“Coming together is a process. It doesn’t just happen overnight,” Eli Drinkwitz said to the media this week.
His Tigers came into 2021 with high expectations. Five SEC wins a year ago had people thinking big for year two of the Drinkwitz era, but the first half of this season served as a reality check. Rebuilding the Missouri football program was going to be a process, just like Drinkwitz said after all.
Close early-season road losses to Boston College and Kentucky were tough to handle, but things really hit rock bottom when the Tigers lost 62-24 at home to Tennessee, another rebuilding team.
That loss was easily the lowest point of the Drinkwitz era, and arguably of the last decade for Missouri football, and things only got worse when Texas A&M came to town two weeks later and beat the Tigers 35-14.
A season that began with such optimism was suddenly looking bleak, and many didn’t believe the Tigers could even make a bowl game, something most believed with certainty would happen before the season kicked off.
After the devastating defeats to A&M and Tennessee, Drinkwitz got candid with Missouri fans about the struggles his team was experiencing this year. “Look,” he said, “I realize maybe last year we probably overachieved and so everybody assumed that those expectations we’d meet this year. It hasn’t gone that way. It just hasn’t.” He continued. “I’ve said this before, I wish success was always linear. It’s not. There’s fighting, there’s wrestling. There’s good days and bad days.”
Despite it looking like this season would only be filled with the bad days, Drinkwitz made it very clear neither he or his team were going to be giving up on this season after the Tennessee and A&M defeats. “We’ve got a chance to get healthy through the bye week, to re-evaluate who we are and then determine what we want to do for the next five games,” he said at the time. “We have five opportunities left to represent each other and represent this state and we really got to go back to work to improve.”
It turns out Drinkwitz was right and the bye week might’ve been exactly what the Tigers needed. The Tigers have won three of their last four games, and Drinkwitz pointed back to the bye week as the turning point for his once written-off team.
“During the bye week, I think this team made a recommitment to each other, this team, and to this program. And we’re not perfect, we don’t play perfect, we’re not overly talented, but you know, we’ve played together,” Drinkwitz explained. “With Vanderbilt, we found a way with everybody doing their job. Even in Georgia, the score didn’t reflect how proud I was of that team because of such bad circumstances to go into that game and to fight the way they did for every inch no matter what the score was. And then last week [against South Carolina], to find a way to win, and then this week [against Florida]. Just really proud of them.”
According to Drinkwitz, the biggest change was about getting his guys to focus on one goal and to forget about individual achievement. “I think, you know, everybody’s got to be able to push in the same direction, and when you have the best teams, you sacrifice a little bit of your individuality, and you sacrifice a little bit of your ego, and you realize it’s not about you, it’s about what we can accomplish together,” he said. “I think it took a little bit of humbling for our football team and our football program to get to the point where we got to do it together. We can’t do it by ourselves.”
The Tigers were most certainly humbled early in 2021, but now their once bleak season looks promising again. After last week’s win, Missouri became bowl eligible, something that would’ve been viewed as a miracle just a month ago. The Tigers will even get a chance match their preseason projected win-total of 7 when they face Arkansas on Friday.
While the redemption story of this season is somewhat storybook, Drinkwitz remains focused on his long term of bringing the success of the Gary Pinkel era back to the Tigers, and to him, that starts with building a culture.
This season is simply a part of building that culture he desires. “You know, you really can’t outperform the culture and the togetherness of a team. I think the best teams play the best together, and we’re starting to figure that out as a culture and a program.”