New App State football coach Eli Drinkwitz on his first months on the job
Eliah Drinkwitz could really go for a cup of coffee right now.
It’s just past 5 on a Tuesday afternoon in SouthPark, but Appalachian State’s new football coach still has work to do. Not the sweaty-outdoor-yelling part of football coaching, but the other half:
Blazer and tie, shaking hands with alumni, and — in Drinkwitz’s own words — recruiting.
“It’s not just your players,” Drinkwitz told the Observer. “It’s your fan base, it’s your alumni, it’s your current players, and it’s recruit future players. Recruiting is the lifeblood of your program, no matter how you do it.”
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That’s the reason he and other Appalachian State coaches are in Charlotte at all. It’s part of the university’s spring athletics tour, a cross-state trip from Charlotte to Winston-Salem to Raleigh designed to get Mountaineers coaches in front of alumni and donors.
But for Drinkwitz and men’s basketball coach Dustin Kearns, who was hired at the end of March, this trip is especially important. It’s an opportunity for them to connect with the school’s base, sure. But it’s also a convenient trip through some of the state’s recruiting hotbeds, Charlotte near the top of the list.
“There’s a lot of good basketball players in this area, so taking care of our backyard is very important,” Kearns said. “This is an area that can help us (as) a fan base, but also to win some games.”
As for how Drinkwitz and Kearns intend to actually recruit the Charlotte area? Well, they’ve already got a head start on their pitches.
‘You’re gonna love playing for him’
Compared to Drinkwitz, who was hired in mid-December, Kearns stands out as the newcomer of the two.
Kearns arrives in Boone after two seasons as head coach at Presbyterian College. When he arrived at Presbyterian, he inherited a five-win team at a school that hadn’t had a winning season in 12 years. When he left, the Blue Hose had just finished a 20-win season and advanced to the quarterfinals of the CollegeInsider.com Tournament.
But beyond proving his coaching chops at Presbyterian, Kearns’ former school also gave him something else:
An “in” with the Mountaineers’ top recruit.
Donovan Gregory, a 6-foot-5 guard from Carmel Christian in Matthews, is arguably Appalachian State’s top signee in years. He was already committed to the school before Kearns arrived, but some familiar faces have already helped Kearns build a relationship with Gregory.
“A couple of the players I coached at Presbyterian played for the same high school coach that Donovan plays for, and some of them were his AAU teammates,” Kearns said. “So there have been some behind-the-scenes conversations that I had nothing to be part of, in an unsolicited way, that said, ‘Hey, you’re gonna love playing for him.’
“He’s a great get. He’s a great get, and I credit the previous staff with that.”
The Mountaineers are also set to bring in a second Charlotte player, guard J.C. Tharrington from Charlotte Christian. Having two players from the same region, Kearns said, already gives him something of an advantage when it comes to recruiting this area.
“Especially at the grassroots level and the high school level … you can piggyback off that area,” he said. “It’s definitely going to help us (in future recruiting) having two Charlotte kids.”
The Cam Newton connection
Then there’s Drinkwitz, who already has a grasp of the Charlotte recruiting scene after three years as the offensive coordinator at N.C. State. Drinkwitz counts a number of Charlotte-area guys, including likely first-round NFL draft pick Garrett Bradbury, as impact players from the region.
Don’t expect those relationships or recruiting pipeline to dry up just because he moved west.
But unlike Kearns, who had his “in” to Charlotte’s top recruits via his former players, Drinkwitz has a different selling point:
Cam Newton, quarterback of the Carolina Panthers.
Early in his coaching career, Drinkwitz was a quality control assistant at Auburn during Newton’s lone season there in 2010. He called Newton the “best leader I’ve ever been around, by far,” and glowed about Newton’s enormous talent. Then, he shared his best Cam Newton story.
Midway through the 2010 season, before Auburn’s national championship or Newton’s Heisman Trophy win, the then-No. 2 Tigers actually trailed No. 11 Alabama 24-0 at halftime of the Iron Bowl. But then…
“It was really kind of a very quiet locker room,” Drinkwitz said. “We were undefeated at the time, and (Newton) came in there — I think people were stunned, a little bit surprised — and he just had an emotional speech about… I don’t want to get exactly into what he said, but when it came down to it: don’t talk about it, be about it. For the second half, we need to be about our business.
“A group of offensive coaches (were) huddled up game-planning, and we could hear him talking to the team. I remember (assistant head coach) Trooper Taylor saying, ‘We’re gonna be alright, guys.’”
Auburn went on to win 28-27, the largest comeback in program history.
It’s a good story, one Drinkwitz can use in addition to his own experience and App State’s recent success. The Mountaineers have won or shared three consecutive Sun Belt champions, winning four straight bowl games over the same period. Even in a recruiting hotbed like Charlotte, Drinkwitz knows the value of winning.
“I don’t really think there’s anything difficult about (recruiting),” he said, “when you have a great product.”
Brendan Marks is a general assignment sports reporter for the Charlotte Observer covering the Carolina Panthers, Charlotte Hornets, NASCAR and more. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has worked for the Observer since August 2017.
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