Missouri’s new football coach is making good on his pledge to keep best talent home

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COLUMBIA, Mo. — On the first day of the Eliah Drinkwitz era, the first-year Mizzou football coach made a promise to the Show-Me State: He and his staff would leave no stone unturned in their search for the best talent in Missouri.

Drinkwitz made the guarantee Dec. 10 at his introductory news conference mere hours after the Board of Curators approved his six-year, $24 million contract. Fresh off a successful season at Appalachian State and subsequent courtship with and hire by MU, Drinkwitz explained that his philosophy as he “shoots for the moon” but relies on a solid foundation within state borders.

“We’re going to spend every single minute trying to recruit this state,” Drinkwitz told the hundreds of fans in attendance in Columbia that December day. “It starts with the state of Missouri. We’re going to St. Louis, we’re going to Kansas City … we’re going to the northern tip.”

While it’s still early in his tenure, Drinkwitz has managed to rekindle excitement along the recruiting trails crisscrossing Missouri.

Last week, he and his 10 assistant coaches fanned out around the state, if only virtually. They invested two days into the St. Louis area, then two days in Kansas City, with the rest of their time spent connecting with high school coaches elsewhere throughout the state.

The NCAA has barred on- and off-campus recruiting through May 31 because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. In any other year, MU coaches would’ve physically visited St. Louis- and area high schools to evaluate potential future Tigers; in 2020, turning over those stones is being done via phone calls and Zoom conferencing.

“It was kind of a grassroots effort there,” Casey Woods, MU’s tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator, told The Star in a phone interview. “We dug our heels in, and all 10 coaches, we made calls. Honestly, we found four, five names that maybe we hadn’t come across and we needed to look at again.”

Woods described the effort as creative — a massive social-media effort, a campaign involving even some current Tigers. While assistant coaches worked the phones, Mizzou also tapped into its vast alumni network. Droves of former Tigers — from Kearney High’s Cale Garrett to Lincoln Prep’s Charles Harris and Liberty product Marcus Lucas — tweeted graphics and quotes about why they chose to stay in-state.

An increasingly common tactic for Drinkwitz: generate your own hype.

“The goal was to remind kids that grew up Missouri fans why they ought to play for Missouri,” Woods said. “We wanted to do that. Coach Drinkwitz talked about early on in his time here to do this state right.

“There are doers and then there are talkers — and we wanted to make sure we were doing instead of just talking. It paid off for us.”


As Drinkwitz and his staff recruit their incoming class of 2021, they’ve already scored on multiple in-state pledges. Mizzou added arguably its biggest one Thursday — four-star defensive end Travion Ford of Lutheran North — bringing its total to seven verbal commitments. Five are from Missouri, with another hailing from right across the state line in East St. Louis.

Fans and recruits alike are taking notice, said Allen Trieu, a Midwest recruiting analyst for 247Sports.

“Momentum is a big thing, and people like to be part of something special and it’s fun and it’s exciting,” Woods said. “We’ve got a chance to do things new. Some of the general excitement, too, goes back to Coach Drinkwitz saying this is what we’re going to do.”

The effort started over the winter. Trieu that Drinkwitz and his staff wasted little time in bringing in potential future Tigers from across the state for visits to Columbia before the pandemic shutdown arrived. While they didn’t know the freeze was coming, such efforts jump-started relationships between recruits and MU’s new coaching staff.

“It allowed these kids to meet the staff, and they’re all new, so they got a chance to meet the staff and experience it before everything shut down,” Trieu said. “Without them getting on the ball and getting those kids on campus at that point, you don’t see quite as many commitments now.”

When Drinkwitz was hired in December, Rockhurst High coach Kelly Donohoe said that to successfully recruit the Kansas City area, the new MU coaches needed to make their presence known immediately. They’ve done that, Donohoe said this week.

“Drinkwitz has been great; Coach Woods has been great dealing with us,” said Donohoe, who spent the past 20 seasons at Blue Springs, winning four state championships, before moving on to Rockhurst after longtime Hawklets coach Tony Severino retired. “Those guys have done a really nice job of staying in tune with what’s happening. … Missouri’s doing a good job of trying to just reach out to a lot of coaches and make sure their presence is felt.”

As enthusiasm and momentum build around Drinkwitz, he’s getting help from some of his new pledges, too. De Smet’s Mekhi Wingo and East St. Louis’ Tyler Macon have been vocal in recruiting their fellow high schoolers since committing to Mizzou.

Combined, such efforts have helped plant a metaphorical flag on the east side of the state. De Smet coach Robert Steeples said that in an area like St. Louis, where prospects grew up playing against each other, new commitments can have a trickle-down effect. Other kids want to join forces in Columbia to play for the state’s flagship program just two hours away from friends and family.

“So much of success on a football field really comes from relationships,” said Steeples, who coached Wingo, a three-star defensive tackle who also drew interest from Arkansas, Purdue, Iowa State, Louisville and West Virginia. “The good thing is, when you can identify a potential person like Mekhi as a legitimate prospect, he’s already established relationships with players around the city, throughout the state.”


Springtime is usually a crucial evaluation period. But with COVID-19 concerns prohibiting in-person visits, a first-year coach like Drinkwitz has faced unique challenges in efforts to establish a new culture.

While college coaches adapt to evaluating film and scouting potential recruits without in-person visits, Trieu said alterations in the recruiting process will hit under-the-radar prospects the hardest.

Oftentimes, schools like Missouri host camps on campus or send coaches to mega-camps elsewhere. Larger camps enable them to get look at multiple prospects in one showcase location. The absence of such camps is a lost opportunity.

“Those kids that are right there on that border of, ‘Are they a Division I player or not?’ … they need to prove that they are,” Donohoe said. “They can’t go to these camps and test. That’s really a huge deal. That’s where college coaches really push hard to get kids on their campus to see them and test them.”

Trieu said the number of scholarship offers a school has on hand doesn’t change — coaches still need to offer those scholarships to somebody. But pinpointing fringe prospects who could become contributors becomes more difficult. Senior-year film becomes doubly important.

Meanwhile, high schoolers must decide whether to commit now or wait until they can make on-campus visits. It’s a tough game: If they delay too long, their spot at a particular school could be filled, leaving them empty-handed.

“It becomes trickier for college coaches without being able to work with those (high school) coaches and verify some things,” Trieu said. “I think it’ll slow the process down once schools start moving into their next tier of guys they want to offer or evaluate.”

The work is slow, but it has borne fruit lately and will continue to intensify. Woods said that after MU’s successful week in-state, he and the rest of the coaching staff are broadening their focus to other nearby states like Illinois and Arkansas.

How well Mizzou’s big push amid unprecedented circumstances this spring has worked will become more apparent when Drinkwitz leads his first and subsequent teams of Tigers onto Faurot Field.

“This upcoming football season will go a long way to backing a lot of the excitement Drinkwitz has created,” Steeples said. “He’s got the fan base excited. Most importantly, he’s got prospective student-athletes excited. How his vision comes to fruition this season will go a long way. Obviously, this is just step one for them.”


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