You hear it all over the Razorback sports radio airwaves and see in on the message boards leading up to Friday’s Arkansas vs Missouri “rivalry” game — Missouri head coach Eliah Drinkwitz sure rubs a lot of people the wrong way.
Maybe it’s his glasses, and that way he can come across as so smarter-than-thou. Or maybe it’s just that he’s the latest Missouri coach to carry on the SEC losing streak that Razorback football fans are most ashamed of. Five straight losses to Mizzou? Nothing solidifies the fact that Razorback football is emerging from its worst half-decade period more than that ridiculousness.
Before that losing streak really got going, most Razorback fans would not have considered Missouri worthy of “rival” status, no matter much Shelter Insurance and its 180-pound piece of silver wanted it to be otherwise. But then this happened:
Eliah Drinkwitz on Arkansas vs Missouri Series
It got to the point where Eliah Drinkwitz, who is very prone to razz other SEC schools, couldn’t help but take a jab this past summer during SEC Media Days.
“I kind of like the rivalry we’ve got with Arkansas,” Drinkwitz said. “I don’t remember the last time they beat us, so I kind of like that one. The Battle Line Rivalry, it’s pretty good for us. I think we’ll just keep that one right now. That’s a good one.”
Wally Hall, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s sports editor, this week went so far as to call this a “cheap shot.”
Hall’s reasoning is that Drinkwitz didn’t have to take this jab when a) he’s a native son of Arkansas, growing up in Alma and coaching for years under Gus Malzahn and b) was targeted as the next Razorback head coach in 2019 alongside Mike Leach and Lane Kiffin.
According to St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Dave Matter, it looks like Drinkwitz had already committed to Missouri by the time Arkansas athletic director Hunter Yurachek put on the full-court press: “Drinkwitz had verbally agreed to take the Mizzou job after meeting with the school’s fleet of administrators at a North Carolina hotel, but on his drive home he learned that Arkansas AD Hunter Yurachek and university trustee Steve Cox were camped in his front yard, sources later recalled.”
The next day, Drinkwitz officially picked Mizzou. Arkansas, of course, went with Sam Pittman, a relatively late entry candidate who had been pushed by former players like Travis Swanson.
Wally Hall was taken back by Eli Drinkwitz’s jab, even if that is Drinkwitz’s M.O. with plenty of schools. “Several of my colleagues around the country who graduated from Missouri texted after the Drinkwitz shot and asked if Pittman had said anything to upset the Missouri coach,” Hall wrote.
He added: “Drinkwitz’s shot at Arkansas even got the attention of his mentor Gus Malzahn, who first hired him at Springdale High School and later at Auburn. Malzahn told Trey Schaap in an one-on-one interview for 103.7 The Buzz that he might remind Drinkwitz that he will have to go home and visit family sometime.”
Eliah Drinkwitz and Sam Pittman
I can appreciate Hall’s efforts to fan the flames of something more closely resembling an actual rivalry here, but I just don’t think there’s enough antipathy between Arkansas and Missouri at this point for this thing to quality.
For one, the only possibly negative thing to say about the relationship between Drinkwitz and Pittman is that they no longer talk with each other after checking in sometimes during their first year, according to longtime Razorback writer Clay Henry.
Other than that, it seems to be all respect going both ways.
Drinkwitz obviously respects Pittman: “He’s a genuine person, a genuine leader. He cares,” Drinkwitz said of Pittman in this week’s press conference. “Really nothing seems to rattle him. They lost some coaches in the summer, and he went out and hired some tremendous coaches to replace them. … So I think he’s very thoughtful in the way he’s approached it and built it. He’s connected to the players and that state. And I think he’s doing a really good job. He’s got a very tough team to play against, which is always something to be respected.”
There’s been a lot crossover between the two programs in the last couple years, especially with former Missouri coach Barry Odom becoming the Razorbacks’ defensive coordinator and him bringing along linebacker coach Michael Scherer and defensive linemen Tre Williams and Markell Utsey.
Arkansas nose tackle John Ridgeway did say this week on the Buzz 103.7 FM that Williams and Utsey are getting some good-natured trash talk from their former teammates. And in a press conference Missouri safety Martez Manuel said that familiarity, plus the fact both teams enter the game with winning records for the first time since 2014, adds a bit of spice: “I feel like I came in at the perfect time because I felt like before it wasn’t much of a rivalry. But now that Coach Odom is there and Tre’s there and Utsey’s there, you can feel more of the tension, more of the rivalry. I think that’s a lot of fun.”
Still, beyond this, the vibe appears to be all unicorns and rainbows.
“I get a sense though that talking to Eli and even the Missouri defense players, it’s a respect thing. I don’t sense the ill will, the jabs that we heard last week when Florida came to Missouri,” Missouri football reporter Dave Matter with on the “Eye of the Tigers” podcast.
“Most of these Missouri players were recruited by Barry [Odom] and they still really admire and like him. The defensive guys have nothing but good things to say about the guys who transferred – Tre [Willliams] and Markell [Utsey]. I don’t sense that there’s a lot of bad blood here between these staffs. I don’t think Eli is going to get caught saying anything bad about Sam Pittman, because I don’t know of anyone that could say anything bad about Sam Pittman.”
“I think he’s smart enough not to say anything bad about Barry because Barry recruited probably more than half of the team and it just doesn’t make a lot of sense to go there. He was very reverential and very respectful of Arkansas and their staff. He even said Sam Pittman should be SEC coach of the year. We will see if that happens. I’m not sure he is one of the top candidates. I think Josh Heupel, Kirby Smart are probably in the running there but it should be interesting.”
UPDATE: Arkansas Beat Missouri
For our latest after that, go here:
Let’s Just Go with the ‘Bob Holt Bowl’ Instead
One of the best, and most friendly, Arkansas sportswriters I’ve ever met is the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s Bob Holt, who graduated decades ago from Missouri’s prestigious school of journalism. He’s just a big inquisitive walking sports encyclopedic teddy bear of a man, and it’s good to see in recent years Bob get the widespread recognition he deserves.
That’s exactly what happens at the end of the above podcast when Missouri football reporter Ben Fredrickson discusses his plans to catch up with Holt before the Arkansas vs Missouri kickoff in Fayetteville at 2:30.
Holt, co-host Davie Matter cheekily opines, “is another Missouri icon who has found great successful career at Arkansas. Bob is the one who really blazed that trail. You can say Frank Broyles [coached Missouri before Arkansas], and then literally Bob Holt.”
“Give Bob a ‘Happy Thanksgiving’ hug for me and tell him I miss him and have fun. It’s good to be covering these kind of games.”
With that kind of love between the programs, at least in the media sphere, it’s going to be hard to stoke a genuine rivalry between Missouri and Arkansas. Perhaps Matter’s suggestion of simply dubbing the series the “Bob Holt Bowl” isn’t too far off base after all.