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Eli Drinkwitz and Building a Winning Culture

There have been a number of factors in Missouri football’s excellent 2023 season. One that should not be overlooked is a united locker room culture.

NCAA Football: Missouri at Arkansas Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

In the fourth year of the Eli Drinkwitz era, he finally built a winning college football team at the University of Missouri. There are multiple ingredients necessary to build a winner in high major college football, and it has taken four full years to build a winner because all but one of those factors have waxed and waned since 2020. However, one element has been consistent throughout: regardless of the team’s win total, Drink’s program can be defined by consistently great clubhouse culture.

While the overall roster talent had peaks and valleys – think about the inconsistent quarterback play, the depths of 2022’s offensive line, or 2021’s porous defensive line – the culture stayed strong. While there were years with good schemes and years with bad schemes – Drink’s 2022 playcalling, the first half of the Steve Wilks year – the team’s effort was always on display.

Culture was always there for Drinkwitz. You see it in the overall effort. Try to find the demoralizing letdowns of the Drinkwitz era, when the team looked hungover for an entire Saturday. There aren’t many, and none from the last two seasons. Maybe the Tennessee/Texas A&M combo in 2021, but that was arguably more about scheme and matchup on defense than pure effort. There’s nothing like the previous home duds against Middle Tennessee State or the home game against Purdue or the 9-6 Connecticut game or the 2019 trip to Wyoming or….you get the picture.

Both the 2021 and 2022 teams could have packed it in and quit midseason, and less strong locker rooms have. Quarterback injuries were demoralizing in both seasons, as were heartbreaking one-score losses. Blowout losses to the Hooker/Heupel Death Star Tennessee offense could have sent the entire campaign spiraling. In both cases, the team rallied to win tough league games down the stretch and earn postseason spots.

The team could have folded in tough spots throughout the years. The 2022 Auburn and Florida games were both disasters in the first quarter, but the team rallied to keep them close. The same happened this year against Kentucky and Florida – but the team was strong enough to convert those into wins.

The culture has helped Drinkwitz and his staff develop a competitive roster. The athletic department’s alignment and overall competitiveness in the NIL space has been a key factor, but Drink runs a team that players want to be a part of. While other Power Five programs see an exodus each December of coveted players to the portal, Missouri has lost few impact talents to peers.

Missouri’s ranks in the 247 Talent Composite rises each year, from 46th in 2021 to 31st in 2022 to 25th this season. Acquiring – and keeping – talented players can trace back to a cohesive locker room. Players like Kris Abrams-Draine, Darius Robinson, Javon Foster, and Ennis Rakestraw Jr. committing to stay and compete at Missouri has elevated the program in the SEC standings and in the national perception. Players like Brady Cook, Luther Burden III, and Cody Schrader thriving in the Show-Me State have elevated the program in the regional perception.

You see the excellent culture in the little things, too. How the players interact with the coaching staff on the sidelines, and with Drink in the public spotlight. How the players talk about one another, and back it up on the field. How they get out and compete against programs like Georgia. The strong leadership on the team, with Cook, Schrader, Robinson, and Ty’Ron Hopper. Something like Darius Robinson choosing to wear “Mizzou” as his nameplate on senior night. For four full years, three of them rocky, one of them glorious, this team has been cohesive and fought for each other.

You will continue to see this pay off. The transfer portal has been open for a few days, and while stars across the country have leapt into it in search of new opportunities, Missouri’s contributors have stayed intact. While there might be news still to break, there is no great exodus, no first-bus-out-of-Columbia situation. You will see it as the Tigers field a full two-deep of starters in the Cotton Bowl.

While we appreciate this amazing 2022 Missouri season and continue to project a future of competitive football under Drinkwitz and his staff, we look to things like quality high school recruiting, player development, savvy portalling, and the edge given by Kirby Moore and Blake Baker’s playbooks. But we should not overlook Eli Drinkwitz’s leadership, his ability to mentor the coaches and captains who lead his program, the bonds forged by the players in a healthy locker room, and the role culture has played in elevating the Missouri program.