By David Rogers. August 20, 2019. BLOWING ROCK, NC – “Coach Drink,” as those who might stumble over pronouncing Eliah Drinkwitz’ last name call him, has yet to win a football game in leading the Appalachian State Mountaineers, but High Country expectations are…well, high.
COVER IMAGE: Appalachian State head football coach addressed several questions from the more than 100 Rotarians and guests at the weekly meeting of The Rotary Club of Blowing Rock on Monday. All photographic images by David Rogers for Blowing Rock News
Nowhere was that better reflected than in Blowing Rock on Monday, when Drinkwitz was the guest speaker at The Rotary Club of Blowing Rock’s weekly meeting. He received not one, but TWO standing ovations: one before and the other after his prepared remarks and Q&A segment.
Those high expectations come because he has the proverbial “tough act to follow.” Longtime head coach Jerry Moore led App State to back-to-back-to-back FCS-level national championships in 2005, 2006, and 2007.
Winning is not just a by-product, but a part of who we are.
And then recently departed Scott Satterfield arguably topped even Moore’s accomplishments by overseeing the Mountaineers’ transition from FCS to the top-level FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision); a move from the Southern Conference to the FBS-tiered Sun Belt Conference where they have shared or won outright three league championships the past three years (including the inaugural Sun Belt championship game in 2018); became the first school to become bowl-eligible the first year it could — and every year since; and set new bowl standards in winning each year, including two thrill-a-minute Camellia Bowls in Montgomery, AL (2015: 31-29 over Ohio; 2016: 31-28 over Toledo), then dominating performances in the Dollar General Bowl in Mobile, AL (2017: 34-0 over Toledo), and the New Orleans Bowl in “The Big Easy” (2018: 45-13 over Middle Tennessee).
“Jerry Moore and Scott Satterfield, as well as the head coaches that came before them, have created an incredible foundation and a winning football tradition,” Drinkwitz acknowledged while addressing the estimated 100 Rotarians and their guests in the Appalachian Room at Chetola Mountain Resort.
In short, Drinkwitz said all the right things to inspire not just the football fan, but those among the populace who want the program to succeed in the right way.
Although a first-year head coach, Drinkwitz brings an impressive resume and a reputation for being an offensive innovator. Most recently he was offensive coordinator at North Carolina State University, after previous stints as an assistant coach or offensive coordinator at Auburn University, Boise State University, and Arkansas State.
He also appears to be a straight shooter.
“Our stated mission,” began the Mountaineers’ new chief mentor, “is to win a Sun Belt Conference championship and go to (and win) a bowl game, but to do it with class, integrity, and academic excellence.”
Integrity doesn’t mean that you are perfect, but that when you make mistakes you admit them, learn from them, and move on.
For anyone in the audience fearing that society has placed too much emphasis – and money – on athletics in college and not enough on the reason students are supposed to be going to school, Drinkwitz didn’t have to say another word and he still would have won them over. As Monday’s ovations proved, Rotarians are football fans, but they are just as much current and retired corporate leaders, businessmen and businesswomen, as well as civil servants who know and appreciate the value of education.
“Our goal is to continue building on that foundation,” Drinkwitz said before repeating, “and to do it with class, integrity and academic excellence.”
“The way we do it, though, is with class. We want to represent all of our alumni, our great fans and the High Country community in the right way. We want to recruit student athletes who respect the game, but also with the knowledge that they are coming to school on scholarship, so we expect them to play with good sportsmanship. We want to represent the community the right way and we want to be IN the community.”
To reinforce that point, Drinkwitz shared the team’s recent back-to-school drive, with players bringing school supplies.
“Community service is a valued part of who we are,” he explained before describing a player-inspired initiative to send the gathered school supplies to a needful school in the region.
One of our challenges is finding ‘us’ — who WE are as a football team and building that special chemistry.
A former assistant coach to Power 5 football programs at Auburn University and North Carolina State, as well as strong programs at Boise State and Arkansas State, Drinkwitz was candid in talking about integrity.
“Integrity doesn’t mean you are perfect,” he declared. “Integrity means that whatever mistakes you make you learn from them and move on. I have 18-22 year old men (some of whom are bound to make bad choices and make mistakes)…We have to help these guys grow. We need to provide that safety net when they make mistakes. Part of our mission (as educators) is to help them admit those mistakes and grow from the experiences.”
Continuing his emphasis on representing alumni, fans and the community in “the right way,” Drinkwitz underlined why college football players are students first.
“I believe education changes lives,” observed Drinkwitz. “I was a former high school teacher and coach for six years before I got into coaching college football. So I know the value of education.
We just got finished with our summer semester,” he continued. “Our students earned a 3.6 GPA, the highest the football program has recorded in a long time. That is something that we are gong to emphasize. Again, to our alumni, our fans, and the community, we want to represent you the right way…When you watch us on TV or come to watch us (at stadiums), we are going to represent you the right way.”
For Drinkwitz, leaving a college legacy means more than winning football games. To win with class, integrity and academic excellence will help the young men who play and incite thunderous roars in Kidd-Brewer Stadium more importantly grow into good citizens with a positive impact and influence on their respective communities.
For a small fraction of the guys that play in college, their days as a football player will come to an end when they are 40, after an NFL career. But for the vast majority, their formal football-playing days will be over as soon as they walk across the stage to accept a piece of paper that documents that they earned a college degree, hopefully prepared for going professional in something other than football, whether teachers, doctors, lawyers, engineers, salesmen, farmers or any number of other professions and occupations.
Looking forward to the football season, Drinkwitz said that every opponent on the schedule has some special significance this year, including the non-conference games.
In many respects, the early schedule is about strong regional rivalries, including the home opener against East Tennessee State, which earned a spot in the FCS playoffs last year with a strong season. That is followed by a rematch with Charlotte, like App State a fairly young BCS program competing in Conference-USA, another “Group of 5” conference.
The season also includes “Power 5” opponents in the resurgent North Carolina Tar Heels on September 21st, as well as SEC stalwart, South Carolina, in the middle of the Mountaineers’ Sun Belt Schedule on November 9th.
Drinkwitz heaped high praise on the shoulder so the Mountaineers returning quarterback, Zac Thomas, who he said has embraced the change in coaching leadership enthusiastically, eager to learn. He shared that Thomas has actually become a better passer after working this summer with the Manning brothers’ QB camps this summer.
Thomas will have a deep receiving corps this year, with newcomers like graduate transfer Keishawn Watson (from Western Michigan) joining frontline junior returnees such as Thomas Hennigan, Jalen Virgil, Corey Sutton, and Malik Williams, among several others, including four redshirt freshmen and five true freshmen.
In addition to Watson, the Mountaineer roster was also strengthened by three graduate transfers for this year, including defensive back Willie Edwards (from Illinois State) and offensive lineman Joey Cave (from Tennessee).
Appalachian State players are also working with an entirely new assistant coaching staff this year except for holdovers D.J. Smith (outside linebackers) and Shawn Clark (assistant head coach and offensive line), both App State alums.
Acknowledging all of the new pieces to the Mountaineers’ gridiron puzzle, Drinkwitz told the assemblage of Rotarians and their guests that a primary challenge and goal is “finding US,” creating a new culture and chemistry with this group of players, coaches and staff that sustains and builds upon the winning tradition.
In other club business, event chairman John Calvin reported that the weekend Charity Auction netted approximately $26,000 and Foundation chair Virginia Vanstory recognized Bill Thorn and wife Marion for becoming a multiple Paul Harris Fellow.