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Until Wednesday night and on into Thursday morning, the closest encounter Missouri football coach Eliah Drinkwitz previously had experienced with the spectacle of Southeastern Conference football media days was from the outside looking in some 15 years ago.
Then the offensive coordinator at Springdale High in Arkansas, Drinkwitz was in town for a 7-on-7 camp when he had lunch at the mall adjacent to this Hyatt Regency that for a few days this time of year is the epicenter of the college football universe. The most elite football conference in the nation lures hundreds of media members from around the nation and, in non-COVID years, even draws fans to the lobby hoping to get autographs from players and coaches or just gawk.
Drinkwitz thought about the journey from there to here on Thursday morning, marveling at the opportunities in life and appreciating that every day is a gift.
Then he seized the day as if he’d been here forever and had been formed out of this distinct culture, projecting a man entirely at ease in his own skin as he colorfully and nimbly addressed multiple issues of the day in his role as “a brand ambassador for the University of Missouri” … one who was clad in Tiger-styled Air Jordans to which SEC commissioner Greg Sankey referred in introducing him.
On the main stage for the first time as MU coach since the event was canceled last year at the height of the pandemic, Drinkwitz wasn’t at the podium more than 10 seconds or so when he made reference to the bubbling matter that emerged Wednesday:
The prospect of Oklahoma and Texas seeking to join the SEC.
“Hard-hitting questions coming out of yesterday: I think one of them was whether or not the ‘horns down’ (gesture mocking Texas) is going to be a 15-yard penalty in the SEC in the future,” he said. “So I asked Commissioner Sankey in the hallway, and he gave me a strong rebuttal by saying no comment. So we’ll see where that goes.”
Reflecting his ever-quick wit, wherever he went Drinkwitz had more material on the fresh news (not to mention making time for barbs at the likes of Florida coach Dan Mullen, saying he hopes it snows when the Gators come to Columbia this season since Mullen is going to complain about everything anyway).
In a session with local reporters earlier in the morning, Drinkwitz alluded to Mizzou’s departure from the Big 12 for the SEC and said, “Maybe we were trendsetters, you know, leaving the Big 12, and maybe that opened the door and gave them courage to try it, too.”
Later, he’d say the SEC is an “exclusive club and not everybody gets in. So good luck, especially if (Texas A&M, which wants no part of Texas) has anything to do with it.”
Drinkwitz also invoked what he called his “awesome platform” to speak out on the need to vaccinate for COVID-19, something we’ll get into more deeply in another column.
Suffice to say for now that he made it a point to allude to what his brother Jeremy is facing as the president of Mercy Hospital in Joplin.
They are in a “firefight right now for people’s lives,” he said, adding that vaccination may be a personal choice “but it has consequences. Just like any action you (take) has consequences.”
That’s what he’s trying to impart to his team, which he says he is confident will be at the recommended SEC threshold of 85 percent that would greatly reduce protocols and go a long way towards averting potential forfeits ahead.
One way he illustrates the point, which certainly could be interpreted more broadly, is comparing it to getting their ankles taped as a means of taking all due caution.
“I don’t get a lot of pushback about taping your ankles,” he said.
Then there’s the matter of the unfolding name, image and licensing policies and implications.
Citing the words of Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher, he said, “People have been doing name, image and likeness (benefits) for years; now it’s legal. I’m just saying, hey, it’s time for Mizzou to really engage in that.”
Along for the trip, MU offensive lineman Case Cook smiled and said he has had many such opportunities already and suggested “follow me on the socials, and you’ll find out soon enough.”
Never mind that chances are it may not look like it does at Alabama, where coach Nick Saban said the other day that quarterback Bryce Young is nearing $1 million in endorsements.
“It is what it is,” Drinkwitz said. “I do tell our team that comparison is the thief of joy. You’ve got to run your own race. Don’t worry about what everybody else is making. Worry about what your opportunities are.”
Speaking of Mizzou’s opportunities a year after his first team went 5-5, Drinkwitz said he’s not so much more comfortable now as more calm entering this season with the program implemented and a better understanding of its strengths and what it’s up against.
To him, maximizing where this is going obviously is about recruiting and preparation but also about galvanizing the state from the remote and the rural to Kansas City and St. Louis. He knows it’s the Show-Me State and all, but added, “I need the fans to really re-engage like they’ve never (engaged) before” and make Faurot Field “ferocious.”
It was all part of a day that Drinkwitz won … while only time will tell what his legacy at MU will be as it’s determined on the field.
But a year after beating the defending national champions and returning eight starters on each side of the ball, including quarterback Connor Bazelak (nominated by Drinkwitz as a candidate for back-to-back-SEC freshman of the year awards if the COVID eligibility allowance enables that), with recruiting surging and facilities improvements proceeding, there’s certainly some momentum.
And plenty of energy around an animated coach who seems entirely at home in the job and ready to take on everything from sacred cows to the status quo to set a tone toward a long-term sense of belonging.