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On Eli Drinkwitz, reasonable expectations and dreaming bigger

With the 2021 season fast approaching, should we be dreaming bigger or smaller for Mizzou’s future?

NCAA Football: SEC Media Days Vasha Hunt-USA TODAY Sports

If you log onto Twitter — and I’d recommend that if you haven’t already, don’t! — and search the account affiliated with this website, you’ll find a number of things in our bio. Perhaps most aptly to what follows, you’ll find the words, “overwhelmingly reasonable.”

It’s not so much an editorial ethos that we try to live by as a staff — we’re prone to the occasional foray into all-out stanning. Rather, we try to see it as an exercise in responsibility that squarely fits our dual role as fans and journalists. In an effort to understand and know our teams to the furthest possible extent, we go above and beyond in tempering excitement that naturally results from emotional connection to a school or team. It’s easy to curse a quarterback for sailing a throw over his receiver’s head into the awaiting arms of a safety — but perhaps it’s more accurate to point out where the receiver missed his route or where the coordinator schemed poorly and then get mad accordingly.

This is the gray area in which we — and truly all sports fans who want to not die of blood pressure related issues at an early age — operate. We feel and embrace the adrenaline of the moment while trying to take deep breaths before we act (and speak) impulsively.

Over the past several months we’ve done extensive work previewing this football team, and one of the more common metaphors that crept its way into our coverage is, “eating your vegetables.” It’s this (accurate) idea that in order to have expectations based somewhat in reality, we need to take the bad with the good.

There’s been a lot of the latter over the past 12 months, but there’s also been some of the former. Yes, Mizzou exceeded expectations in 2020... but they still dropped winnable games against mediocre teams like Tennessee and Mississippi State. Yes, Mizzou is recruiting at unprecedented levels... but they’re also still working against a wide talent gap between themselves and the higher levels of the SEC. Yes, there’s a lot of young, exciting talent on the roster... but is there a lot of proven experience in those places as well?

All of these are the right questions to ask, as they’ll keep us from tearing our hair out when things inevitably don’t go our way. Thus is our lot in life as Missouri Tigers.

But as the 2021 college football season kicks off I have to confess I’m finding it difficult to accept “overwhelmingly reasonable” as a default setting.

It could be that I’m just a sucker for good marketing, something the Tiger program has excelled at since Drinkwitz’s arrival. The head coach has injected a new sort of vitality into the Mizzou Football orbit that feels unfamiliar from his position. Gary Pinkel, for all of his strengths as a coach, was not exactly a personable guy. And we can all recall Barry Odom’s abrasiveness, something that likely led to the end of his tenure in Columbia.

But Drinkwitz? For lack of a better term, Drinkwitz is just a whole lot of fun. He’s dorky in a likable, self-deprecating way. He engages fans on social media. He’s willing to look foolish running with his players in practice videos. It’s the sort of thing you see in GIFs that endlessly cycle through the sports-loving corners of the internet. It’s the sort of thing that, as a fan, endears you to a coach.

Citing Drinkwitz’s “fun bonafides” seems like an amorphous qualification that could be loosely applied to any coach (after all, I’m sure someone out there thought Barry Odom was fun). But any dedicated fan of Mizzou Football can recognize that Drinkwitz’s relatively unique personality has translated to his roster. Players seem ready, even eager, to share their lives and personalities with the fan base through their social feeds or through the program’s frequent behind-the-scenes features. Whereas teams of the past could feel like droning collectives dedicated to a pursued goal of excellence, Drinkwitz’s team feels more like a photomontage that, when put together, reveals something bigger and grander than the sum of its varied parts.

Even so, having fun and getting emotionally invested doesn’t vault your team higher in the standings. Strides still need to be made on the field. But doesn’t the increased energy around the program, something for which Drinkwitz is directly responsible, make it easier to seem like those strides will be made? Perhaps the optimism I’m espousing comes from the lack of familiarity we still have with Drinkwitz. When you don’t have much to fall back on, small samples of success can be easily magnified into something completely disproportionate to what we’re actually seeing.

But it’s not as if Eli Drinkwitz’s brief time in Columbia, Mo., has been defined by mixed success. On the contrary, Drinkwitz has more than proven he’s capable of elevating the program to places it has never gone... at least off the field. I assume you’re aware of the major uptick in recruiting success? If not, I’d suggest you start here. Perhaps you’re unaware of the $33 million dollar indoor football facility upgrade that Drinkwitz was able to secure after just one year on the job? Or a 150 percent increase in season ticket sales compared to the summer of 2019? High recruiting rankings, major facilities upgrades, leaps in ticket revenue: these things don’t equal wins on the schedule, but they certainly add up to them over time. Eventually, they could also add up to more than just regular season wins.

And in truth, that’s why it’s so hard to feel “overwhelmingly reasonable” about where Mizzou Football stands under Drinkwitz. While the 5-5 finish in year one was better than expected, it’s still far from where Missouri fans would like to see their program. Gary Pinkel was able to secure better outcomes without all of the bells and whistles Drink has brought along, so all the flair may feel superfluous to some.

But as many times as we say it, it still holds true: Eli Drinkwitz is doing things that have never been done by a Mizzou head coach. They’re things that honestly didn’t seem possible just two or three years ago, unless you were the wildest of dreamers. And if those things seemed impossible not so long ago, why should we shy away from thinking of the next “impossible” bridge that Drinkwitz could cross? More double-digit win seasons, more SEC East titles... and beyond.

The way I see it, perhaps it’s time we made room to dream a little bigger. It feels strange to say. After all, Mizzou fans are conditioned to look to the sky expecting that a bird will soon crap on their face.

But if you buy into the marketing, the energy, the fun, the recruiting and the future that seems so bright, dreaming bigger won’t seem like an impossible ask. It’s simply what Eli Drinkwitz is training us to do.