After four days of reports and speculation, flights to and from North Carolina, meetings in Hampton Inn hotel rooms and a performance of “The Nutcracker,” the expected finally became the official Tuesday morning.
In full view of Faurot Field inside Memorial Stadium’s Show-Me Club, at an event that was as much a pep rally — complete with a marching band, Truman the Tiger and even smoke machines — as a press conference, Eliah Drinkwitz was introduced as the 33rd head football coach of the Missouri Tigers. His new contract was approved unanimously by the MU Board of Curators earlier Tuesday morning.
The contract will pay the 36-year-old coach $24 million over six years, with up to $850,000 available to him in performance-related bonuses each season. With an annual salary of $4 million, up significantly from the $750,000 he was paid last season at Appalachian State, Drinkwitz is now the 28th-highest-paid college coach in the country and tied for the eighth-highest-paid in the SEC. He will be given a budget of $5.2 million to fill out his assistant coaching staff, up from the $4.8 million former MU coach Barry Odom had at his disposal in 2019.
According to the contract’s buyout clause, Missouri will owe Drinkwitz 70% of the total salary he’s owed for every year left on his deal if the university fires him “without cause.”
Drinkwitz — a former high school coach who rose up the ranks with stops at Auburn, Arkansas State, Boise State and N.C. State — arrived in Columbia just days after leading the Mountaineers to a Sun Belt Conference championship, closing out a 12-1 season in his head coaching debut.
It was after that 45-38 win over Louisiana that the coach from Arkansas whose brother lives in Joplin received initial contact from MU. Less than 24 hours later, Drinkwitz was headed to meet university brass in a hotel room in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, after watching his daughter in a production of “The Nutcracker.” By Sunday night, Missouri officials and their new head coach were confident that the deal was effectively done.
Tuesday’s 8 a.m. board meeting sealed it, and 11 days after the school dismissed Odom, Missouri had a head coach once again.
“This is the opportunity of a lifetime,” Drinkwitz told the crowd of university officials, donors and fans in attendance. “And opportunities of a lifetime must be seized within the lifetime of the opportunity. For this to occur, it took a lot of things to come together at the right time. But I know in my heart and in my soul and in my spirit that this is the right place for me and my family at the right time for Mizzou football.”
Over three separate speaking opportunities Tuesday, Drinkwitz’s conviction and vision stood out as he laid out his plans for his new program.
The coach who led high-scoring offenses at Boise State and N.C. State said he’s bringing a pro-style, quarterback-driven, no-huddle offense and that his defense will stop the run and “confuse, harass and hit” opposing quarterbacks.
“Tell the recruiting department to get that coffee ready,” Drinkwitz said. “We’re going to spend every single minute trying to recruit this state, because it starts with the state of Missouri.”
Ambition? He’s got that, too, so much so that Drinkwitz briefly stumbled over himself in his opening remarks when he stated that Missouri would contend for a Sun Belt title, not an SEC East title. The slip drew laughter from the crowd as the young coach corrected himself.
Drinkwitz met with his new team — or at least the players who hadn’t yet left town for winter break — for the first time Monday night. Players in attendance at Tuesday’s press conference said they gleaned their new coaches passion, energy and innovative offensive mindset from the meeting and left reassured. Some defensive players came away wondering about the assistants Drinkwitz will bring in or retain from Missouri’s existing staff. Drinkwitz said those decisions will be made over the next 24-48 hours and emphasized having a dedicated special teams coordinator on his staff.
Defensive coordinator Ryan Walters and former interim head coach Brick Haley were on hand for Drinkwitz’s introduction, and FootballScoop.com reported Tuesday afternoon that Walters, Haley and cornerbacks coach David Gibbs were expected to remain with the program. Sterk said all staff decisions will be left “100%” to Drinkwitz.
On whether he will serve as the Tigers’ de facto offensive coordinator from the sideline next fall, Drinkwitz left no mystery: He’ll be the man calling plays. What that means for Derek Dooley, MU’s offensive coordinator for the past two seasons and the program’s highest-paid assistant last year, remains unclear.
Speaking for the first time since dismissing Odom on Nov. 30, Sterk acknowledged what was a bumpy coaching search. Last Thursday, several outlets reported the initial list of names Sterk presented informally to the Board of Curators was deemed underwhelming and that some members of the board had questioned Sterk and search firm Parker Executive’s decision-making.
While Missouri’s fourth-year athletic director chose not to speak in detail on other candidates considered for the role, Sterk admitted that he circled back late last week, meeting with players, donors and alumni to find out what they were looking for in the next head coach.
On Tuesday, with Drinkwitz’s contract inked, Sterk thanked the board and other decision-makers for their support throughout the search while some of the people he polled expressed excitement over the end result of an arduous process.
“It is (a relief),” defensive end Chris Turner said. “I’m excited to get working with (Drinkwitz). The past few weeks, with Odom getting fired, it’s been stressful for me and my teammates. This is a relief.”
“(Sterk) went and found a guy that is going to pour his heart and soul into this program, and that’s what we need,” receiver Barrett Banister said. “He’s a guy who is going to bring the passion we talk about into Mizzou football.”
In nearly 130 years of its existence, Missouri’s football program has never been led by a minority head coach, and of the reported candidates who were being considered to replace Odom, few were coaches of color. Sterk said Tuesday that diversity was an important factor in the initial search and that he interviewed two minority candidates before focusing in on Drinkwitz.
“I felt like (those two candidates) could possibly be our coach,” Sterk said. “But as we continued to refine and look at it, Eli was the one we offered.”
Tuesday, though, was about the coach Missouri hired, not the ones it didn’t. And while Drinkwitz laid out his offensive plan and hinted at staff decisions, he said his most urgent matter of business in both the near and long term is recruiting and that he planned to begin contacting recruits as soon as Tuesday afternoon.
On Monday, The Athletic’s Peter Baugh reported that all of Missouri’s 2020 commits have been invited to campus this weekend to meet the new coach. At least 12 are expected to make the trip to Columbia, with St. Louis quarterback Brady Cook and four-star Oklahoma wide receiver Javian Hester expected to be among them. Hester is one of several recruits who reopened their commitments following Odom’s dismissal, and Drinkwitz will be challenged in his first week on the job with winning those commitments back and maintaining the ones he still has. He compared the difficult task at hand to speed-dating.
“We’re going to try to show them who we are as quickly as we can,” he said.
For the long-term health of the program, Drinkwitz affirmed the importance of bringing in the top talent from the state of Missouri while also maintaining the program’s successes in Texas, Arkansas and anywhere else there is a “direct flight from Kansas City or St. Louis.”
On the subject of recruiting restrictions placed on Missouri’s football program after NCAA sanctions over academic misconduct were upheld last month, Drinkwitz said the school was “open, honest and direct” about the limitations during the interview process. With 81 scholarships at his disposal, he is already evaluating his roster and strategizing to fill the Tigers’ holes.
“People fall in love with Mizzou,” Drinkwitz said. “I know that the guys who are currently committed to us, who are still committed, love Mizzou football. All they need to do is see that I love Mizzou as much as they do. If our passions can connect, we’ll be fine.”
In front of the cameras and microphones for the better part of an hour Tuesday, Drinkwitz spoke about “reigniting passion” and “restoring pride” to a program that held a 25-25 record over four seasons under Odom. Is this next young head coach the one who can elevate Missouri to the heights Sterk felt Odom couldn’t? We’ll find out. Drinkwitz along with many other folks inside the Show-Me Club on Tuesday are certainly convinced.
When the man who spent just a single season as the head coach of a college football program was asked about “realistic expectations” for the 2020 season amid NCAA restrictions, first-year growing pains and uncertainty at several key positions, Drinkwitz sounded ready to meet the challenge.
At the very least, he’s here to try.
“I don’t live in realistic expectations,” Drinkwitz said. “I shoot for the moon.”
Supervising editor is Michael Knisley.