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What’s the secret to Drinkwitz’s recruiting success?

Has Eli Drinkwitz rewritten the book on recruiting at Missouri, or is he just executing better than his predecessors?

NCAA Football: Alabama at Missouri

During his 15-year tenure as Missouri’s head coach, Gary Pinkel did all Missouri fans a disservice.

He was, quite simply, too good at making his players better.

That may seem a strange argument to make on the eve of National Signing Day, when the discourse of recruiting takes a harsh 180-degree turn into the world of player development. After all, that’s the point, isn’t it? You bring in a good high school football player and turn him into a good college player?

That is the point, dear reader, and good on you for pointing it out. It’s even better if your favorite team’s coach can take good high school players and make them great college players... or even NFL players. This is where Gary Pinkel excelled — extracting the most talent out of his players — specifically uncut gems — and turning them into guys who earn their paychecks on Sundays.

How, then, is this a disservice to Missouri fans? Because in his time at Missouri, Gary Pinkel got us used to the idea that players routinely outperform their evaluations. To put it in a snappier way, “stars don’t matter.”

This, of course, is not true, and there’s plenty of scholarship on why it isn’t true. In short, you can be a great football coach, like Pinkel was, and win a lot of games without the benefit of having the best talent. But in a sport where depth players are routinely getting playing time, it’s easy to see how recruiting quantities of talent would be useful. Not every five-star recruit turns into a pro, but they’re far more likely to do so than four, three, and two-star guys.

None of this is to say Gary Pinkel was a bad recruiter as the Tigers’ head football coach. After all, Pinkel routinely had Missouri in the Top 40 by team recruiting rankings. That may not be enough to cut it in the SEC, where most of the league ends up in the Top 25. But it was good enough to win a lot in the Big 12.

Pinkel, however, was never able to turn the Tiger program into a recruiting powerhouse, even with his impressive on-field results. And ever since Missouri joined up with the SEC in 2012, the importance of recruiting has become a hot topic for fans, punctuated by the program’s status as one of the worst recruiting teams in the conference. It’s a problem Pinkel couldn’t solve in his final years at Missouri, and it’s one Barry Odom didn’t do much to help when he took over.

Eli Drinkwitz, however, may be leading Missouri into areas unknown. Heading into the early National Signing Day on Wednesday, Drinkwitz has the Tigers in contention to land a Top 20 class and has already grabbed a number of blue-chip recruits out of the home state. And since it’ll be a while before we have cold, hard data on his ability to develop players, Drinkwitz’s abilities as a recruiter give us the clearest glimpse into what kind of program he’s building in Columbia.

Mizzou Recruiting: By the Numbers

Coach Avg. Ranking Avg. Class Size Avg. Player Rating Best Class Rank Worst Class Rank
Coach Avg. Ranking Avg. Class Size Avg. Player Rating Best Class Rank Worst Class Rank
Gary Pinkel 34th 23 5.57 21st (2010) 48th (2011)
Barry Odom 42nd 24 5.43 34th (2019) 49th (2017)
Eli Drinkwitz 20th - 5.62 - -
Rankings and ratings courtesy of Rivals

We can start off by stating the obvious — it’s too early to tell whether or not Eli Drinkwitz will sustain his early ‘crootin success at Missouri. By the numbers that stand today, Drinkwitz will have signed the best recruiting class in the 21st century. That seems like a tall order to keep filling, even for a young hotshot like Drink.

It’s one thing to best Odom’s four-year stretch, which never saw Missouri rank higher than 34th. But Gary Pinkel signed six Top 30 classes during his time at Missouri. His issue was not with quality, but with consistency. After 2004, Pinkel never had more than two straight Top 30 classes. In fact, his best class in 2010 was immediately succeeded by his worst in 2011. Drinkwitz is starting off on a high note, but maybe the best thing he can do is have a sustained run of above-average classes as opposed to the up-and-down stretches that marked Pinkel’s tenure.

If you look at the average player ratings, that goal of sustained success may not be too far-fetched. By Rivals’ system, a three-star recruit can range anywhere from a 5.5 to a 5.7 rating. Even in Drinkwitz’s celebrated first class, the average player rating sits at 5.62, or what amounts to a mid-tier three-star prospect. Signing a majority of highly rated three-star players (5.7) or lower four-stars (5.8) would easily boost the average player rating and keep Drinkwitz’s classes consistently in the Top 25. That’s important, because convincing top talent to sign with Missouri is already something Drinkwitz has shown he can do.

You want a small peak behind the curtain? When I was originally planning this article, I wanted to see if Drinkwitz’s success came from who he was offering rather than who he was landing. I thought I saw some data that suggested Drink was landing higher-rated players simply by offering more of them.

I started tabulating and crunching numbers, and guess what? That’s not the case. I pulled the offers from all of Barry Odom’s classes, along with Eli Drinkwitz’s first full class in 2021, to try and find any discernible differences in whom the staffs were pursuing.

  • 2016: 265 recorded offers to rated players (3% five-stars; 35% four-stars; 55% three-stars; 7% two-stars)
  • 2017: 281 recorded offers to rated players (6% five-stars; 40% four-stars; 49% three-stars; 5% two-stars)
  • 2018: 257 recorded offers to rated players (3% five-stars; 35% four-stars; 55% three-stars; 7% two-stars)
  • 2019: 316 recorded offers to rated players (2% five-stars; 35% four-stars; 59% three-stars; 4% two-stars)
  • 2021: 231 recorded offers to rated players (3% five-stars; 35% four-stars; 58% three-stars; 4% two-stars)

If anything, Drinkwitz has maintained the same offer ratios as Odom, sending out 5 to 10 percent of the offers to five-and-two star players, while filling the bulk of the offer sheet with three-and-four star guys.

So is the secret really that he’s just a better recruiter? Maybe, despite his self-described goofy aesthetic, he does a better job connecting with kids and their families. Or perhaps he’s just a more talented salesman? If you’ve ever been around a good salesperson, you know that they come in all shapes and sizes. Maybe Drink is just one of those guys that can cast vision in a way Odom never could.

However, I think there is something to be said about the type of recruiting that Eli Drinkwitz is doing, specifically as it relates to where he’s targeting players. While I don’t have any tangible data available here, it’s widely known that Gary Pinkel relied heavily on two states in his time at Missouri — Missouri and Texas. Pinkel never locked down the borders of the Show-Me State, but when there was a can’t-miss guy, Pinkel always stayed in the fight until the end. He often succeeded, landing Dorial Green-Beckham, Drew Lock, Terry Beckner, Jr., Blaine Gabbert, and many other local kids. Strangely, Pinkel threw his book out the window in his final years and tried to move to a more traditional SEC recruiting geography, a move that didn’t pay off on the field.

Odom refocused the program’s efforts in the Show Me and Longhorn states, and those results paid off in his final two classes. Fifty-seven percent of the 2018 class came from those two states, and the number fell only slightly to 54 percent in 2019. But apart from Missouri and Texas, Odom didn’t gain a foothold anywhere else.

Odom vs. Drinkwitz: Recruiting Geography

State 2016 2017 2018 2019 2021
State 2016 2017 2018 2019 2021
Missouri 27% 4% 19% 29% 29%
Texas 9% 19% 38% 25% 14%
Illinois 23% 4% - - 10%
Arkansas 9% 8% - - -
California 14% - - 4% -
Georgia 14% 12% 8% 8% 5%
Ohio - - - 4% -
Oklahoma 4% - - 4% -
Michigan - 8% 4% 13% -
Louisiana - 12% 4% 8% -
Pennsylvania - 4% - - -
Florida - 8% 8% - 14%
New Jersey - 4% - - -
North Carolina - 4% 4% - 5%
Alabama - 8% - - -
Tennessee - 4% 4% - 10%
Indiana - 4% - - 10%
Arizona - - 4% - 5%
New York - - 4% - -
South Carolina - - 4% - -
Virginia - - - 4% -
Percentages determined by high-school recruits, not transfers.

As you can see, Odom’s classes were literally all over the map. He had some success recruiting the state of Illinois in 2016, but failed to make a dent in the following three years. He had some success in Georgia early on, but didn’t maintain momentum in the Peach State. As the years trickled by, Odom fell into a habit of dipping into one-off states that would produce one player before falling off the recruiting map entirely.

Contrast that to Drinkwitz’s first class which, once again, is not yet complete. Nearly 30 percent of the commits in the 2021 class — along with the first two commits in 2022 — come from the state of Missouri, with Tyler Macon and Dominic Lovett, two of the highest-rated players in the class, hailing from just across the Mississippi. Drinkwitz has shown he’ll still look to Texas for some talent, but he’s also building in-roads to areas Odom only began to explore in his four years at the helm. Florida, Tennessee and Indiana have specifically been good to Drink in his first year, and it’ll be fascinating to see if he returns to those areas in the future.

Again, it’s hard to draw a lot of data from a class that isn’t yet complete. But the smoke around Drinkwitz suggests that he’s going to focus heavily on in-state kids first, a strategy that has worked wonders thus far. After that, it seems as if the staff wants to build focused pipelines in talent rich areas across the country, as opposed to casting the wide nets that Odom used.

It’s easy to look at these numbers from a birds-eye view and say that Odom’s staff struggled to build and maintain relationships. But the enthusiasm behind Drinkwitz and his ability to make connections — specifically in St. Louis — makes you wonder if Odom was ever able to gain a foothold on the recruiting trail.

In the coming months, Missouri will fill the remaining 2021 spots, likely supplementing the high schoolers with some transfers. Once the class is complete, we’ll have a fuller picture of the staff’s strategies during Year One. Maybe Drinkwitz’s class stays within the Top 20, and maybe it slides to just out of the Top 25. It’s hard to say until it’s all said and done. And even then, he’ll have to prove he can develop those players as well as he recruited them.

But the early returns have been promising for Eli Drinkwitz. Despite some experience-related questions early on, it’s clear he has the knowledge and fortitude to recruit at an SEC level. The thing for him to do now is to do what neither of his predecessors could — make it last.