Missouri coach Eli Drinkwitz has a strong gab game. He could show you an old Ford Pinto and convince you that it would ride like a Tesla. And you might even buy it: his pitch and the junky car.
Coach Drink stays updated on the cultural zeitgeist, knowing that it will play well on social media. And his social-media game is up there with Lane Kiffin (Ole Miss) among SEC head coaches.
“This ain’t Ted Lasso,” Drinkwitz said, explaining his motivational tactics in preparing his squad for the North Texas game.
Well done, Coach.
Drinkwitz understands branding. He can sell himself, and that helps him sell his program. He has the media eating out of his palm like cats after a snack. He has an appealing sense of humor, with just the right amount of self deprecation. He’s a gung-ho and effective recruiter. He has the right political touch with the Missouri administration. His energy abounds. He’s a family man, which plays well in this state. I like him. The complete package is there.
Gotta win some football games. Always important to remember that part. As the coach said, this ain’t Ted Lasso.
The challenge of winning football games in the SEC depends on a lot of things, with recruiting at the top of the list. But a head coach must also hire good assistants, and coach up those assistance, and make sure that they do what’s necessary to raise the standards and the performance.
Drinkwitz already — and unfortunately — had made a major screwup by hiring Steve Wilks as defensive coordinator. And Coach Eli compounded the mistake by overpaying Wilks to take the gig. Wilks is an NFL coach, with a sliver of college-football experience (if that) and seems baffled by the mysterious ways of modern college-offense styles, schemes and tactics.
Missouri has a bottom-five FBS defense, ranking near the lowest depths in scoring defense, total defense, rushing defense, and a bunch of other indicators. The Tigers have been plundered for 30 touchdowns in six games. Last Saturday a harmless North Texas squad came into CoMo and put up 35 points and 493 yards. But because we like Coach Drink, multiple game reviews mentioned the improvement and the progress of the Mizzou defensive line. Well, if you say so.
I’ve lost some enthusiasm for Coach Drink but haven’t risked breaking an ankle by hopping off the bandwagon. I want to believe in this glib, relentless, and looney-tunes (in a good way) coach. And as I fan, I’ll stick with it. But the disaster of the Wilks hiring has punctured my patience.
It’s just that — and many of you know this better than I do — it ain’t easy being a Missouri football fan. The Tigers have had their very good seasons here and there — but then it all slows down the usual drain after a while. And that cycle makes it difficult to smile, to believe, to keep the hope.
And because of the program — and the history — that Drinkwitz inherited, his honeymoon may be shorter than normal … even if that’s unfair. It’s just the reality of pledging loyalty to a program that almost always lets you down. I say that with regret, not anger.
In 2013 and 2014, Gary Pinkel coached Mizzou to consecutive SEC East titles. The 2013 team was one half of football away from defeating Auburn and lining up for a spot in the national championship game. Mizzou went down hard in the second half of the SEC Championship — poof! — but still ended the season as the No. 5 team in the AP rankings. The following season ended with another loss in the SEC Championship game (to Alabama) and the No. 14 ranking nationally.
These were happy times. It didn’t mean Pinkel was Nick Saban, or that MU was Alabama. But in the context of the maddening Missouri football experience, the 2013 and 2014 seasons were sweet and satisfying.
Pinkel went 15-4 vs. winning FBS teams over the two years including a 3-4 mark against ranked teams. But this wasn’t the start of something big, something lasting. Coach Pinkel retired after 2015, putting his heart and energy into halting the life-threatening cancer that attacked him.
Mizzou soon took its usual place.
Since the start of the 2015 season, Missouri is 6-34 in games vs. winning FBS teams, and 1-16 against ranked teams. It hasn’t been much fun. MU has kicked the blood-donor teams around, and done fine (if not perfect) against lightweights and other lesser foes. But you want to see your team hang tough against the better teams — not even the super teams, but the winning teams. And Mizzou continues to come up short in these tests.
I think we’ve overreacted to Drinkwitz at both ends of the spectrum.
His 5-5 season against an All-SEC schedule in 2020 created buzz, and excitement, and enthusiasm for seeing Coach Drink as the coach who would change everything. He would raise the program and keep it there. The worry? Well, we have to make sure that he stays at Mizzou. Can’t let him get aways. Call the money people! Give him the contract extension, ASAP! And make him rich, rich, rich! Give him everything he needs!
That was then.
But the dispiriting early flops this season — with the horrific defense and underwhelming offense — has us wondering if Coach Drink is just another hot shot that will fizzle out. Have we misjudged him? Were we fooled by a solid season that likely was distorted by pandemic-related circumstances? Did we fall for his charm offensive?
If we overreacted to the early success, which raised expectations, then we should probably lean on that to avoid overreacting to the early 2021 record that includes a 2-3 mark against FBS teams, including a 0-3 bust against winning FBS opponents.
In his one-plus seasons at Mizzou, Drinkwitz and the Tigers are 0-6 vs. winning FBS teams, 0-4 vs. ranked opponents, and 5-8 against Power 5 sides.
Coach has a lot of work to do, and we knew that when Missouri hired him. The reality is here, and we’re falling down the steps again. Time to climb back up. Time to stay up. This is what Missouri fans do.
And we can deal with it as long as Coach can handle it, and do something about it, and fix it. And that probably means owning a mistake, and eating a lot of salary, and replacing Wilks as defensive coordinator — unless, of course, that area evolves and improves enough to stop an offense and lower anxiety.
If the defensive collapse remains in its present state — with overrun MU defenders heaped on the ground after another huge gain by an opponent — then the blame will shift away from Wilks. The blame will be dumped entirely on Drinkwitz. And it won’t be as much fun as a Gatorade bath.
Coach Drinkwitz has some promising recruiting classes on the way. But that’s down the road. We have to wait. On the road right now is Texas A&M, heading to Columbia for Saturday’s game after shocking Alabama in the upset of the season.
In other SEC outposts, they’d be calling Paul Finebaum to rile the masses as part of the movement to lead a movement to chase the coach out of town and try the next guy.
Joe Moorhead go two seasons at Mississippi State, enraged Starkville by winning only 14 of 26 games, and was driven to the edge of town and told to leave and never come back.
Ed Orgeron — you led LSU to the national championship in 2019, but we don’t live in the past, so it’s time to go! get Dan Mullen — you’re overrated, and have a 2-7 record vs. ranked teams over the last two-plus seasons. Florida can’t win the big one, and we ain’t putting up with it!
Missouri’s young head coach isn’t in danger of losing his job — don’t be silly — but this is a good time for him and his team to make a stand, and turn the tone of the conversation. And no matter what happens Saturday, we’ll probably overreact to it.
That’s Mizzou football, baby. Remain calm — if you can. But it ain’t easy.
Thanks for reading …
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For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.
While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
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