The brown hotel room door opens, and in shuffles Eliah Drinkwitz.
He is holding a baby carrier in his left hand and he reaches out with his right.
“Hey, long time no see,” Drinkwitz says.
UM System curator Jeffrey Layman, wearing a plaid shirt and a black vest, grabs Drinkwitz’ extended hand as Drinkwitz grins.
“Two days in a row, my friend,” Layman responds.
As Drinkwitz moves further into the room, he shakes more curators’ hands. Lindsey Drinkwitz, his wife, then greets Layman and curators David Steelman and Darryl Chatman before she and her husband sit on the red couch.
It’s a fitting spot, considering what a red hotel couch meant less than 24 hours before Saturday.
In this moment at about 8:30 p.m. EST Sunday in a North Carolina hotel room, a deal was all but set. Drinkwitz had agreed to become the next football coach of the University of Missouri that afternoon. The deal was not yet signed and the Board of Curators needed to approve it, but at this point, those were just formalities. After Director of Athletics Jim Sterk fired Barry Odom eight days before, Missouri had landed its man in Drinkwitz.
And a red hotel couch made it possible.
When the Missouri job opened up on Nov. 30, Drinkwitz was intrigued. He was succeeding in his first year at Appalachian State, set to coach the Mountaineers in the Sun Belt Conference championship game after a one-loss regular season, but he began thinking about the Missouri job. He has family close in Arkansas, where he grew up, and his brother lives in Missouri.
And it was a Southeastern Conference opening.
“That’s an intriguing job,” Drinkwitz said. “I didn’t hear from anybody, so I focused on the task at hand.”
By the end of the week, that changed. After initial phone calls with him and his representation, Missouri wanted to meet in person.
Drinkwitz, however, was busy preparing for and then coaching in the Sun Belt Conference Championship. Appalachian State went on to win the matchup against Louisiana-Lafayette 45-38 on Saturday afternoon. In the locker room after the game, Drinkwitz checked his phone and saw he had a message from his agent.
Missouri representatives were on their way to North Carolina and wanted to meet.
Sure, said Drinkwitz. But not until he watched “The Nutcracker” at 7 p.m. His daughter Addison was performing in it.
The show lasted for about 2½ hours, but Addison performed for only about 3½ total minutes. That allowed Drinkwitz to slip out before it was over.
Him leaving early gave it away to the 10 family members and friends in town that something was happening. Drinkwitz’s brother and his family, as well as his parents and some friends, were spending the day with Eliah and Lindsey, but they couldn’t know the details.
“That was very tricky,” Lindsey Drinkwitz said. “It’s hard because they’re family and you want them to know, but just in this business and this profession, if it gets out, it could jeopardize your chances of getting the job.”
With his family suspicious, Drinkwitz jumped into his car and drove about 40 minutes to the Hampton Inn in Wilkesboro. There, the MU brass awaited — Sterk, Layman, Deputy AD Nick Joos, MU Chancellor Alexander Cartwright and UM System President Mun Choi.
They booked a suite for the meeting.
“Don’t think it was fancy,” Cartwright said. “It was a very small room. What they meant by having that it was a suite is that it had a couch.”
A red couch.
There, Drinkwitz sat. Sterk, Layman, Joos, Cartwright and Choi grabbed whatever hotel chairs they could find and formed a semicircle around the couch.
Then, they talked the Missouri football job.
“It was quaint and very personal,” Cartwright said. “We actually were able to talk through a lot of things in a reasonable amount of time and see where we aligned with vision and what we are going to do.”
Each took part in the job interview of sorts, but Choi stood out the most to Drinkwitz. Choi was direct and told Drinkwitz what the expectations are for Missouri football and that the team is a window to the university.
“You are a hard man to say ‘no’ to in a Hampton Inn with a cup of coffee in your hand,” Drinkwitz said to Choi on Tuesday. “What can I say? Holy cow. I need to take you on the road with me to recruit.”
Drinkwitz didn’t say “no,” but he hadn’t said “yes” yet, either. The contract negotiations still had to happen.
“We really wanted him,” Sterk said of the sentiment Saturday night. “We felt like he was the right guy and he wanted to come.”
Cartwright was sold based on that Saturday night meeting and an individual phone call he had with Drinkwitz during the courting process. During the phone call, the two men discussed Level 5 leadership, a concept developed by author Jim Collins that says a Level 5 leader is someone who has personal humility and a relentless will to achieve. They also talked about the Maasai tribe that inhabits parts of Kenya and Tanzania. That came up in conversation when talking about the symbolism of the spear, and how the tip of the spear is ineffective unless the whole spear works as one. The final part of the conversation was about giving people access to opportunities.
“When I got off the phone, I was thinking, ‘This is strange because his philosophy is so similar to mine,’” Cartwright said. “That’s what it is about. That’s when I was sold.”
These conversations on the phone and in person also had an effect on Drinkwitz. Especially the in-person visits so that Drinkwitz could coach the conference championship game and attend his daughter’s “Nutcracker” performance.
“When the president of the university system and the chancellor and the athletic director show up, you know they are serious about you,” Drinkwitz said. “Talk is talk, but actions show you where things are really aligned.”
The MU officials returned to Columbia following Saturday’s meeting, but once Drinkwitz verbally accepted the job Sunday afternoon, Sterk, Cartwright, Layman, Steelman, and Chatman all boarded a private jet just after 4 p.m. Central Time on Sunday and arrived in North Carolina a couple of hours later. That same jet would bring the Drinkwitz family – Eliah, Lindsey and their four daughters – back to Columbia on Monday.
But first, they met in the hotel room Sunday night where Eliah and Lindsey Drinkwitz sat on the red hotel couch.
“We can’t wait to have you in town,” Chatman said, seated in chair in a semicircle.
“Man,” Drinkwitz replied, “I’m excited about Mizzou football.”