In the course of a six-minute conversation, N.C. State’s Eli Drinkwitz talked about the philosophy of Ubuntu, a running back looking like a Greek god, student body presidents, fatherhood and Ryan Finley’s hair.
By any measure, the Wolfpack’s offensive coordinator is not your typical football coach.
Pack coach Dave Doeren played college football at Drake. Drinkwitz was the student body president at Arkansas Tech.
“And student body president in my high school,” Drinkwitz said.
That was in Alma, Ark., Drinkwitz’s hometown. Once called the “Spinach Capital of the World,” it’s a town of 6,000 or so souls on the edge of Ozarks.
Drinkwitz’s father played small-college football. His brothers played football. And he was an all-state linebacker at Alma High.
Drinkwitz tried to walk on the football team at Arkansas Tech, but a bum shoulder caused him to flunk the physical.
“It’s like we tell our guys here, that at some point they’re going to tell you that you can’t play anymore,” Drinkwitz said. “That happened. Now you’ve got to face the world.”
Drinkwitz thought about becoming a lawyer. Surely the world could fit in one more litigator.
“But,” he said, “I missed football. My high school coach said hey, I think you’d be a really good football coach, so I started tipping my toes in, just being a volunteer, and liked it and then at that point put myself all in.”
Fast forward through high school coaching and assistant coaching gigs at Auburn, Arkansas State and Boise State, and Drinkwitz got another call. It was Doeren. The Pack, having fired offensive coordinator Matt Canada after the 2015 season, after a miserable loss in the Belk Bowl, was looking for a new OC.
Drinkwitz was soon on the way to Raleigh. Along came Finley, a quarterback who had played for Drinkwitz at Boise State and is almost like a surrogate son.
“Obviously ‘Coach Drink’ and I have known each other a long time,” Finley said. “I think we’re real comfortable with each other and I think we work real well together. He knows my strengths and my weaknesses and obviously he attacks my weaknesses. I think we have a special communication that is really good for me.”
For both, the 2016 season at N.C. State had its highs and lows. There were some head-scratching play calls by Drinkwitz at times and some poor decisions made by Finley. But there also were very good games – it all ended well, with a victory over North Carolina, then a bowl win over Vanderbilt – Finley passed for 3,059 yards and 18 touchdowns.
Drinkwitz, who coaches the quarterbacks, likes that Finley has put on weight, smiling and saying, “His nickname won’t be ’Skin-ley’ anymore.”
He likes that running back Reggie Gallaspy has shed weight, saying, “He looks like a Greek god.”
The Wolfpack no longer has running back Matt Dayes, but it’s not lacking playmakers.
“With Coach Drink coming in last year, he really didn’t know any of us,” said senior Jaylen Samuels, the Pack’s all-purpose back. “But after a full season, after spending a whole offseason with him, with all the meetings, ‘comfortable’ is a good word. We will increase our offense.”
As the Pack began preseason practice, Drinkwitz slowly strolled through the offensive players, hands behind his back, once giving Finley a high-five after a play fake and rollout. He rarely raised his voice.
“No slow eyes. No slow eyes,” he said.
Be focused, see the field quickly, react quickly.
Finley laughed when asked about the coach’s mostly quiet, low-key demeanor, saying, “I don’t think I’ve ever gone through a practice without him yelling at me. If he stops yelling, you should be worried.”
For his part, Drinkwitz said, “Oh, I got mad at Finley a couple of times. If there’s a point to be made, I’ll make it.”
Such as pointing out Finley’s longer hair. That, he said, was a sign Finley was more comfortable around his teammates this year.
“He’s in a rhythm right now and the key for me is just keeping his feet to the fire and pushing him,” Drinkwitz said.
Early in fall camp, Drinkwitz was out a few days. His wife, Lindsey, gave birth to a third daughter, Ella Paige.
A little sleep deprivation for the offensive coordinator, perhaps?
“My wife is unbelievable. She’s definitely the MVP,” Drinkwitz said. “She keeps my life going.”
Drinkwitz, 34, said he likes to show photos of his family to the players he coaches. It’s important to him.
“Everything is about his girls,” quarterback Jalan McClendon said. “They mean the world to him.”
In has been in those player meetings that Drinkwitz has talked about Ubuntu, a term not found in any football playbook.
Ubuntu is a humanist philosophical term with Southern Africa origins. The late Nelson Mandela often referred to it as president of South Africa, as has social rights activist Desmond Tutu.
Coaches would say, We’re all in this together, we all make each other better. Drinkwitz says it another way.
“I am who I am because of who we are,” he said. “I am who I am because of who we are and my family is part of what I am and they’re a part of what those guys are, too,” Drinkwitz said of his players. “They’re around all the time. When we talk about family business. …”
Drinkwitz says introducing his players to Ubuntu isn’t original, quickly saying Junior Adams has used it as wide receivers coach at Boise State.
“There’s nothing really original in football anymore,” Drinkwitz said. “You’re copying and pasting while trying to find new ideas.”
Keeping the quarterbacks thinking
Offensive football is often a chess match, and Doeren likes that Drinkwitz has his quarterbacks thinking, giving them options.
“He’s got plays off of plays,” Doeren said. “He knows what he’s looking for within the play call for the next call. Instead of just calling a play, I think he’s looking at how you’re defending it and knows how to adjust quickly.
“That’s one thing I really like. If we’re going to be in a formation, we’re going to have four or five things that’s going to come out of it based on how they defend it as opposed to ‘Hey, they did a good job, it didn’t work.’ At least he has the answers I like, where you can have a play to take advantage of how they’re playing it.”
Drinkwitz learned offense from some of the best, including Gus Malzahn at Auburn and Arkansas State. He knows what attributes he wants in his quarterbacks, rattling off five in rapid succession — “Toughness, preparation, decision making, accuracy and leadership.”
This season, the Pack will have running back Nyheim Hines in the backfield a lot more. Samuels again will be all over the field. The receiving corps is solid.
“We’ve got so many guys who can change the game on one play,” Finley said.
That can include the offensive coordinator, making the right call.