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Should Eli Drinkwitz be on the hot seat? The Optimist’s Take

Eli Drinkwitz should not be fired after the 2023 season, or 2024. His record is in line with Mizzou expectations and he will be allowed to build his program.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 25 Arkansas at Missouri Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Introduction: This is the second in a two-part point/counterpoint series. Today Dan Keegan will argue that the head man has done enough to get some wiggle room to build his program; yesterday, Brandon Kiley argued that Eli Drinkwitz is facing must-win pressure coming up in 2023. Also note: this mini-series and the subsequent words were written before Eli went to the annual SEC meetings and put his big ol’ foot right in his big ol’ mouth.

It’s the time of year when college football content creators are putting out their rote lists for the upcoming season. You know: breakout candidates, Heisman favorites, draft stock risers, coaches on the hot seat, etc. These national pundits will tell you Neal Brown and Butch Jones are on the hot seat, and you should listen, but if they tell you that Eli Drinkwitz is on the hot seat, you should not listen.

It’s also the time of year when Missouri fans start getting antsy and demand that their coach wins 12 games. When you’re a college fanbase in a state dominated by its historic pro franchises, you forget that winning at a mid-level college program means developing and cultivating a culture – you don’t just go fire the head of the program every few months like MLB pitching coaches. If a Mizzou fan tries to tell you that Eli is on the hot seat this year, you should not listen.

Eli Drinkwitz will be given the time to build his program. He has already shown his chops in acquiring talent, by building excellent high school recruiting classes in his first two seasons. When that method bore questionable fruits and the sport evolved, he and his staff pivoted to savvy portal work, bringing in proven veterans from peer programs. And this offseason, he did a thorough job re-recruiting his own roster, ensuring an excellent 2022 defense would be loaded again in 2023.

While he was hired with a reputation as an offensive genius and a quarterback guru, he has not lived up to that side of the billing. Instead of being a playbook head coach, he has actually thrived in the CEO-type responsibilities: cultivating NIL, player acquisition, savvy assistant coaching hires, shaking hands and kissing babies on the road. That kind of program-building work shouldn’t get thrown away because the ball bounced funny against Auburn and Kentucky.

It would be a dream for our Tigers to become a perennial powerhouse, but the reality is that competing at the top of the league – especially in the SEC – will have to come in cycles. A coach will need time to develop his staff, his recruiting pipeline, his reliable upperclassmen and locker room leaders, and break through every few years as the groundwork matures into a contending team. Missouri cannot win nine games every year, but it can win ten every four.

Drinkwitz has coached three seasons at Missouri, and has already had three bowl-eligible teams. Let’s look at when past Missouri coaches achieved their third bowl team:

You have to go back four decades to find someone who started their Missouri program with three bowl teams in their first three seasons. It’s not a perfect comparison, because the sport has changed and there are more bowls than ever, but it shows how Drinkwitz has built a baseline of competency that matches or even outpaces the typical Missouri tenure. That above-average standard is how you later earn the breakthrough years, and you achieve that through long-term investment and stability. Rapidly flipping through coaches looking for a winning scratcher ticket is a good way to go into debt; maybe you find a Mark Stoops or a Gary Pinkel, or maybe you find a Chad Morris or a Jeremy Pruitt.

Pinkel is the finest coach in Missouri modern history, and he fought against outsized expectations his entire tenure. It took him time to build his program up to the level of 2007 – and then two more falls with two more peaks. Drinkwitz needs to be afforded that same time; the 2023 season looks like a candidate for a breakthrough, with a new hotshot offensive coordinator supplementing what should be a top-20 defense. If not, if another 6-6 season unfolds, there are enough foundational strengths already in place to make adjustments and allow him to keep building toward the breakthrough.