NSJ Coach of the Year 2019: Drinkwitz parlays App State success into SEC job

For the second straight year, the Mountaineers had to find a new coach — but that doesn’t discount the success the team had under the former NC State offensive coordinator

Eliah Drinkwitz led Appalachian State to a school-record 12 wins in his only season in Boone. (Butch Dill / AP Photo)

When Eliah Drinkwtiz was hired by Appalachian State last December, he did so with the stated goal of accomplishing something that had never been done there before.

It was an ambitious pursuit considering all the firsts the Mountaineers had already achieved since moving up to the FBS level in 2015.

But Drinkwitz managed to pull it off.

Armed with a talented veteran roster left behind by his predecessor Scott Satterfield, the former NC State offensive coordinator led App State to a school-record 12 wins, beat North Carolina for the first time and guided the program to its inaugural appearance in the College Football Playoff rankings on the way to a fourth straight Sun Belt Conference championship.

And he did it all in his first season ever as a college head coach.

It was a performance that helped him get a new job and a hefty raise at Missouri and also earned Drinkwitz selection by the sports staff of the North State Journal as North Carolina’s Coach of the Year for 2019.

“There was some spring football practices where we absolutely stunk,” he said before App State’s victory against Louisiana in the Sun Belt title game on Dec. 7. “And for them to just stay the course and say you ‘know what, we believe,’ and for this team to become us is as special as I’ve been associated with and I’ve been a part of some special football teams.”

Drinkwitz had plenty to work with when he arrived in Boone last December as the nation’s second-youngest FBS coach.

The Mountaineers returned 20 starters from a team that went 10-2 in 2018. Among them were the Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year, quarterback Zac Thomas, and 1,000-yard rusher Darrynton Evans from an offense that averaged 37.3 points per game.

They were pieces that fit right into the wheelhouse of a coach known for his offensive innovation.

“We’ve got a strong football team and a great staff,” Drinkwitz said before the season started. “The challenge for us now is to put it all together.”

It came together quickly, Just three games into the new coach’s tenure, his Mountaineers came to Chapel Hill and made a statement that resonated throughout the state by beating the Tar Heels 34-31 on their home field.

The win was significant for more than just who it came against and where it happened, though. After coming so close to knocking off Power 5 opponents in the four previous seasons as an FBS program, App State’s win at UNC marked another step forward for a program on the rise.

And the players gave Drinkwitz credit for making it happen.

“This program has definitely had some heartbreaking losses, but Coach Drink coming in here with a new mindset, everybody kind of got a fresh start from everything,” junior wide receiver Thomas Hennigan said after the UNC game. “These seniors have been through it all, countless hours, and it’s awesome to get those guys a big win during their last year.”

It wasn’t the last big win they got. Seven weeks later, the Mountaineers went to South Carolina and beat the Gamecocks for its second Power 5 win of the season.

They were victories that catapulted App State into the conversation for the Cotton Bowl bid that went to the nation’s top non-Power 5 conference champion this season. Although it was unable to overcome a Halloween night loss to Georgia Southern and fell short of that goal, 2019 was still a season for the record books.

The Mountaineers were ranked 20th heading into the New Orleans Bowl game against UAB.

“It’s a tribute to our players and staff for the focus and hard work that they put in from the time we started this journey in January to right now, being able to block out all the distractions and noise and to focus on being 1-0 each week,” Drinkwitz said. “And buying into the message.”

That message, however, has now moved to Missouri.

It was replaced by the voice of another first-time coach, former App State offensive lineman Shawn Clark, when Drinkwitz was hired to lead a high-profile SEC program with a six-year, $4 million-a-year contract.

Just two years removed from being the offensive coordinator at NC State making $450,000, it was an offer Drinkwitz said he simply couldn’t refuse.

“This is an opportunity of a lifetime, and opportunities of a lifetime must be seized within the lifetime of an opportunity,” he said. “For this to occur, it took a lot of a lot of things to come together at the right time. But I know in my heart and in my soul and in my spirit this is the right place for me and my family at the right time for Mizzou football.”