There’s a strong case to be made that whoever Eli Drinkwitz decided to hire as Missouri’s next defensive coordinator, it would go down the single most important hire of his young coaching career.
I think that case is even stronger now that it’s been announced Drinkwitz has hired Steve Wilks, and it was strengthened further when explained why he accepted this job.
Let’s take a trip down memory lane for a moment.
Remember in 2018 when Josh Heupel left Missouri to be UCF’s next head football coach and the Tigers were left scrambling to find a new offensive coordinator? The program was in flux. Barry Odom was coming off a season in which the Tigers started 1-5, but finished the year with a 7-6 record. Fans were lukewarm on Odom and the administration seemed to feel the same way, leading to a contract extension that wasn’t really a contract extension.
That offseason came to a crescendo when it was announced Derek Dooley (DEREK DOOLEY!??!) would be the Tigers’ next offensive coordinator. This was a massive hire. Odom had to get it right. Sure, Odom was the head coach, but his offensive coordinator was essentially the “head coach” of the offense. He just handed the keys to the offense to someone who had never called a play. Never. Not once. And that man was now in charge of the offense.
That’s the kind of hire a program makes when its top candidates aren’t interested in the job. I don’t think we need to rehash how or why the Dooley era came to an end.
Fast forward to present day.
Hiring Wilks has next to nothing in common with hiring Dooley. Sure, both spent recent years prior to their hire at Missouri in the NFL. And, yes, both add head coaching experience to the staff.
That’s pretty much where the similarities end.
Wilks had options. He didn’t need to come to Missouri. He very well could have gone back to the NFL. He reportedly had multiple offers to do exactly that a year ago before ultimately taking the year off.
The Tigers settled for Dooley. This is a legitimate top-of-the-list kind of hire.
That’s not to suggest it’s going to work. I don’t know how any can say that with any certainty. I don’t know how Wilks’ defense will translate. I don’t know how he’ll be on the recruiting trail or if he’ll have interest in going on the recruiting trail.
But I do know he’s completely overqualified for the position he currently holds.
He’s called a defense at the highest level. He’s learned from one of the best coaches (and human beings) in the NFL in Ron Rivera. He said all of the right things at his introductory press conference. He knows he’s going to have to adjust to the college game, which started with Wilks signing up for a Twitter account.
How did Missouri land such a qualified coach? It’s a good question. And the answer is the biggest difference between where the program stands today, and where it was two years ago.
Missouri has a brand. It’s viewed as an up-and-coming program, not only by fans but also by coaches. That “brand” is personified by Eli Drinkwitz. He’s a coach with a rocket ship backpack attached to him and people want to be part of what he’s building. That’s why Wilks joined the staff. This is his opportunity to restore some stability in his career.
“I keep talking about the culture,” Wilks said. “And what I’ve learned, particularly in my time in ‘18 at the Arizona Cardinals, it’s harder to install a culture than it is to install a defense. And you have to have the right chemistry, got to have the right people, coaches and players. And I’ve felt like he’s done a great job in really trying to assemble that here with his staff, and then the ability to go out and not just draft guys, but go out and really recruit and bring the guys that fit your program, and that you know you’re going to be able to nurture and groom and grow and develop. So that was the main reason for me.”
Missouri hired Dooley in 2018 because the Tigers were viewed as a sinking ship at the time. Coaches didn’t believe they could come to Missouri and further their respective careers. Top candidates have options available to them. Missouri’s top candidates in 2018 apparently deemed those options were better than Missouri. Looking back, they were probably right.
What Drinkwitz has done in one year is build the Tigers back into a program that’s attractive to top coaches. The roster is improving. The fan base is buying in. The administration is putting their money where their mouth is.
Things are heading in the right direction. We saw that on the field in 2020. We’ve seen it in the recruiting rankings for 2021. And now we see it in the form of an impressive coaching hire.