MARYLAND HEIGHTS — Eli Drinkwitz doesn’t like his Missouri football team opening the season on a Thursday night.
The Tigers open Drinkwitz’s third season Sept. 1 against Louisiana Tech in a 7 p.m. kickoff on ESPNU.
“Love it. Love it. Love it from all the different perspectives,” Drinkwitz said Tuesday night at the St. Louis Music Park, where he joined MU basketball coaches Robin Pingeton and Dennis Gates and athletics director Desiree Reed Francois and a fleet of athletics department officials on their “Come Home Tour” stop through the Gateway City.
“First, just appreciate the administration for, one, changing out the Middle Tennessee game to give us that seventh opportunity for a home game. And then the opportunity to move it to a Thursday night, which allows our student body to be able to come to a Thursday night game, skip or go to class on Friday — totally up to them — and then engage in a long weekend. But it’s really an opportunity for our fans to demonstrate what kind of excitement and passion they have come to a Thursday night football game (to) lead off the season. I don’t know who else is playing (that night), but I know Mizzou’s gonna play and we’re excited about that opportunity for sure. I think it’s an an awesome thing for us.”
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Just three months ago, Mizzou was set to open the season on the road in Murfreesboro, Tennessee against Middle Tennessee, followed by a trip to Kansas State the following week — an incredibly unconventional two-week road stretch for a Southeastern Conference program to kick off the season. Drinkwitz and his administration badly wanted out of that road opener. Last fall, Mizzou told Middle Tennessee it wanted out of the game — MTSU wasn’t pleased the notice came so late — and agreed to pay the Conference USA school $800,000 to buy out the contract. (MTSU’s only backup plan was a road game to James Madison.) Meanwhile, Louisiana Tech scrapped a game at Baylor to make the Mizzou game possible.
From there, as the SEC and its network partners began planning the TV schedule for the coming season, the Thursday night option became a possibility. Sept. 5 is Labor Day, and it’s no secret, with the the Lake of the Ozarks just a short drive away, Mizzou historically struggles to fill Memorial Stadium on the holiday weekend, especially in the student sections. With the Thursday night kickoff, Mizzou hopes to attract more local fans —especially the students — before their long weekend getaway.
It’s been over a month since Missouri held its spring football game, and given some time to analyze the spring, Drinkwitz’s major takeaway is his surplus of playmakers on offense.
“I really liked the playmaking ability that we have on the offensive side of the ball, whether it was the additions of the wide receivers or the additions of the running backs (and Stanford transfer) Nathaniel Peat,” he said. “I really was pleasantly surprised with their ability with the ball in their hand in the spring.
“Obviously, we still got to figure out the quarterback position from who’s going to be the starter. Really we’re waiting for that starter to demonstrate it to his teammates and for his teammates to tell us. Obviously we’re gonna give Sam (Horn) that opportunity when he gets here this summer.”
Last week, Mizzou’s QB competition got an assist from the NCAA. The Division I Council passed a legislative proposal that now allows two of the permissible eight hours per week of summer athletic activity to be used for non-contact skill instruction in football. Under the new policy, a football is the only piece of equipment that can be used during the two hours of skill instruction. No protective equipment may be worn. For Horn, the incoming four-star prospect, that’s two hours per week during the summer he can work directly with coaches and teammates in running the offense, albeit without pads.
Drinkwitz said he was excited with the new rule.
“That’s going to allow us to work with Sam throughout the summer and be able to see him throw and work routes on air,” he said. “So we’re going to be ahead of the game. That’s going to be a huge piece for him in his ability to compete for the job.”
Football players around the country have until May 1 to enter the transfer portal if they want to play this fall at their new school. That means Mizzou could do more portal shopping this summer depending on who’s available.
“I do think there’ll be more people go in,” Drinkwitz said. “I think there’s still a few spring games to occur. But you’re never quite sure. So we’ll see. We’re in a position that if the opportunity presents itself to take a player that we feel like can help us and provide competitive depth or competitive opportunity, then we absolutely will be ready to do that.”
GATES’ HOT START IMPRESSES
Mizzou’s Come Hour Tour swung through St. Louis on Tuesday and will stop in the Kansas City area on Wednesday. For Drinkwitz, the short flight from Columbia to St. Louis was the first chance to spend time with MU’s new basketball coach.
Drinkwitz developed a close relationship with Gates’ predecessor, former Tigers coach Cuonzo Martin, and hopes to do the same with Gates.
“I think any success that we have in athletics, whether it’s our gymnastics teams finishing fifth in the country or our baseball team having a big series win versus Kentucky, I think all of those things matter to the overall success of our athletic department,” Drinkwitz said. “So we root for all those. I haven’t had a great chance (to meet) Dennis, but he’s been working his butt off recruiting. Every time I turn on Twitter, he’s got another fist pump (tweet) going out. Obviously we’ll have time when we get together and look forward to learn from him and building that relationship.”
Gates is busy building his roster, and while it’s all still on paper at this point — he has 13 scholarship players accounted for as of Wednesday, pending any further turnover — the personnel mix is starting to resemble what he envisions on the floor.
“The identity of the team, we have to concentrate in a couple areas I truly believe to win at this level,” Gates said Tuesday. “You have to have a positive assist to turnover ratio. You got to be able to knock down outside shots but also create offense with your defense, have some shot blockers and rim protectors. But you also have to have guys that can play unselfishly. We’re going to build on our program on eight core values: friendship, love, accountability, trust, discipline, unselfishness, enthusiasm and toughness. And we’re going to do it in a way where we can continue to develop these young people and fulfill their dreams as well of one day becoming not just graduates of our institution but also professional basketball players.”
As of Wednesday there are five returning players still on the roster: Kobe and Kaleb Brown, Boogie Coleman, Amari Davis and Ronnie DeGray III. Gates has started to learn more about the players he inherited.
“Absolutely, absolutely,” he said. “We’re recruiting our guys every day that are still calling Mizzou home. I think it’s important to continue to have a relationship and build a relationship with their parents and remind them that they chose also the institution in addition to the previous coaching staff. My hat’s off to the work that Coach Martin has done in the past during his tenure. As a coach, you have to sometimes be absent from your home, you have to sacrifice certain things. I stand on the shoulders of those that have come before me.”
Gates said he “constantly” calls former coach Norm Stewart, whose name adorns the court at Mizzou Arena and whose statue stands outside the facility.
“Here’s a funny story,” Gates said. “He called me like three times in one day because we were missing each other. I said, ‘Coach, do you want to be a part of the staff?’” During the night’s Q&A session with fans, Gates joked that he offered a Stewart a job as coach emeritus to sit alongside him on the bench.
In all seriousness, Gates still has one last assistant to add to his staff and is expected to hire John A. Logan College head coach Kyle Smithpeters.
DEFENSE TOP PRIORITY FOR PINGETON
After losing some players to the portal, including leading scorer and rebounder Aijha Blackwell, Pingeton hopes to add two to three more players via the transfer portal and will soon announce a new assistant coach to replace Ashleen Bracey, recently named the head coach at Illinois-Chicago. (Bracey’s brother, Chris, is staying on Pingeton’s staff as an assistant.)
“We’ve still got a couple roster spots we can fill if it’s the right personnel, right position,” said Pingeton, who has added two touted in-state high school recruits in Columbia’s Averi Kroenke and West Plains’ Ashton Judd. “We’ll be pretty selective with that. I like who’s on our bus right now. I’m excited. April has been a good month for us. But there’s still spots that we may fill. We’ll see how that plays out. Then after that, the players go home for May and then June and July we have camps and recruiting again.
“We’re really trying to focus on our defense in the offseason. We spent a lot of time on that last year. I thought we made some strides, but we’ve got to continue to hone in on the defensive side of the ball. Offensively, we’re pretty good. Top in the SEC in field goal percentage and 3-point percentage. Offense didn’t seem to be too big of an issue for us. But defensively, there’s some areas that we’ve got to get better at. Then just skill development. Our style won’t change a lot. We’ll still run a motion offense. But I think just some player development can be really important, specifically in their positions.”