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Mizzou’s Drinkwitz pushes for masks in public

Eric Blum
Columbia Daily Tribune
Missouri head football coach Eliah Drinkwitz walks on the field Monday at Memorial Stadium as the Tigers began mandatory preseason workouts amid uncertainty surrounding the 2020 season.

No need to dwell on the hypotheticals of the 2020 college football season.

That’s been the mindset of Missouri head football coach Eliah Drinkwitz since he took the job this past December — and especially since COVID-19 brought the sports world to a halt this past spring.

Seven months into the 37-year-old’s tenure in Columbia, Drinkwitz nevertheless appears to have a comfort level in his new surroundings, evidenced not only by his one-liners during Zoom news conferences with local reporters, but also his gains in recruiting and accelerated relationships with members of his current roster before their scheduled season opener against Central Arkansas on Sept. 5 at Faurot Field.

Drinkwitz appeared on a Zoom call Wednesday morning wearing a Missouri athletics face covering to promote the #MaskUpMizzou initiative, reiterating to Tiger fans that wearing a mask in public is in the best interest of “what we’re trying to accomplish from a public health standpoint.”

Despite the looming uncertainty of when games will next be played, Drinkwitz is focused on the Tigers being ready and healthy when that time comes in order to compete at the top of the Southeastern Conference.

“I don’t get caught up in public opinion. I’m not a Twitter chaser,” Drinkwitz said. “I don't chase every opinion or tweet that somebody puts out there and has to have an immediate reaction. I'm focused on what they've asked us to do. I think (SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey) has been very steady in his leadership and steady in his message that there will be no decisions made until the end of July.”

There remain concerns nationwide about holding large public gatherings such as college football games in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Eight of the 14 SEC home stadiums have a capacity of 80,000 or more. Four league venues have capacities of more than 100,000.

Drinkwitz declined to discuss his thoughts on what this fall could look like, though recent COVID-19 trends have not been positive.

The United States has recorded more than 3.4 million total cases of COVID-19, according to the latest data from each state’s health authority compiled by The Atlantic.

“I don't believe I have power; I have influence,” Drinkwitz said. “There's a certain amount of influence from being the head coach of an SEC school, from being the head coach at the University of Missouri and having a logo on your chest. It gives you a certain amount of credibility when you make conversations. And so I think what we're trying to do is encourage people that it's OK to wear a mask.

“I get there's arguments on both sides. I get that for some reason it's been politicized. I just happen to believe it happens to be good public health policy. Does it solve all the problems? I don't know, I'm a football coach. I know in order to get things done, everybody has to buy into a collective mission. For us to end COVID, we’ve got to buy into a collective mission. It may not be a perfect plan. Seldom plans are perfect. Plan your work. Work the plan. They've got a plan in place. Let's all work the plan.”

The Tigers started their first week of mandatory preseason workouts Monday. The most recent testing update from Missouri athletics last week reported 10 positive cases of COVID-19 out of 377 tests given to athletes, coaches and staff since June 8.

“I think our numbers speak for themselves,” Drinkwitz said Wednesday. “Looking around at what’s been released compared to everybody else, I think our guys have heeded the message, have gone above and beyond to try to ensure that they can do everything possible. I said it last time we were on here: ‘You can do everything right, still get exposed to COVID.’ But you don't have to put yourself in an adverse-risk situation, you don't have to put yourself in a high-exposure situation, and I think our team has done a tremendous job of not doing that so far.”

Another way of thinking about it: Each player’s actions play a role in whether games will be played at Faurot Field in less than two months, as coronavirus infections rise around the country.

The state of Missouri reported just shy of 28,000 cases of COVID-19 as of Monday, the second-lowest of the SEC’s 11 states, trailing only Kentucky’s 19,653 cases. As of Tuesday, Missouri reported nearly 29,000 total cases after adding over 900 cases in a one-day span.

Kentucky also has the lowest statewide infection rate in SEC territory at 439.89 per 100,000 residents, or about one in every 227 people, according to data compiled earlier this week. Missouri has the second-lowest infection rate among SEC states, with one in every 220 people statewide testing positive for COVID-19.

Those two states represent major outliers from the rest of the data in the SEC footprint. The third-lowest infection rate among SEC states is Texas, where about one in every 110 people has been reported as infected.

The 11-state SEC average is above one in every 95 people testing positive for the coronavirus. The highest infection rate of the group comes in Louisiana, where about one in every 59 people has tested positive.

“I guess I'm frustrated when people argue against (wearing masks). It's like, ‘Why are we not willing to try it?’” Drinkwitz said. “It's gotten to the point where there's supposedly on Twitter, you’ve got the CoronaBros and then you’ve got the guys who think it's fake. And now, you've got both sides rooting against each other. I'm just rooting for the United States of America. I'm just rooting for us to beat the disease. I don't care who's right or wrong.”

Of course, a Drinkwitz Zoom session wouldn’t be complete without his chance to pretend he’s Jerry Seinfeld.

When asked whether he’s preparing for more SEC West division opponents in a possible league-only schedule, Drinkwitz replied: “If we play a conference-only schedule, would Lou Saban or Nick Saban be the head coach at Alabama?”

He was poking fun at President Donald Trump’s slip-up on a conference call Tuesday, mistakenly remembering the first name of the Crimson Tide leader.

Drinkwitz was also asked about playing in front of sparse crowds from his past coaching experience. Many predict if college football is played this fall, few, if any, fans would be allowed in stadiums.

“Brother, I coached in the Sun Belt. There’s a lot of sparse stadiums going on, big dog,” said Drinkwitz, who spent last season as the head coach of Appalachian State and one season earlier in his career as Arkansas State’s running backs coach. “I’m good, I’m ready to roll. I’ve coached junior high football where there’s 100 people in the stands.”

Despite moments of levity, when it comes to discussing football and safety during the coronavirus pandemic, Drinkwitz is sincere as he urges anyone who will listen: Please wear a mask when in public.

That way, chances increase that he won’t have to wait until 2021 to make his head coaching debut at Missouri.

“I haven’t changed off my vision of a Sept. 5 game in the preparation in order to play that,” Drinkwitz said. “And I’m not going to get caught up in the everyday press conference or release of information to try to change our organizational structure or how we’re going about our business. I believe that causes you to make too many adjustments. I’m driving as far with the vision of Sept. 5 and we’ll make adjustments if necessary.”

eblum@columbiatribune.com

Missouri head football coach Eliah Drinkwitz promotes wearing a face covering Wednesday during a Zoom call with reporters.