By David Rogers. December 8, 2019. BOONE, NC — It is apparently deja vu all over again. AppNation was thrust into all-too-familiar dramatic territory on Sunday, but with a mostly new cast of characters.
COVER IMAGE: Courtesy of App State Athletics, originally posted in a press release on December 13, 2019.
Last year, just a day after guiding Appalachian State football to a win in the first ever Sun Belt Conference Championship Game, then head coach Scott Satterfield was hired by a Power 5 and Atlantic Coast Conference university, Louisville.
And it all happened just about 10 days before the Early Signing Period commenced for new recruits to the program, usually the day that those mostly high school seniors sign their National Letter of Intent in front of friends, family, and their future institution’s faithful. Satterfield’s buyout of his contract with the Mountaineers set in motion a scramble to find a worthy replacement, hopefully one that would keep the App State commitments on board and someone who would sustain and build on the football program’s excellence and traditions.
As the 2019 season proved, it all worked, even supercharged.
Enter Eliah Drinkwitz, at 36 years old regarded as one of the “up-and-comers,” an innovative, offense-minded “whiz kid” in college football. Appalachian State athletic director Doug Gillin finalized the hiring on December 13, 2018, just six days before the December 19, 2018 Early Signing Period started — and just two days before the Mountaineers faced the heavily favored Conference-USA representative in the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl.
Gillin had named former defensive line coach Mark Ivey as the interim head coach for the bowl game and, with the assistant coaches who did not immediately leave with Satterfield, Ivey did a masterful job of guiding the App State players and staff through all of the distractions and uncertainties. They defeated the MTSU Blue Raiders in convincing fashion, 45-13 — and the game wasn’t even that close.
While Ivey and others of the former assistants eventually went north to Louisville to help form the nucleus of Satterfield’s staff, Drinkwitz set about trying to preserve the “Ferrari” he had inherited and maybe even supercharge it with new assistant coaches of his choosing. Some of his early coaching hires were so good they didn’t stay on staff for very long, just days or a couple of weeks before being scooped up by other, bigger college programs or NFL teams. Eventually, though, the staff came together and it was an impressive bunch, to be sure, many with Power 5, NFL and/or CFL resumes.
The Jerry Moores of the college football world these days don’t come around very often.
And as the 2019 season proved, it all worked, even supercharged. Two wins over Power 5 teams and, with Saturday’s win, a second straight Sun Belt Championship trophy for the school’s trophy case. It was the first 12-1 season recorded in the Sun Belt Conference and it gained Appalachian the #20 ranking in the CFP power rankings, the highest ever for an SBC member school.
Deja Vu All Over Again — But Not Unexpected
And now, apparently, AppNation and athletic director Doug Gillin, as well as the players and staff members, get to do it all over again.
According to a report appearing in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, on Sunday Drinkwitz signed to become the new head coach at the University of Missouri, pending a vote of contract approval by the university’s Board of Curators. Financial terms have not been disclosed, but a compensation package is likely well into seven figures, with a significant buyout clause if the university decides it does not want to keep him around for the full term of his contract.
Missouri, of course, is in the big leagues of college football, part of the Southeastern Conference (SEC), where Power 5 programs like Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Auburn, Florida, and LSU — you know, the schools that usually populate the College Football Playoffs final four — get 4-star and 5-star recruits, and are allowed by the college football gods to ply their trade while competing for an FBS-level national championship. In terms of money, resources and prestige, it is an FBS level a step or two above where App State currently competes.
Now, 10 days before arguably the most important date in college football recruiting, Gillin (who, ironically, came to App State from Missouri, where he was a top assistant A.D.) is very likely multi-tasking: naming a new interim head coach to lead preparations for App State’s competing in the New Orleans Bowl against the University of Alabama-Birmingham (UAB), as well as conducting a search for a new head football coach. And, ideally, ALL of this will occur before the Early Signing Period kicks off on December 18th.
So this is the nature of the beast, this thing we call the business of college football. It is BIG business.
For Drinkwitz, that the App State job was simply a stepping stone was rather obvious. He’s young, innovative, energetic and ambitious. But however obvious, probably even he did not expect another, bigger opportunity and challenge to come along so soon. Without question, he proved he could add some innovative wrinkles to the App State offense to win even more football games. And he proved that he was enough of a pied piper that other high brow coaches, some of them even coaching royalty, would follow and support his mission.
But can he recruit players? Probably, but we really don’t know since the vast majority of the players he coached this year were holdovers from the Satterfield & Co. era. Can he grow and manage a program beyond the X’s and O’s? Probably, but agian, we really don’t know.
Most of us, of course, would like to have found out the answers to both of those questions. At Missouri, Drinkwitz gets to answer those — and other questions, too. He steps into a program that is one of the SEC’s two newest members, joining the conference in 2012 alongside Texas A&M. Even more challenging, he inherits a program that was 6-6 in 2019, but not allowed to compete in post-season play (bowl games) because of academic transgressions. Enrollment at Missouri is a little more than 30,000.
According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, it is a done deal, confirmed by a University of Missouri source.
Louisiana head coach Billy Napier, himself the subject of hiring rumors, was candid late Saturday afternoon in the post-game press conference when asked about the possibility that he might entertain another job offer. What he answered applies to Drinkwitz, too, that with success in this business of college football, opportunities are going to present themselves. He added that a coach owes it to himself and his familty not to consider only the MUCH bigger paycheck, but also the quality of life where they currently are and where they might prospectively go. The schools for their kids, the churches, the communities, even the weather.
Those, of course, are personal decisions based on personal values, personal perspectives, and personal needs. What is good or right for Napier might not be good for Drinkwitz, and vice-versa.
As the athletic administration’s top guy responsible for responding to these developments and, as a consequence, the decisions that are demanded of him, Gillin’s task in leading a mid-major, “Group of 5” athletic program is daunting, with plenty of variables.
Do you hire a hot up-and-comer, an innovator like Drinkwitz probably knowing full well that you don’t have the resources to keep him if he is successful, that he is likely to be a short-timer? Or do you hire a coach steeped in Black & Gold tradition, who may be competent but maybe not as flashy, even a guy who loves the school and loves living in the High Country so much that he isn’t tempted by money and can find all the prestige he needs right here..
The Jerry Moores of the football world are hard to find these days.
Most likely faced with disruption, distractions, and uncertainty once again, AppNation can at least be thankful that Satterfield emphasized a player-led team culture and Drinkwitz was smart enough to understand and value those initiatives. Whoever takes the mantle of interim head coach at least through the bowl game, he and probably the makeshift staff of assistants, just like last year, will do just fine in New Orleans.
Assuming the Post-Dispatch information based on statements reportedly confirmed by a University of Missouri source are accurate, we get to relive deja vu all over again and, hopefully, enjoy an even better result when all is said and done.