A college football head coach has to wear many hats. He has to be a politician, a fundraiser, and a hiring manager. He has to scout, identify, and recruit talented players to his program — before mentoring and coaching them. He has to lead a roster of over 100 young men through a critical time of their life and education, as well as lead a similar-sized group of slightly older men charged with supporting those younger men. Oh, and that’s before the actual football coach work of scouting, tameplanning, and gameday management — all the things that go into the narrow margins of winning ballgames to determine if your life’s work is a success or failure.
When Missouri hired Eli Drinkwitz in December 2019, most of the first group of things were unknown. He had only been a head coach for one season at Appalachian State, which is one of the sturdiest programs in the lower levels of college football. He was sold as a dynamic offensive mind and playcaller, the kind of flashy young schematic genius who could energize an entire program with his approach to scoring points. But the other things, the CEO things, like hiring coordinators? Being the face of a state-wide capital campaign? Recruiting an area he has never coached in before? All of these were the big question marks.
In a surprising turn, his tenure has been marked by his failure in the primary selling point on his resume. His offenses have been progressively worse each season in Columbia, and his reputation as a quarterback guru has not panned out. When a supposed offensive genius is pressured into hiring his own replacement, you know things are not going as planned.
But his three year tenure has been marked with successes in the “CEO” elements of the role. His savvy portal work turned around a bad defense in one year, his coaching staff hires have been well-received, and attendance and engagement is in a good spot overall. But his greatest strength has been inside the building, something harder to measure but easy to observe when you examine the trends: Eli Drinkwitz runs an excellent locker room and a strong team culture.
In each of his three seasons, there were moments were a less-cohesive culture could have collapsed after tough losses, but all three teams rallied to earn bowl eligibility. There are multiple examples of games that started slowly, and the sidelines could have packed it in, but the team battled to finish strong. These trends are indicative of rosters that have fully bought in, and a strong culture.
Perhaps more importantly, that strong buy-in is evident in Drinkwitz’s success in one of the responsibilities of a college football head coach: re-recruiting his own roster. That new job description has emerged in the transfer portal and NIL era, and it’s important right now with COVID years creating roster crunch, and star players who arrived on campus pre-NIL seeing younger guys enroll already making money. Like every program, Missouri has lost some players to the portal; but unlike others, true impact losses have been minimal. The Tigers are hardly becoming a “feeder” program to national powers, which is a doom-and-gloom prediction that has become popular in some spaces of the internet.
Mizzou lost two four-star recruits of the class of 2021 to the portal, defensive tackle Mekhi Wingo to LSU and WR Dominic Lovett to Georgia. Losing your budding stars to powerhouses in your own conference is a tough pill to swallow, and it will sting to watch both compete against the Tigers this fall. But go ahead, find the third-most painful transfer. Maybe Trajan Jeffcoat, whose production has diminished each year since 2020? Connor Bazelak, now in a position battle in the MAC? Depth linebackers Zach Lovett and Devin Nicholson? Jay Maclin? Tauskie Dove? Daniel Parker? Heck, it might be starting punter Jack Stonehouse.
The Tigers have lost some depth contributors each of the past two offseasons, the first years with the full-fledged combo of the portal, NIL, and COVID rosters. But they have also added a number of starters themselves, often from peer Power Five programs, while mostly losing their own depth to down-transfers. After Lovett’s departure, rumors went through the fanbase like shockwaves that stars like Javon Foster, Kris Abrams-Draine, Ennis Rakestraw, Luther Burden and others would be next in line to leave. It didn’t happen. Mizzou’s NIL arm is a factor in keeping these starters in the fold, but a good locker room culture goes a long way, too.
On3.com has a number of tools available for college football fans to track player movement, and I particularly like their portal “net” rankings. In 2022, Mizzou ranked 35th (out of 65 Power Five programs), and it is 34th (out of 69) this offseason. Like many things regarding Missouri athletics, the Tigers are squarely middle of the pack. The sky is not falling in Columbia because of NIL and the portal, thanks to Eli Drinkwitz and his staff running a cohesive and competitive culture.