Drinkwitz ready for whatever comes in changing college football world
In December of 2019, Eli Drinkwitz was named Missouri’s head football coach. Less than two-and-a-half years later, he approaches his third season in charge of the Tigers. The job has changed far more than Drinkwitz possibly could have expected just 30 months ago.
“The job’s changed quite a bit,” Drinkwitz said. “The dynamics in the job has changed quite a bit. But that's changed for everybody in the seats that they're in. I think whenever you hire somebody to do a job you're hiring them based off the competency to adjust to whatever happens moving forward.”
It’s that flexibility that Missouri is banking on to lead the Tigers into the new-look college football world. Drinkwitz has frequently said that the last two years have brought about the biggest change he can remember in college sports.
He spent the first part of this week at the SEC Meetings in Destin, Fla. The league’s coaches and athletic directors were gathered to discuss issues that nobody could have seen on the horizon when Drinkwitz initially got the job at Mizzou.
“One was future scheduling in regards to adding Oklahoma and Texas to the league,” he said. “NIL and its effect and disruption of college football and transfer rules, specifically within the SEC.”
These, really, are the three issues facing every coach in the Southeastern Conference today. At some point, the SEC will become a 16-team league. Whether it stops there is anyone’s guess, but for now, that’s the assumption under which the league is operating. The litany of possibilities have been narrowed to two, according to multiple reports. If the league sticks with an eight-game schedule, each team would have one permanent rival and rotate through the other teams in the league seven at a time. If the SEC goes to nine league games, each team would have three annual games with six additional opponents each year. No decision has been made on which model will be adopted and Drinkwitz wasn’t completely tipping his hand.
Drinkwitz said the rivalries and traditions are what sets the SEC apart. He’s seen up close at Mizzou the last couple of years the impact of not having a long-standing rivalry like those that had developed with Kansas and Illinois.
“If we do away with divisions and go into a rotating conference schedule, the consistency of rivalries are going to be important to the passion of the Southeastern Conference,” he said. “So that's the my stance on, I think it's important to do that, you can read between the lines and which one that means I support, but I do think that we do have to be careful with getting away from playing consistent games our conference that means so much to our fan bases.”
The other major issues aren’t unique to the SEC. Everyone in the country is dealing with the transfer portal and the impact of name, image and likeness. The two often go hand in hand. They’ve both contributed to the recent movement toward player empowerment in college football. Players are moving on a whim and naming their price to do so. Accusations flew last week before the conference meetings, but public discourse during the event was civil. But every coach in America is dealing with the possibility that his roster can change in an instant.
“We're all figuring out the new norms of college football in a hurry,” Drinkwitz said. “All I can do is build our team for this season. Share the core values of who we are and what we're doing moving forward and get as many people buy into that vision as possible. But I'm not going to treat our guys any different. I'm going to coach them, I'm going to love them the way I've always loved them. I'm going to set the standard, who we are, what we're going to be about, coaches are going to set that standard and you can either choose to be a part of that moving forward or you can not. There’s no judgement.”
As for how Missouri fits in in this new world, Drinkwitz doesn’t really know any better than any of the rest of us. Everyone wants to know how much money everyone else has. Who’s getting what and how much will players get here versus there?
“It’s like you're chasing a ghost. Like you don't really know what everybody else is doing and none of us are in there telling each other,” Drinkwitz said. “I feel really good about the fact that we are the fourth largest GDP in the SEC. I feel really good about the fact that we have passionate fans, feel really good about the business leaders of our community trying to figure out what's the best way to help our program be successful. And I feel like there's a lot of NIL opportunities in not only St. Louis, Kansas City which are two top 50 media markets in the country, also with Springfield. I mean, I feel good about the opportunities when it all comes together.”
Coaches and powers that be in the sport keep talking about the need for changes and guardrails. Something to reign in consequences from rules that were put in place with good intentions but have spun wildly out of control in their first year. The buzz word is sustainable. Is the current climate sustainable for college football?
“I don't have a crystal ball. And that's the biggest issue,” Drinkwitz said. “I can only control what I can really control. The only other thing I can give out is opinions. I can complain about what's wrong, but I'm not really providing any tangible solution. So instead of worrying about that, I'm focused on what I can control, what I can do. I feel like if you can share collective personal; we're all passionate about this game of football, right? We're all passionate about playing the game. All those guys in our locker room are competitive, all my coaches are competitive and they have passion for this game. I've gotta unite them in a purpose.”
That part of the job hasn’t changed. Ultimately this fall, every coach in America is going to be judged on how many games he wins and how many he loses. The offseason has been one of the wildest in memory. Rosters change daily and coaches are learning on the fly. But on September 1, they're going to be keeping score and someone's going to win and someone's going to lose. As Drinkwitz has said before, he can embrace the new world or he can get left behind.
“Like I said, the job has changed,” he said. “That's what makes it fun. You know, as a competitor, you kind of like the challenges.”
There’s certainly no lack of them in college football these days.