Drinkwitz shaped by unique coaching roots
On the eve of the 1999 Arkansas East-West high school all-star game, the West coaching staff met to determine which player should win the “outstanding camper” award. The group included a local who’s-who of coaches: Alma’s Frank Vines, coming off back-to-back state championships; Little Rock-area legend Ellis “Scooter” Register, in the midst of his 43-year career; current Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn, then a young offensive innovator at Shiloh Christian.
The group’s first choice for the award: 16-year-old Eliah Drinkwitz. There was just one problem. Drinkwitz wouldn’t actually take the field in the all-star game, nor had he participated in the week of practices leading up to it. Vines had brought along the rising junior at Alma not as a player, but a manager.
“They were wanting to vote the manager as the most outstanding camper of the week,” former Alma assistant Tom McMurray said. “And we just said, no, we can’t go that route. It has to be a player. He just interacted with everyone so well.”
Drinkwitz didn’t realize it at the time, but that all-star week in Conway, Arkansas, sowed the seeds for his coaching career. Sporting thick glasses and a wide grin, Drinkwitz threw himself at tasks that few high school students would have embraced, everything from fetching water to playing nurse for Fayetteville high quarterback Zak Clark, who played through an illness and was named the game MVP.
“I had to get Pedialyte for him every practice,” Drinkwitz chuckled. “And Josh Floyd’s contacts fell out during the game, I had to hold onto a pair of contacts for him during the game. So I wasn’t trying to make connections, I was just trying to do my job.”
Clark had never met Drinkwitz prior to the camp — he didn’t realize Drinkwitz even played football — but their interactions sparked a relationship that still endures. McMurray said Drinkwitz made a similar impression on the coaches. The following season, every time he saw someone from the West staff, the first question would be “how’s Eli doing?”
“He just had a positive spirit about him, a smile on his face, a go-getter attitude,” Malzahn said. “He was with me the whole week. I was the offensive coordinator. So we just kind of made a connection.”
At the time, Drinkwitz didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life, but he wasn’t considering coaching. Even years later, as he worked his first few jobs in the industry, it would have been impossible to envision where he is today, making $4 million a year, leading Missouri into spring practice this week at age 36.
But many who knew him back then aren’t shocked by his career trajectory. If anyone can climb from a small-town, seventh-grade coach to the SEC in less than two decades, it’s the kid whose enthusiasm, attention to detail and ability to cultivate connections nearly won him an award for which he wasn’t eligible. And now that he has landed his first Power Five head coaching job, the people that know Drinkwitz best believe he is better off for his humble roots.
When the Drinkwitz family moved to Alma shortly after Eli was born, the city was known for two things: football and spinach. Thirty-five years later, a stroll down Fayetteville Avenue in the center of town illustrates the prominence of both. A series of crumbling brick buildings — most boarded up, a few housing businesses still clinging to existence — gives way to Popeye’s Garden, a small, fenced-in green space that features a sculpture of the cartoon character Popeye holding a can of spinach in the middle of a fountain. (At one time, a factory in Alma produced more than half the canned spinach in the U.S., and Alma marketed itself as “the spinach capital of the world.” The factory has since shut down.)
A couple hundred yards away looms Alma high school, and more prominently, Airedale Stadium, the first structure that comes into view. Tucked against a hill on one side, the stadium capacity is larger than the town’s population of roughly 5,800. The pristine artificial turf and hedge row trimmed to spell “AIREDALES” behind one end zone stand in stark contrast to the single-story cottages just past the fence.
Drinkwitz’s childhood coincided with the height of Alma’s success under Vines, who won 270 games across 30 seasons at Alma and led the Airedales to three state titles and five runner-up finishes. Alma reached the finals three years in a row from 1997 through 1999, winning championships when Drinkwitz was in ninth and tenth grades and finishing as runner-up his junior season.
In short, it was impossible for a high-school aged Drinkwitz not to be drawn to football. Terry Fimple, the owner of T&L Barber shop — a quaint, two-chair operation that serves as a social hub for Alma’s male population — said football is “like bread and butter” in the town, but was especially popular back then. A decal of the high school logo and an “Airedales” license plate hang on the wall of his shop.
“Football is all we’ve got down here,” Fimple said. “The high school is the name (of the town), you understand that, son.”
Drinkwitz played linebacker, and while he never possessed an abundance of athleticism — in Vines’ words, “what he lacked in size, he made up in slowness” — he understood the game better than the average high-schooler. As a senior, he served as captain of the defense, communicating the calls from the coaching staff to his teammates and making sure everyone lined up in the proper position. During his final two years, the staff asked Drinkwitz to occupy a role normally reserved for the varsity quarterback: watching JV games from the press box and communicating with the offensive coaches on the sidelines.
“I would always take our quarterback and put our quarterback up in the press box and give them a headphone and tell them, just tell me what you’re seeing, so I had an idea and could make plays that I could call,” McMurray recalled. “Well, it didn’t take too long before Eli had worked our quarterback out of position and taken over the headphones and was kind of filling me in.”
Both Vines and McMurray recognized during his playing days that Drinkwitz had the makings of a future coach, but Drinkwitz enrolled at Arkansas Tech 70 miles away in Russellville with the goal of becoming a lawyer. “I always loved a good argument,” he said. When he found out he would have to forfeit his academic scholarship if he were to walk on to the football team, he made a clean break from the sport.
At some point during his college years, Drinkwitz accepted an invitation from Vines to sit in the Alma coaches’ box every Friday night and relay what he saw to the staff, and that drew him back to football. He switched his major to education, and Malzahn, then the head coach at Springdale high school, helped him get a student-teaching job and allowed him to help out on his football staff. Drinkwitz’s first paying job came back in Alma as the head coach of both of the town’s seventh-grade teams.
The position featured little glamor and lots of responsibility. In addition to his seventh-grade teams, Drinkwitz helped out at practices for both the eighth- and ninth-graders, calling the defense for the eighth-grade games. Plus, on Friday nights, he and Jason Reeves, the eighth-grade head coach, alternated weeks watching varsity games from the sidelines, helping out however they could, and traveling to scout Alma’s next opponent.
“A seventh grade coach who is doing things the right way has got one of the toughest jobs in a coaching ladder, because they’ve got to be on point at every job, at every place,” Reeves said.
Drinkwitz poured himself into the job. Former Alma athletics director Mike McSpadden, who hired Drinkwitz for the position, said he was struck by how well-organized Drinkwitz’s teams were — far from a given for a group of seventh-graders. Reeves said Drinkwitz’s enthusiasm stuck out, to the point that some of the assistants on the senior-high staff grew annoyed with how seriously he took such a low-level position. But the players loved him. He made a point to call at least one trick play every game. One day, Reeves looked over and saw Drinkwitz doing up-downs — usually a punishment — alongside his players, a smile on his face.
“In everything we do, it’s a battle for the hearts and minds of kids, and as long as they’re having fun and enjoying the game, then you have a chance to keep them captivated,” said Drinkwitz. “Coach Vines told us that our number one job as seventh-grade coaches was to make sure that all of the players played eighth-grade football, so just trying to make it fun and exciting and energetic.”
At that point, Drinkwitz never dared to dream of coaching in the SEC— or anywhere in college, for that matter. Reeves remembers sitting in an Alma high office with Drinkwitz in the summer of 2005, waiting for their middle school players to arrive for a workout in the weight room, the two of them imagining futures as high school coaches. Whichever one got a high school head coaching job first, they agreed, would hire the other to his staff.
“Coaching in the SEC is not even on the radar,” Reeves said. “Like, that doesn't happen. You don't come out of the middle school coach's office, and you go sit in an SEC.”
Indeed, few, if any, current Power Five coaches got their start coaching middle-schoolers. But Drinkwitz has taken confidence from his lowly beginnings. Asked at his introductory press conference what he would say to people who wondered whether he could make the jump to Missouri after just one year as a head coach at Appalachian State, Drinkwitz fired back “they ought to try jumping from the head seventh grade coach to the SEC, because that’s where I started.”
Drinkwitz pointed to several lessons learned coaching the seventh-grade teams that still ring true in college: the importance of relationships, of developing players, of emphasizing fundamentals. Reeves believes the experience gives Drinkwitz a leg up on his college coaching competition.
“He's not one of these guys who graduated from college and went and G.A.’d somewhere for a year or two and then got a position coach,” Reeves said. “He started at the bottom and had to teach kids the game of football, which is why he can take it now to these college kids and explain the game of football to them and break it down.”
Dennis DeBusk served as an assistant coach at Springdale from 1998 through 2018. During his tenure, he worked alongside three coaches who stood out, each possessing the ability to watch a play live and absorb everything that happened. Two were head coaches: Jarrell Williams, who coached at Springdale for 36 years and for whom the school’s stadium is now named, and Malzahn. The other was an offensive assistant in his mid-20s: Drinkwitz.
“When a play is over, they can tell you about how all 22 people did,” DeBusk said. “Where I’m one of them old guys that’s gotta go back to the film room and see if it really did happen. They just sort of have that vision.”
Malzahn’s successor at Springdale, Kevin Johnson, hired Drinkwitz in 2006. Even though he played defense in high school, Drinkwitz had shifted his focus to offensive coaching after Malzahn had told him that the offensive line was the most difficult position to find good coaches. He started his high school career coaching the line at Springdale.
Working with the varsity squad of a Class 7A school that had gone 14-0 and won a state title the season prior represented a big step up from seventh grade, yet it took Drinkwitz just one year to earn a promotion to offensive coordinator, a role he held for three seasons.
“He was constantly fooling with (the offense) and adding his touch to it,” said DeBusk, who served as Springdale’s interim head coach in 2009. “... The best thing I could do as an old coach was get out of his way. Don’t slow him down.”
Drinkwitz’s players and coworkers at Springdale describe the same qualities he displayed as a seventh-grade coach: energetic, innovative, detail-oriented, comfortable in his own skin. DeBusk said Drinkwitz came to him with some tweaks for the team’s punt block and punt return formations, and the changes worked. Clark, currently in his fifth year as Springdale’s head coach, said the team still uses the same offseason “quarterback school” that Drinkwitz designed more than 10 years ago. Two Springdale quarterbacks coached by Drinkwitz wound up playing at the FBS level, including Ashton Glaser, who played at Missouri from 2009-2011. Andrew Hutchinson, who played wide receiver in 2009, disliked waking up for drills with the quarterbacks before school, but he said Drinkwitz “was always fired up, energetic, clapping, screaming, stuff like that, and you had no choice but to wake up and get fired up and ready to get your work in even though the sun hadn’t come up.”
Clark, too, remembers those early workouts, but his memory is of Drinkwitz’s glasses fogging up on chilly mornings. Drinkwitz would constantly blow on his glasses to warm them up and rub them clear, and the other coaches would joke with him about his nerdy look. Clark offered the story as an example of something almost everyone said about Drinkwitz: He understands that he doesn’t fit the mold of a traditional football coach, and he embraces it.
“When you’re 5-11, wear glasses and you’re kind of dorky, you just need to figure out who you are,” Drinkwitz said.
Drinkwitz also began to exhibit of the attributes that later allowed him to rise through the college ranks: his play-calling. Reeves, who coached against Drinkwitz’s Springdale teams, said Drinkwitz game-planned well, but also possessed an innate feel for how to adjust to changes during the game and when to take shots at big plays. Drinkwitz plans to call plays for Missouri.
“He knows what your rules are,” Reeves said. “He knows how you're supposed to line up. He just knows the game of football. So he could look at that and say, ‘okay, they’re a big cover-two team, they should be at five yards off, outside leverage or whatever, and so we know we can get our slants in.’”
Drinkwitz seemed to be just one step on the coaching ladder away from his dream job. But when he applied to be a high school head coach, he wasn’t hired. He may owe his current position to being turned down.
DeBusk admits he was a bit biased, but to him, Drinkwitz seemed the clear choice. Johnson had resigned as Springdale’s head coach following a cancer diagnosis, and DeBusk sat on the committee tasked with hiring his replacement. He said Drinkwitz put together a compelling interview and, “if I’d had a choice, he’d have been the man.”
But the district superintendent wanted someone with head coaching experience. Drinkwitz still remembers his frustration.
“I was very disappointed,” he said. “I thought I was the best candidate for the job, and when you put your heart and soul into something and it doesn’t work out, there’s obviously disappointment as a competitor.”
It didn’t take long for a new opportunity to arise that changed his career path. The following spring, Malzahn paid Drinkwitz “an in-home visit,” in which he recruited Drinkwitz to come to Auburn as a quality control assistant. The position paid just $15,000 with no benefits, a steep cut from what Drinkwitz had been earning at Springdale, but Malzahn sold Drinkwitz on a new dream: coaching in college.
Drinkwitz had never considered coaching in college until Malzahn’s offer, but it didn’t take long for him to get hooked. Behind Heisman-trophy winning quarterback Cam Newton, Auburn put together a 14-0 season and won the national title on the field. Off it, Drinkwitz once again wowed the staff. Malzahn called Drinkwitz his “right-hand man” during the season.
“He did a little bit of everything,” Malzahn said. “He was in all of our meetings, assisted players off the field, went and got coffee. ... You didn’t have to ask Eli. He just got it done.”
Since entering the college ranks, Drinkwitz has followed a more traditional, albeit accelerated, coaching path. When Malzahn got hired to be the head coach at Arkansas State in 2012, he tagged along as running backs coach. He remained on staff in Jonesboro when Malzahn went back to Auburn, then wound up at Boise State when Bryan Harsin, Malzahn’s successor at Arkansas State, got the head job there. After a year coaching tight ends for the Broncos, he earned a promotion to offensive coordinator, then took another step forward the following offseason, when he landed the coordinator job at North Carolina State. After improving the Wolfpack offense three seasons in a row, Drinkwitz took over for Scott Satterfield as the head coach at Appalachian State last year, where his team went 12-1 and won the Sun Belt Conference. Following a chaotic coaching search, Missouri contacted Drinkwitz hours after the Mountaineers’ conference title game, and his hire was finalized the following day.
Drinkwitz’s journey from coaching middle school to Missouri is unique in several ways, but perhaps the most fascinating aspect is how his path might have differed had Springdale hired him in 2010. Those close to Drinkwitz disagree on whether he would still be coaching the Bulldogs today, but the unanimous consensus is that he would not have taken Malzahn up on his offer, and thus not had a national championship season on his resume, had Springdale offered him the job.
“I think had I been a head coach, I’m not sure that I would have left to take that opportunity,” Drinkwitz said.
Fimple has known Drinkwitz since he was a toddler, but in the past few months, he’s given him a new nickname: the Brad Pitt of Alma. Drinkwitz has been the hot topic in Fimple’s barber shop since he accepted the Missouri job, with the locals buzzing about him coaching an Arkansas rival and signing a $24 million contract.
Even for people who have known Drinkwitz his whole life, it’s difficult to fathom going from a town with a median income of $45,000 to becoming the highest-paid public figure in the state of Missouri. But at the same time, the residents of Alma insist Drinkwitz is still the same smiling, bespectacled boy that captained the Airedale defense and cut his teeth coaching the local seventh-grade teams.
“Eli’s always had the same characteristics that he has now,” McSpadden said. “He just probably drives a nicer car.”
Drinkwitz isn’t ready to reflect on his coaching journey. He’s wired to always look forward, he said, plus, he still has a lot of years of coaching in front of him. When he retires, he’ll spend more time reminiscing on his journey. In the meantime, he’s not going to “act like I’m in a rocking chair.” But Drinkwitz did allow that his unusual coaching roots taught him lessons that he still carries with him to Missouri.
“My journey is unique and different, but it’s what makes me unique and different,” he said. “I embrace that. I love it.”