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How have Mizzou Football coaches historically fared in year four?

There are mixed opinions on what to think about Eli Drinkwitz, but one thing is true is: he hasn’t seen improvement throughout his tenure like other Mizzou coaches have.

NCAA Football: Georgia at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Heading into year four, the Eli Drinkwitz era of Missouri has produced a 17-19 overall record, an 11-15 SEC record, and with a coach who was labeled as an “offensive guru,” the unit has finished no higher than 61st in points per game.

At most Power Five programs, this would be an unacceptable three-year stretch for a head coach. As someone who was introduced to college football during the back half of Gary Pinkel’s tenure, I would have never guessed that there would be a point where the program would go four straight seasons without breaking .500. But here we are.

This got me thinking of the question. Is three years enough time to come to a fair judgment on a head coach? And is four years enough time to make a decision to keep him around or not? To help form a conclusion on this I went and looked back at 80-plus years of Mizzou football to see what the past 10 head coaches accomplished in their first four years.

Don Faurot

Missouri’s record three years prior to Faurot: 2-23-2

Faurot’s first 3 years: 1935 (3-3-3), 1936 (6-2-1), 1937 (3-6-1). In Don Faurot’s first season, Missouri won more games within a 16-day span than it did in the previous three seasons. The next two seasons saw a mixed bag of results as the Tigers finished second place in the Big Six in 1936 followed by a losing record in 1937, but Faurot had the program in a much better spot compared to where Frank Carideo left it in 1934.

Faurot’s fourth season (1938): 6-3, The peak of the Faurot era began to take off in his fourth season. After a 1-2 start, the Tigers won five of six, which included three shutouts and a Thanksgiving victory over Kansas. Faurot went 30-10-1 over the next four seasons with the Tigers seeing its first Heisman finalist, three conference titles, and an innovative offense that would change college football forever.

Dan Devine

Missouri’s record three years prior to Devine: 10-18-2

Devine’s first 3 years: 1958 (5-4-1), 1959 (6-5), 1960 (11-0) not 10-1, Mizzou wasn’t competitive in the early to mid-1950s. Faurot retired after 1957 and Frank Broyles came in and then left, leading to the hiring of Dan Devine. After two years of finishing second in the Big Seven, Devine’s third season in 1960 was one of the most divine in program history. In 1960, the Tigers took down Penn State on the road, a ranked Colorado team at home, and won at Norman (which they haven’t done since). After KU was busted for an ineligible player, Missouri claimed the conference title and went to the Orange Bowl for a second consecutive season. A 21-14 victory over Navy gave the Tigers its first bowl victory.

Devine’s fourth season (1961): 7-2-1, In Devine’s fourth season in Columbia, Missouri lost just two games by a combined six points. It featured one of the stingiest defenses, giving up just 5.7 points per game while avenging the previous year's game against Kansas. The next eight seasons would be the best stretch in program history as Missouri didn’t lose more than three games in a season between 1962-1969 and included five top-10 defenses.

Al Onofrio

Missouri’s record three years prior to Onofrio: 22-11

Onofrio’s first 3 years: 1971 (1-10), 1972 (6-6), 1973 (8-4), Heading into 1971, Missouri went into the season without Dan Devine for the first time since 1957. Its offense no longer had Terry McMillan, Joe Moore, Mel Gray, or John Staggers, and in 1971 Devine’s longtime assistant, Al Onofrio, won just a single game. Ouch. MU rebounded by making a bowl game in 1972 with key wins over Colorado and Notre Dame. Building off the success of ‘72, the Tigers avenged a 62-7 loss to Nebraska a season prior and picked up a Sun Bowl victory in 1973.

Onofrio’s fourth season (1974): (7-4), Missouri again won seven regular season games in 1974 and despite not making a bowl game it could very well be considered Onofrio’s second or third best season based on the fact that he picked up his only victory against Kansas. The Tigers defeated a decent Arizona State team and took down No. 5 Nebraska in Lincoln, but like almost every year of Onofrio’s tenure, the team suffered bad losses, this time against Ole Miss and Oklahoma State.

Warren Powers

Three years prior to Powers: 16-17

First three seasons: 1978 (8-4), 1979 (7-5), 1980 (8-4), After four seasons of not making a bowl game and going 1-3 against KU, Warren Powers came over from Washington State and completely changed the culture for Mizzou football. In his first three seasons at the helm, he not only went undefeated against KU but went to a bowl game each season winning two of three while seeing some of the biggest crowds in Faurot Field history.

Powers fourth season 1981: (8-4): For the fourth time of the Powers era, MU won eight games. This featured an upset victory in Jackson, Mississippi against Mississippi State and just the fourth victory over Oklahoma in the past 50 years. It was all capped off with a Tangerine Bowl victory over a ranked Southern Miss team.

Woody Widenhofer

Three years prior to Widenhofer: 15-16-3

Widenhofer's first three seasons: 1985 (1-10), 1986 (3-8), 1987 (5-6), Mizzou turned to Woody Widenhofer after one bad season with Powers, and like Onofrio, he won just a single game. However, by this third season he nearly had Mizzou on the cusp of a bowl appearance but a late interception at No. 1 Oklahoma doomed any chances of getting there.

Fourth season: (1988): 3-7-1, here may have been reason for optimism before the 1988 season but of course there’s a reason Widenhofer didn’t stay more than four years. Mizzou got blown out by Jack Pardee and Andre Ware’s Houston Cougars and Jimmy Johnson’s Miami Hurricanes. Bill McCarrtney finally got things rolling at Colorado which resulted in a 45-8 thumping, and the Tigers also fell to Barry Sanders’ Oklahoma State Cowboys and, of course, Nebraska and Oklahoma. Widenhofer resigned following the 88 season but a went out a winner with a 55-17 win over KU.

Bob Stull

Texas A&M Aggies vs University of Missouri Tigers Photo by Earl Richardson/Allsport/Getty Images

Three years prior to Stull: 11-21-2

Stull’s first three seasons: 1989 (2-9), 1990 (4-7), 1991 (3-8), Bob Stull made the Tigers' passing game one of the top statistical ones in the Big 8 but the wins didn’t follow suit and posted an identical amount of wins as Windenhofer did in his first three years.

Fourth season 1992 (3-8): MU held onto Stull for probably longer than they should have. The Tigers ended 92 on a good note with its last victory over K-State until 2006 and a victory over ranked Kansas State. But, Stull was gone after another three-win 1993 season.

Larry Smith

Kansas State Wildcats vs University of Missouri Tigers Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images

Three years prior to Smith: 9-22-2

Smith’s first three seasons: 1994 (3-8-1), 1995 (3-8), 1996 (5-6), Larry Smith briefly gave Mizzou some light in the mid-to-late ’90s, and the record speaks for themselves. After a pair of three-win seasons, the Tigers became a more competitive team by 1996.

Fourth season 1997: (7-5), And in 1997, it all came together. On their way to their first bowl appearance since 1983, the Tigers picked up emotional road victories against Oklahoma State and Colorado while almost pulling off one of the greatest upsets against Nebraska. The momentum carried into 1998 where MU had an equally successful season while claiming its first bowl victory since 1981.

Gary Pinkel

Missouri Tigers vs. Iowa State Cyclones

Three years prior to joining Mizzou: 15-19

Pinkel’s first three seasons: 2001 (4-7), 2002 (5-7), 2003 (8-5), Pinkel experienced what I would call the second best stretch in Missouri history (2006-2014) but before that he had to reshape the program. Following his debut season in 2001, Missouri was more exciting and competitive in 2002 with a freshman Brad Smith. In 2003, Missouri won eight regular season games while snapping a 25-year losing streak to Nebraska.

Fourth season 2004: 5-6, Then the Tigers took a step back. Blown leads and disappointing losses (Troy and Kansas) filled Pinkel’s fourth season as Mizzou barely —and I mean barely—missed a chance at winning the Big 12 North, in a year the division was extremely weak. Luckily in 2005, the team rebounded and the rest is history.

Barry Odom

Mississippi v Missouri Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

Three years prior to joining Mizzou: 28-12

Odom’s first three seasons: 2016 (4-8), 2017 (7-6), 2018 (8-5), There are mixed opinions about the Odom era but overall the team experienced a step up in the win column during the first three seasons. Part of this is due to the rise of Drew Lock, and in year three Missouri was competent and had talent on both sides of the ball.

Fourth season (2019): 6-6, Then everything went stale once Lock left. The Tigers did start 5-1 with Kelly Bryant and averaged 38.8 points per game, but everything went south over the final six games and Odom was shown the door leading to the hiring of Drinkwitz that winter.

So how does this relate to Drinkwitz?: When looking back at the past 10 Mizzou coaches, there is a consistent theme. Nine of the past 10 —excluding Stull— saw what I would consider any type of improvement within their first three seasons. Drinkwitz has not, going 5-5 (2020), 6-7 (2021 & 2022).

Faurot, Devine, Powers and Smith all experienced successful seasons in year four as well as Onofrio, depending on how you look at it. Widenhofer and Odom didn’t, resulting in their exits, and Stull lasted just two more seasons. Pinkel is a unique outlier as he disappointed in his fourth year but previously, a) led MU to eight wins for just the second time in a 22-year stretch, b) found a sensational quarterback, and c) picked up the program's biggest win since 1978.

Drinkwitz is tied with Lane Kiffin and Sam Pittman for fifth place in terms of the longest-tenured SEC coaches. Kiffin and Pittman have both accomplished eight-plus win seasons at the helm. Josh Heupel and Shane Beamer, who stepped into Tennessee and South Carolina in 2021, respectively, have led their teams to seasons over .500, while Clark Lea nearly had Vanderbilt in a bowl game after going to 2-10 before.

I think Missouri can’t wait around for two or more years to see if Drinkwitz can finally break through the .500 wall and honestly he’s shown what he is in three seasons. From a pessimist’s point of view, this is a make-or-break season, unless the new standard is 6-6.