Eli Drinkwitz SEC2

Missouri head coach Eliah Drinkwitz speaks to reporters during the NCAA college football Southeastern Conference Media Days Thursday, July 22, 2021, in Hoover, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

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HOOVER, Ala. — To no surprise, Eli Drinkwitz perked up the final day of SEC football media days, delivering a few zingers Thursday and some thoughtful comments on the most popular topics in college sports. Drinkwitz met with local reporters Thursday morning in a private suite at The Wynfrey Hotel, along with MU offensive guard Case Cook and defensive lineman Akial Byers, and then addressed the rest of the media during a series of interview sessions. Here’s a sampling of the coach’s comments.

COVID-19 VACCINES

Drinkwitz joined Georgia’s Kirby Smart and Alabama’s Nick Saban in using their platform here to advocate for the COVID-19 vaccine. Drinkwitz said MU’s staff is 95% vaccinated. He’s confident the team will surpass the 85% vaccination threshold by the start of preseason camp next month.

“I think for me, that's a interesting topic because when you're in a position of leadership, you've been given an awesome platform,” he said. “You’ve got to weigh the outcomes of what you endorse. For me when I think about vaccinations, I think about what if I'm wrong? If I say it's up to each individual decision and I'm wrong about that, the consequences of not getting COVID vaccine are death. My brother's a hospital administrator in Joplin, Missouri. They’re in the firefight right now for people's lives. The reality of it is, if you're wrong on not getting the vaccine, you're going to die. It's not an argument of whether or not you're going to get COVID. People are going to get COVID. You’re going to deal with the results of that. It’s death. It's not certain death. Some people fight it off. Some people don't. Everybody's different. There's all kinds of age groups right now that are really struggling with it.

“It's a choice to get the vaccine. Then you weigh, what if I endorse the vaccine? What's the side effects? Well, so far, if I'm wrong on endorsing the vaccine, I don't know what the side effects are. The long term? Well, it's been seven months since I've been vaccinated. And I'm doing OK. I haven't lost any more hair than coaching the SEC schedule. So we are in doing everything we can to gain a competitive advantage and endorse getting the vaccine because that's what we need to do in order to take care of our neighbor. I don't believe it's a personal choice. It is a personal choice, but it has consequences, just like any action you have has consequences. I'm encouraging people to get the vaccine. Our staff is at about 95% ratio. Our team is really trending in the right direction. We had our first shot vaccine with some of our guys, so I don't want to sit here and tell you a number because it's changing constantly. But I feel very confident by the time we start fall camp, we will be at the SEC threshold if they don't change the number again.”

Drinkwitz said it’s “been hard” to convince everyone to get vaccinated and he hasn’t made the vaccine a mandate within the program.

“I demand from them they be transparent about who they are and if they don't want to get a vaccine, then we have to enforce the meet, greet, eat rules and make sure that they protect the team, because you don't want to be in a situation like N.C. State where you have a chance to win a championship and as a leader, I didn't do everything I could to prevent the spread," he said.

“Look, COVID is like anything right now has become a political football. I don't believe it needs to be a political football. … There are people dying because of this disease. It didn't disappear after the election. It wasn't the simulation. If we're worried about long-term outcomes of this vaccine, we've seen this COVID situation for nearly 18 months. We have to do something. It's within our opportunity to do something. I don't know. I read all of this conspiracy theory that this might be some sort of government ploy, but they're posting it on social media. They might be more worried about whether or not they're being tracked on social media than being tracked by a vaccine.”

Drinkwitz’s brother Jeremy is the president of Mercy Hospital in Joplin — just one of many people in his family who works in health care. Those relationships have given him insight into the pandemic and the vaccine.

“I've got a brother who's a hospital administrator. I've got a brother-in-law who’s a pediatrician. I got a sister that's a neonatal nurse and physical therapists and stenographers. So we're pretty much covered in the healthcare field. It's real. I mean, it's, it's real. But outside of that, there's people in our community who've lost loved ones to COVID. That's reality. There was a pretty interesting article that was released yesterday that I read where doctors are dealing with people that are asking for the vaccine right before they get put on a ventilator. It's too late. It's all preventable.

“It's like I told our team, we ask you to get your ankles taped, not to prevent you from spraining your ankle but to prevent you from missing a game. That's what the vaccine gives you the opportunity to do, prevent you from missing game time. That's really why it's a prevention method and an opportunity and I don't get a lot of pushback about taping your ankles.”

OKLAHOMA, TEXAS TO SEC

On Wednesday’s reports that Oklahoma and Texas were in talks to leave the Big 12 for the SEC: “I've been saying for years we’re the best conference in college football and obviously those places want to join us. Maybe we were trendsetters, leaving the Big 12. And maybe that opened the door and gave them courage to try it, too. I don't know.

“But obviously, we’ve got a great commissioner, and I trust that he's going to do what's in the best interest of our conference. So that's really up to him. I don't think it's going to change our schedule this year, but I am prepared for (executive associate commissioner) Mark Womack to put both Texas and OU on our schedule like he did last year with LSU and Alabama.”

Drinkwitz opened his session in the print media ballroom saying he asked SEC commissioner Greg Sankey if the “Horns Down” gesture would lead to a 15-yard penalty in the SEC. “He gave me a strong rebuttal by saying no comment,” Drinkwitz joked. “So we'll see where that goes.”

One thing became clear from Drinkwitz’s comments: He’s not opposed to adding the Sooners and Longhorns.

“If you can attract a couple of really good schools to come play, that's great,” he said.

“In all seriousness, control what you can control. That's all speculative. This is talking season, as a coach once phrased it, and speculative season. … What we're worried about is converting third downs and scoring touchdowns. They ain't on our schedule this year, and if the commissioner decides or our presidents decide that's what it will be in the future, then hopefully Missouri employs me long enough to see that.”

Drinkwitz was asked if Oklahoma could become Missouri’s new rival should the Sooners join the SEC.

“I kind of like the rivalry we've got with Arkansas,” he said. “I don't remember the last time they beat us, so I kind of like that one. The Battle Line Rivalry, it's pretty good for us. I think we'll just keep that one right now. That's a good one.

Respect Sam (Pittman) and everything he's doing with that program. He's obviously doing a tremendous job. I'm from the state, so that makes it a little bit more special and a little added incentive. So I'm not going to speculate about anything. Just because y'all don't think it's a rivalry doesn't mean it isn't a rivalry. I know it means a whole heck of a lot to my household, and it means a heck of a lot to Barrett Banister's household, and we like keeping that trophy at the end of the game, so I think we'll go along with the one the commissioner set for us.”

NAME, IMAGE, LIKENESS

Drinkwitz spent time in Jefferson City earlier this spring to lobby the state legislature for the name, image, likeness bill that Gov. Mike Person eventually signed into law. College athletes have been able to sign endorsement deals since July 1. Drinkwitz remains a staunch supporter of the movement.

“I think for NIL it really comes down to three things,” he said. “There's going to be those that watch what happened, those that wonder what happened, those that make things happen. I think this is an opportunity for Mizzou to make things happen. One of the reasons that I chose Mizzou was because that is surrounded by two large metropolitan cities in Kansas City and St. Louis. We have 10, Fortune 500 companies. We are the only Division 1 playing school in the state. What an opportunity for everybody to get behind our players, our programs, our athletes at the University of Missouri and support them with name image and likeness.

“The collegiate model all that stuff, Coach (Jimbo) Fisher said it not me, but he said people been doing name image and likeness for years. And now it's legal. I'm just saying, hey, it's time for Mizzou to really engage in that and try to give our football program our basketball programs, the greatest advantage they can.”

MU FAN SUPPORT

Season ticket sales are way up at Mizzou. Drinkwitz made it clear he wants to see a full Memorial Stadium this fall.

“I need the fans to really re-engage like they've never re-engaged before,” he said. “I hope they're excited about what we're trying to do. But I need the fans in the stands I need them to buy season tickets. That's the greatest way to show off fan support. If you can't buy season tickets, we need mini-pack tickets. But what's going to help us more than anything is Faurot Field to be sold out to be ferocious, to support our football team. Does that mean that we're going to have a dream season this year? I don't know. I don't know that. But regardless, I need fans to believe in the message and understand that we're building something and our staff our players are putting in the work. Our administration's believing in that investment. And I hope that the fans will, too. I hope that they'll come back, stir the echoes and say yeah, we're back in on Mizzou.”

Dave Matter and Ben Frederickson recap Eli Drinkwitz’s SEC media days debut, and discuss the latest on potential SEC expansion. Could Texas and Oklahoma be in quicker than some think?

Dave Matter

@dave_Matter on Twitter

dmatter@post-dispatch.com

This article originally ran on stltoday.com.

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