Vaccination rates, possible SEC expansion headline Mizzou's appearance at SEC Media Days

Eric Blum
Columbia Daily Tribune

HOOVER, Ala. — Missouri head football coach Eli Drinkwitz didn't determine when he would get his turn in the spotlight at SEC Media Days.

Drinkwitz went No. 12 among head coaches, third from last, but was the first to speak Thursday on the final day of the event, by which time there was a growing number of interesting topics surrounding his team and college football as a whole.

After Wednesday's report of Oklahoma and Texas eyeing a potential switch to the SEC, Drinkwitz was asked about two of Missouri's former, and possibly future, league rivals.

"We're the best conference in college football, and obviously those places want to join us," Drinkwitz said during his first in-person media session with reporters in over 16 months. "Maybe we were trendsetters, leaving the Big 12, and maybe that opened the door and encouraged them to try, too.

"We've got a great commissioner (Greg Sankey) and I trust that he's going to do what's in the best interest of our conference. That's really up to him. I don't think it's going to change our schedule this year. But I am prepared for (SEC Executive Associate Commissioner) Mark Womack to put both Texas and OU on our schedule like he did last year (referring to Alabama and LSU being added to the schedule in 2020)."

Missouri offensive lineman Case Cook and defensive lineman Akial Byers joined Drinkwitz on Thursday at The Wynfrey Hotel. Two linemen represented the program in a hope to show that guys in the trenches can get on television, too, Drinkwitz said. 

Cook, sporting a new suit and cowboy boots, was likewise asked at the main lectern about the possibility of the Tigers playing the Sooners and Longhorns in the future. 

"Honestly, if that ever happened, I'd probably be long gone, so I wouldn't get the chance to play them," Cook said. "I think any time you're able to increase your competitiveness within the conference, I think that's awesome. I think Texas and Oklahoma are good football programs, and any time you're able to add teams that bring competitive value to the conference, I think it will make everybody better.

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"But I don't know how that will play out because it's a little bit above my pay grade. I think it would be cool and I think it would be great if they were here. If not, I think we'd be just fine without them, too."

Drinkwitz's earlier reference to Womack was because of the SEC's 10-game schedule last season, where the league added defending national champion LSU and eventual undefeated title-holder Alabama to the Tigers' slate.

Missouri ended 2020 at 5-5, having its bowl game against Iowa canceled because of several positive coronavirus tests within the Tigers' program. 

As Missouri's 2021 season opener inches closer, now just over six weeks from a Sept. 4 clash against Central Michigan at Faurot Field, Drinkwitz said his staff is around 95% vaccinated and his players are "trending in the right direction."

"I don't want to sit here and tell you a number because it's changing constantly," Drinkwitz said of his team's vaccination rate. "But I feel very confident that by the time we start fall camp, we will be at the SEC threshold if they don't change the number again."

Missouri head coach Eli Drinkwitz addresses the media Thursday in the Hyatt Regency during SEC Media Days in Hoover, Ala.

Sankey stated Monday that the SEC's threshold for relaxed COVID-19 protocols is 80%, with six of the league's 14 teams already completing that goal. 

Drinkwitz said he has been vaccinated for seven months and joked he hasn't had any worse side effects from his shots that wouldn't also be the result from his work as an SEC head coach.

More:Live updates: Mizzou football, coach Eli Drinkwitz at 2021 SEC Media Days

The fight to combat the coronavirus and curb the pandemic is personal for Drinkwitz, whose brother, Jeremy, is president of Mercy Hospital in Joplin, the epicenter of one of the biggest outbreaks of the Delta variant in the country. 

"When you're in a position of leadership, you've been given an awesome platform and you've got to weigh the outcomes of what you endorse," Drinkwitz said. "And so for me, when I think about vaccinations, I think about what if I'm wrong. So if I say, 'It's up to each individual decision,' and I'm wrong about that, the consequences of not getting the COVID vaccine are death.

"... The reality of it is, if you're wrong and not getting the vaccine, you're going to die. It's not an argument of whether or not you're going to get COVID. People are going to get COVID and you're going to deal with the results of that. It is death, it's not certain death. Some people fight it off, some people don't. Everybody's different, there's all kinds of age groups right now that are really struggling with it, and it's a choice to get the vaccine."

Accountability when it comes to getting the team vaccinated, while spearheaded by Drinkwitz, is a responsibility that is shared by the rest of the program. Byers believes players should help push the team's herd immunity goals forward as well. 

"It's not hard for anyone in the locker room to just be like, 'Hey, if the team needs it, the team needs it,'" Byers said. "If we need 95% of the team vaccinated just to be able to play this season, then someone else should be able to get a word in, give their option on it. And so, I've seen it improve tremendously."

Contact Eric Blum at eblum@columbiatribune.com. Follow @ByEricBlum on Twitter.

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