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Gordo: MU sports needs Coach Drink-level leadership at top

Gordo: MU sports needs Coach Drink-level leadership at top

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Mizzou Caravan makes stop in St. Louis

Mizzou head football coach Eli Drinkwitz, left, and Mizzou head men's basketball coach Cuonzo Martin speak on a panel on Thursday, May 27, 2021. Photo by Christian Gooden

Jeff Gordon is an online sports columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

University of Missouri sports sit on the periphery of the Southeastern Conference, both geographically and competitively.

Football coach Eli Drinkwitz refuses to concede the latter point. He has gone toe-to-toe with Florida and Georgia on the recruiting trail to woo the sort of four-star prospects they typically hoard.

His salesmanship is impressing the media, exciting fans, and inspiring boosters to invest in his quest. He is elevating Mizzou’s football profile as the SEC prepares to add Big 12 juggernauts Texas and Oklahoma.

Now the school must locate the Coach Drink of athletic directors.

More than even, the school needs that can-do, will-do mentality atop its department. With the SEC looking to become the Death Star of college sports, Missouri needs transformational leadership to keep pace.

Major college football seems ready to pull away from NCAA constraints and create its own enterprise. Thanks to Drinkwitz’s efforts, Truman should find a seat on that train.

Overall, though, Missouri has a mid-level athletic department among the Power 5 conference schools. It has operated at a deficit for four years running.

According to Knight Commission research, Missouri ranked dead last among the public SEC schools in sports revenue in 2019, before the pandemic. The $106.6 million generated that year was half what Texas A&M hauled in.

The Tigers have been playing catch-up since the day they stepped into the league after failing to land their preferred Big Ten berth.

The time is coming to either step up or step back . . . and you can imagine which option this former Antler favors.

Texas and Oklahoma formally asked to join the SEC Tuesday while looking to form a Super Conference. Their arrival would expand the divide between the rich and not-so-rich schools.

Wealthy boosters stepped up their giving during Missouri AD Jim Sterk’s largely successful regime and helped the school upgrade its facilities.

But its booster base is still too small. So is the overall fan base. Missouri plays on the biggest stage in college sports, yet the Tigers have performed before rows and rows of empty seats at home in football and basketball.

Drinkwitz became a one-man marketing blizzard for football and fans are responding. Sales are up for the coming season, which looks quite promising for the Tigers.

But the truly elite programs can still draw 90,000 to 100,000 fans per game.

Missouri men’s basketball offers another huge challenge, since support waned after the one-season Michael Porter Jr. surge. Getting students to walk over from campus to Mizzou Arena has proven especially difficult, so the game night aesthetics suffer.

Cuonzo Martin got the program back on track after the Kim Anderson Fiasco, but now he must do more to drive revenue. The whole “graduating players” thing is a quaint notion from a different time.

Baseball is also a weak link by SEC standards. The school created a modern facility to make the move from the Big 12 and it continued to make upgrades.

But Taylor Stadium is smaller than the conference norm and it’s not well-situated to draw in casual fans.

Now the NCAA is allowing players to collect name-image-likeness money, the ensuing free-for-all could push Missouri even further behind the competitive curve. SEC schools that were arranging six-figure payments under the table can now facilitate big-money deals above the table.

Alabama coach Nick Saban noted that Crimson Tide quarterback Bryce Young got rich simply by sitting atop the depth chart.

“It’s almost seven figures,” Saban recently said at a coach’s convention. “And it’s like, the guy hasn’t even played yet. That’s because of our program.”

At long last, the student-athlete pretense is disappearing. That’s a good thing.

The competitive landscape will become even more chaotic. That’s a bad thing.

College sports will become even more mercenary. NIL opportunities and loosened transfer rules will lead to constant roster churn with middlemen pulling the strings.

With Texas and Oklahoma jumping to the SEC, Realignment Round Two may commence. Missouri dodged disaster in Round One after failing to strike a more sensible deal with the Big Ten, but how will it fare this time around?

The school must gird itself against the looming turmoil.

If the SEC poaches additional schools, the Big Ten may have to respond. The Atlantic Coast Conference and the Pac-12 may also have to muscle up to achieve Super Conference status while escaping the NCAA.

Missouri will need to go big or risk falling back into the pile with American Athletic Conference, Mountain West and orphaned Big 12 schools if they can’t pay the price of competition.

University of Missouri president Mun Choi sees this dilemma. So do key members of the Board of Curators. Sterk’s retirement timetable suddenly sped up and the school started its search for the next AD.

There are plenty of good potential candidates with Missouri ties. Loyalty is great, but the school must hire somebody with the vision to push the program forward and the Coach Drink-like swagger to get it done.

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Jeff Gordon is an online sports columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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