Monroe.
Regardless of being a longshot to beat the Crimson Tide, Drinkwitz has been waiting for this opportunity, his first foray into the SEC.
He may be an adopted True Son, but Drinkwitz has started his hopeful path to bring success on the gridiron back to Columbia consistently.
“Stick to the plan. Don’t get swayed by every change in the wind ... We’ve got a plan, work the plan,” Drinkwitz said. “It’s really hard. Everybody wants you to have a reaction. Everybody wants you to change course.
“... Stick to the plan and ride it out.”