By David Solomon
The University of Missouri introduced Eliah Drinkwitz as the 33rd head football coach in school history Tuesday morning before a crowd of boosters, current and former athletic department staff, fans, and media from throughout the state. While there were no bombshells to suggest a shortened honeymoon period, the morning still had its share of memorable moments.
Owning the Press Conference
Drinkwitz proved adept at owning the room and saying all the right things both during and after his introductory press conference. Drinkwitz exuded confidence without taking shots at previous regimes or opponents and managed to avoid throwing out quantitative numbers such as win totals that could come back and burn him. Early on though, he had a slip of the tongue that could become infamous if he hits a rough stretch when he accidentally blurted out the Sun Belt Conference instead of SEC when stating his goal of regularly winning division championships.
Eli “Gets” Missouri
Drinkwitz struck the right balance between understanding his fan base without getting too caught up in status quo. He was quick to flaunt any Missouri ties he had ranging from meeting Gary Pinkel to family members living in state to coaching against Missouri high schools. He also showed a healthy respect for the foundation laid by predecessors Gary Pinkel and Barry Odom. While it would have been very easy to start with a clean slate, Drinkwitz expressed interest in interviewing and potentially retaining at least some of the assistants from Odom’s staff.
“I was an assistant coach retained at Arkansas State in 2013 by Bryan Harsin,” Drinkwitz noted. “He didn’t have to do that. We didn’t know each other, but he gave me an opportunity to interview. I’m going to give some guys opportunities to visit, see if there’s some connection. I’m going to make no promises, but I have an open heart and an open mind.”
Drinkwitz is also well aware of the challenges at hand to regain fan support.
He said, “One, they have to be excited about the message that we’re spreading and two, we have to put a product on the field that makes them excited to represent the University of Missouri and the product that says I want to wear Mizzou football gear because they’re playing in the right way.”
Despite all the press that surrounded Missouri athletics director Jim Sterk over the past week, neither Sterk, Drinkwitz, or anybody else associated with the university gave any indication that this marriage was a second choice for either party. Drinkwitz spoke at length about how blessed he is to make such a monumental leap so fast considering he just completed his first season as a college head coach. Sterk, for what it’s worth, was quick to point out that he and the school hadn’t honed in on any other candidates and Drinkwitz was the only candidate offered the job.
Said Sterk, “We took a broad sweep and coach was on our list. He was the only guy I offered the job to. I feel really good about who we ended up with, not ended up with, who we went out and got basically. There’s a lot of competition in the marketplace, coaching searches, there’s rumors, all that stuff. He’s the only one I offered, and I’m really excited about the future of his leadership.”
Still given the context of Sterk’s response, it’s hard to tell if he was genuinely thrilled or trying to put a positive spin on a hire that might not have been one of his original candidates.
The Bottom Line
On the surface everything looks like a program trying to right itself versus settling on a coach like the school did hiring Kim Anderson to coach men’s basketball in 2014. It was clear to everyone involved from Jim Sterk to Eli Drinkwitz to the Board of Curators that they need to generate a buzz around the program that hasn’t been seen since the Concerned Student 1950 protests in 2015. Still, is one year of collegiate head coaching experience enough to be able to hit the ground running in the SEC? Drinkwitz has the experience as an assistant coach including his time with Gus Malzahn at Auburn, but the jump to a Power 5 head coach from Appalachian State in the Sun Belt Conference can be monumental. Drinkwitz also emphatically stated that he plans to both serve as his own offensive coordinator and handle the play-calling duties on game day. He also expressed clear defensive philosophies and a willingness to show flexibility with his defensive schemes.
“It all starts with stopping the run,” he said. “You have to make a team play to their deficiencies, not allow them to play to their strengths. It’s a quarterback driven game. We have to confuse, harass, and hit the quarterback. We are not going to be able to allow him to stay back there, so if we can get pressure with four and accomplish that, great. If we can’t, then we’ve got to bring more.”
However, it remains to be seen if he can maintain the balance between general oversight and providing the time and attention he will need to devote to the offense. There is nothing to suggest that the program can’t turn around and at least return to its 2005-2014 level under Drinkwitz, but he’s not going to have the luxury of at least four seasons to gain traction that his predecessors had. Given the declines in support and revenue, Drinkwitz is going to need to produce almost immediate results for a program desperate for life. One significant misstep could spell both his and Sterk’s demise as Sterk now has his hires in place for football and men’s basketball.