Mizzou football: A giant is stirring in Columbia

COLUMBIA, MISSOURI - SEPTEMBER 07: Missouri Tigers mascot Truman the Tiger entertains fans during a game against the West Virginia Mountaineers in the first quarter at Faurot Field/Memorial Stadium on September 07, 2019 in Columbia, Missouri. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
COLUMBIA, MISSOURI - SEPTEMBER 07: Missouri Tigers mascot Truman the Tiger entertains fans during a game against the West Virginia Mountaineers in the first quarter at Faurot Field/Memorial Stadium on September 07, 2019 in Columbia, Missouri. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images) /

Seal the Border.

No, I’m not talking about Texas. I’m talking about high school football talent in Missouri. Sealing the border in Missouri football parlance means keeping homegrown talent at the University of Missouri.

For decades, it’s been the mantra of every football coach at Mizzou. With St. Louis, Kansas City, and a host of small, mid-state, football-crazed towns, Missouri produces enough in-state talent to consistently build a winning roster at Mizzou.

There’s only one problem. In the past, too many prep stars saw the verdant hills of Boone county as decidedly brown. They quickly left, sometimes even thumbing their nose at the home state school, for Big 10 football factories, Big 12 or SEC powerhouses, or even inferior league universities.

And no one could really say why. That was the most frustrating part of the deal.

Even during the height of the Pinkel years, Mizzou consistently failed to lock down the borders. Sure there were exceptions like Dorial Green-Beckham, Tony Temple, and Blaine Gabbert, but too many quality players went elsewhere.

In 2015, many got the answer they were looking for. Mizzou was apparently a racist hive; unfit and unsafe for African-American student/athletes.

What years of facility investment, outreach to state high school coaches, and success on the field couldn’t cure, a poop swastika and a phantom red pickup apparently revealed. Mizzou was losing athletes to other schools because too many players, high school coaches, and families – particularly in St. Louis – perceived Mizzou as racist.

Suddenly, Missouri – the school once thought of as not “southern enough” to be in the SEC – was apparently the most racist institution in the country despite a decided lack of tangible evidence.

Schools used it to recruit against Mizzou. Administrators “resigned”, coaches “retired”, players left, and Barry Odom was called in to clean it all up.

There were not many fans who thought Barry Odom was the cure to what ailed the Tigers. He, like Kim Anderson, was a “True Son” human-shield used by the University while they tried to figure out how to rescue Mizzou from the purgatory of racial accusations.

Like Anderson, Odom fulfilled his role admirably. Likewise, Odom’s time was quickly up after a few lackluster seasons.

The basketball program brought in Cuonzo Martin. A St. Louis native, decorated player, experienced coach, and active mentor for young African-American players and students. Given the atmosphere at Mizzou at the time, there could not have been a better fit from a personality or PR point of view. Hiring Martin made sense on every level.

When it came time to replace Odom, many expected a hire in the same vein. The problem, it turned out, was that virtually no SEC-quality coach wanted to be at Mizzou.

A short list quickly emerged of Blake Anderson from Arkansas State, Jeff Monken – who runs the triple option – from Army, and Skip Holtz from Louisiana Tech.

They’re all good coaches, I’m sure. But let’s just say when rumors came out that Blake Anderson was offered the job, Mizzou fans reacted with a combination of fury, embarrassment, and shock.

Again, it appeared heads might roll. I’d one day like to see the emails sent to AD Jim Sterk and the Curators from that week.

It’s fair to say not a single fan expected a homerun hire. But the prospect of hiring Blake Anderson felt like reaching first base by being struck in the head with a 98 mph fastball.

Mizzou athletics were again thrown into crisis management mode.

Then Athletic Director Jim Sterk pulled a rabbit out of a place far deeper and darker than a top hat.

Introducing the new Head Coach Eli Drinkwitz.

No local ties, some SEC and ACC experience at the coordinator level, self described “dorky white dude”, and then current head man at Appalachian St.

Surprisingly, after the flirtation with Blake Anderson, many fans actually nodded along with the Drinkwitz hire if for no other reason than Mizzou folks know you have to laugh through the tears sometimes.

Since then, fans have been nodding a lot more and any tears might be tears of joy.

Eli Drinkwitz has been nothing short of a revelation. Yes, the on-field results in his first year were middling. For the most part, he won the ones he was supposed to win and lost to a bunch of SEC powerhouses. No shame there.

But a win over #17 LSU was the type of eye-popping result that built instant momentum. Suddenly Mizzou had a new lease on life. After decades of wondering why they couldn’t be a giant, they found out the role of giant-killer was a persona that fit them well.

Most importantly, Eli Drinkwitz has started to seal the border. It’s the most unexpected success in the last 50 years of Tiger football.

From the outside, Drinkwitz doesn’t appear to be doing anything differently from his predecessors. He’s made in-state players a priority, he’s reached out to all the high school coaches, he’s shaking hands and kissing babies. All these things have been tried before, but without the early success Drinkwitz is showing.

It makes you wonder. How has Coach Drinkwitz been able to so quickly repair the relationship with Missouri high school players, coaches, and parents that has been painfully strained for the better part of the last half century?

The answer may be as simple as it is surprising. He believes.

While too many Mizzou fans long for a “True Son” to come back and restore the glory of the football team, the problem may be that those types of coaches are too familiar with Mizzou. They know the agony, they know the politics, they know the pitfalls. They know only what Mizzou has been, not what it could, be as seen through fresh eyes.

And that just may be Eli Drinkwitz’s super-power. He is relentlessly positive and forward thinking. He doesn’t care about the past, he wasn’t part of it. We are in year 2 A.D. (After Drinkwitz). What came before has no bearing on him.

It turns out that type of thinking is addictive, inspiring, contagious, and powerful.

Eli Drinkwitz isn’t going around the state apologizing for Mizzou. He and his staff aren’t trying to make amends, they aren’t making excuses. They are just out there making believers out of every person they meet through the sheer force of positivity.

The 2022 football recruiting class currently sits in the top 20 and boasts three 4-star players, two of whom are local kids. Some past Missouri high school stars like Mookie Cooper are transferring to Mizzou after sensing a new era unfolding.

This isn’t luck on the part of Drinkwitz. In short order, he and his staff have done the hardest thing in sports; they changed the culture throughout an entire program and fanbase. Attitude, energy, expectations, and belief in Mizzou football have all dramatically improved in less than a year.

While fans desperately want Mizzou to be giants again, let’s not forget that to be the best, you have to beat the best. It starts with wins like last year’s LSU shocker.

Perhaps another way to think about it is that to be a giant, you have to knock a few off their mountains, first.

Giant killer: that feels like an identity Mizzou players and fans can get behind. And for the first time in years, the program looks to be headed in the right direction powered by some of Missouri’s best high school players, a “dorky white dude”, and a belief in themselves.

Sounds like a recipe for success to me.

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