Rural Missouri - August 2021 - 23
by Jim McCarty | email@example.com
t the time the Mizzou football team notched its
fi rst win of the 2020 season, head coach Eli
Drinkwitz probably thought he had seen it all.
On March 16 he had to cut his team loose due to
COVID-19 fears, without knowing when or if they would
return. The entire season was on the brink of being cancelled.
With no spring practice, there were players on the
team the coach knew little about. And to top it all off, no
one knew for sure who the starting quarterback would be
if the season was able to be played.
As the dust settled and Mizzou faced a 10-game season
against nothing but Southeastern Conference teams, the
fi rst-year coach could be excused for wondering what he
had gotten himself into. His fi rst opponent was Alabama,
followed by a Tennessee team that always played the
Tigers tough. Follow that with a planned away game
against defending national champion LSU and it's no
wonder the pundits were questioning whether Mizzou
would win a single game.
Saddled with two losses, Eli led his team onto Faurot
Field after Hurricane Delta moved the contest with LSU
to Columbia. What followed was an incredible 45-41 win
clinched by a goal-line stand after safety Joshua Bledsoe
swatted away LSU's fourth-down pass.
That game made believers out of fans who
may have had doubts about Mizzou's choice for
its 33rd head football coach. Sure, Eli had led
his Appalachian State Mountaineers to a 12-1 record,
a No. 20 College Football Playoff ranking and
a Sun Belt Conference championship in 2019. But
was he ready for the challenges of the powerful SEC?
Perhaps only his wife, Lindsey, and four daughters,
believed he was.
If beating LSU wasn't enough, as the season unfolded
he would silence critics with a bevy of achievements:
* Mizzou snapped a 5-game losing streak against KenIf
beating LSU wasn't enough, as the season unfolded
* The team notched its fi rst win since 2014 in Columbia
East, beating South Carolina 17-10.
* The Tigers reached No. 25 in the College Football Playoff
* His 5-5 record was the best among the SEC's fi rstyear
* The win against LSU marked the fi rst time Mizzou
beat a defending national championship team since they
knocked off Notre Dame in 1978.
* He joined Warren Powers as the only two fi rst-year
Mizzou coaches to lead the Tigers to a bowl game, although
Mizzou was forced to cancel postseason play due
to COVID-19 issues.
" I think it achieved expectations, " the coach says of his
debut season. " But we didn't meet the standard. We don't
want to be a .500 ballclub, we want to win the SEC East.
We want to contend to be SEC champions. We've got a lot
of work ahead of us, but I think we were able to raise the
standard of what Mizzou football is. "
While the LSU game will forever stand as a great moment
in Mizzou sports, it's not the most memorable game
for their new coach. Eli points to the win against Arkansas
as the 2020 Tigers' greatest hit.
In that game Mizzou relinquished an early lead and
trailed by 14 points in the second half. The Tigers staged
a comeback and were leading 47-40 with just 4:47 left on
the clock. But Arkansas appeared to put the game on ice
with a touchdown and 2-point conversion that gave them
a 1-point lead with 47 seconds left to play.
Here's where " Coach Drink " proved he could lead his
team to victory despite the circumstances. The Tigers
worked the clock and moved the ball close enough to the
end zone for Harrison Mevis to kick a game-winning fi eld
goal with no time left: Mizzou 50, Arkansas 48.
" The Arkansas game was an opportunity for our players
to demonstrate mental toughness and commitment to
team, " Eli says. " As a head coach that is one memory I will
hold near and dear to my heart. "
That says a lot for a coach who was part of a national
championship team while on the staff at Auburn. His
coaching career began in 2005 at the high school level in
his hometown of Alma, Arkansas and later at Springdale,
In 2010 he advanced to the college ranks as quality
control assistant with Auburn. He would move to Arkansas
State, then Boise State and North Carolina State, each
time proving his worth as an offensive specialist. In fi ve
seasons as an offensive coordinator and head coach, Eli
mentored fi ve 1,000-yard rushers, four quarterbacks who
would pass for 3,000 or more yards and four 1,000yard
receivers. His teams have won 103 games
while losing just 39.
Not bad for a coach who never played college
As he builds on the 5-5 record from last
year, Eli sees the Tigers as " hungry dogs "
rather than underdogs no matter who the
opponent might be. " It's not in my nature to
consider myself an underdog, " he says. " But
I do consider myself hungry to prove who I am and hungry
to prove that we are not going to be outworked. And
hungry for success. Hungry dogs wake up every morning
and go fi nd a way to eat. So, we are going to wake up every
morning and fi nd a way to win. "
While fi ve Tigers left last year for the NFL, Eli will have
13 starters return, including quarterback Connor Bazelak
who had an outstanding season in 2020 as a freshman.
Mizzou's new coach proved he is also a skillful recruiter,
landing a Top 20 recruiting class in 2021 and improving to
No. 14 for 2022, Mizzou's best ranking ever. He's also shut
down the talent drain of top athletes leaving Missouri for
other programs, signing fi ve of the top 11 in-state prospects
in 2021 and three 4-star prospects for 2022.
Despite his recruiting success, Eli says the key to turning
the Tigers into a college football powerhouse rests in
the stands. " We need everybody, " he says. " We've got to get
everyone in Missouri pushing in the same direction. So, I
need fans in the stands. Let's make sure we have a great
home-fi eld advantage in the SEC. Home-fi eld advantage
ought to be worth 7 points in every game. "
Mizzou football 2021 kicks off Sept. 4 against the Central
Michigan University Chippewas, and Rural Missouri readers
can get special pricing for home games. For tickets, visit
AUGUST 2021 | RURALMISSOURI.COOP 23
Rural Missouri - August 2021
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