In sports, winning trumps all. This cannot be debated.
There have been many coaches throughout the vast history of American sport who have offered a lot to their respective franchises and programs. Honor, dignity, upstanding character, etc. These are all commendable things that sometimes get overlooked in the face of our collective late capitalist drive for success and growth. But they can’t top the almighty power of the W.
Take Cuonzo Martin, for example. No sane person in the Mizzou atmosphere could deny the bona fides he brought to the job. He was well-respected throughout the industry as a dedicated mentor of young men. He was hard-working, honest and genuine. Few outside of the most blighted corners of the internet could say anything against Cuonzo Martin: The Man.
Cuonzo Martin: The Coach, though? Different story. No amount of moral high ground or character development of student-athletes could solve Cuonzo’s chief problem: he couldn’t stop losing.
Eli Drinkwitz is facing something of a similar problem on the football side of campus. While he’s not quite Cuonzo Martin levels of wholesome (editor’s note: definitely not), there’s no denying he’s brought a certain gregariousness and vivacity to the Mizzou Football brand. He’s brash and bold in a manner unthinkable to the old-school stylings of Gary Pinkel and Barry Odom. He speaks his mind and takes risks. Three years in and some of the charm has worn off, but there’s still something refreshing about it.
The problem? He’s still not winning enough. Drinkwitz has yet to finish above .500 in any of his seasons, even as he’s qualified the Tigers for three successive bowls. A contract extension in 2022 likely guarantees him at least two more years to find some upward trajectory, but the record has been heavily scrutinized for a minute now.
However, we have to consider one thing when we evaluate the job Eli Drinkwitz has done in Columbia over the past few years: he’s probably the best recruiter Mizzou Football has had in program history.
You can quibble with this distinction by pointing out the number of coal lumps that Pinkel compressed into diamonds. I won’t argue with you. Drink has yet to produce a Sean Weatherspoon or Charles Harris. In fact, some of his most high-profile victories on the recruiting trail have turned out to be duds. Where art thou, Tyler Macon? Travion Ford, where have ye gone (Toledo)? What good is a highly-ranked recruiting class when half of them are gone in two years?
But in the wake of Williams Nwaneri’s commitment to Mizzou on Monday, we have to be honest with ourselves and acknowledge that no coach has ever had the Tigers in this position, going to the wire with programs like Georgia, Alabama, Oklahoma, and the like for the nation’s premier talent. Nwaneri marks Drinkwitz’s second consensus five-star commitment in the last two years, with another potentially on the way. He’s put together the two highest-ranked classes in program history and could be on his way to another in 2024.
Drinkwitz has done this by engaging on a level that Pinkel never had to face. Missouri’s legislature has long been a thorn in the side of the University, viewing it as more of a political football than an educational institution deserving of, I don’t know, investment? Yet Drinkwitz has made his voice heard in Jefferson City, advocating for laws that put the program at a rare advantage in the realm of Name, Image and Likeness laws. Without NIL, players like Luther Burden III, Nwaneri and Ryan Wingo aren’t listening to the Tigers’ sales pitch. Now, they’re getting pitched to by businesses around the state, able to transform their local celebrity into lucrative contracts. All the while, they’re donning black and gold.
Stars are no guarantee of success. We’ve seen plenty of can’t-miss talents bomb out over the years, inside and outside of Columbia. But we also know that when the inward flow of talent is higher, the chances of missing on a scout are lower. Recruiting services are pretty good at evaluating high schoolers these days, in case you haven’t noticed.
And with every successive blue-chipper who commits his talents to Mizzou, the path to Columbia becomes a little more well-worn. It’s easier for guys like Nwaneri and Wingo to follow when the Dominic Lovetts and Luther Burdens of the world have cut down the brush.
This is all thanks to Drinkwitz, who has elevated the way Mizzou recruits, within and outside its borders. He will ultimately be judged by his wins and losses, as all coaches have been. But you’d be remiss to say he shouldn’t be given every chance to earn those wins as the talent level continues to rise every successive year.