After uncertain start, Mizzou sports finished strong in 2020
COLUMBIA, Mo. — When 2020 began Mizzou was just getting to know its new football coach and settling in for what promised to be a pivotal conference basketball season. Soon enough, the coronavirus pandemic hijacked the headlines and disrupted the sports calendar in Columbia, from canceled seasons in the spring to a summer of doubt and uncertainties.
After a delayed start, the action picked up in September with the start of Eli Drinkwitz’s debut football season, followed by the best start by Mizzou men’s basketball in nearly a decade. As challenging as 2020 became, it’s ending on a high note for the black and gold. Here’s a look back at Mizzou’s top storylines from the past year:
5. LOU TO THE ZOU
Drinkwitz didn’t waste any time on the recruiting trail, visiting multiple St. Louis high schools his third day on the job and making an immediate impression on the region’s coaches and recruits. On the first weekend of February, a month before the NCAA cut off all in-person recruiting, the Tigers hosted a large contingent of St. Louis prospects. The weekend paid off 10 months later when several of those players formed the core of MU’s highest-ranked recruiting class as rated by Rivals.com, 20th in the country. For years, Mizzou had struggled to maintain consistent inroads with St. Louis’ best prospects, but Drinkwitz made a haul with his 2021 class, signing seven players from the region, including three four-star targets in East St. Louis quarterback Tyler Macon and receiver Dominic Lovett and Lutheran North defensive end Travion Ford.
4. COVID STOPS SPORTS COLD
The coronavirus brought the college sports world to its knees on March 12. For many promising teams on Mizzou’s campus, the virus shuttered their seasons, some just as they were getting started. Cuonzo Martin’s men’s basketball team was having its best stretch of the season as it headed to Nashville for the SEC tournament but had to turn around when the event was canceled, soon followed by the NCAA Tournament.
Mizzou’s swimmers, wrestlers, gymnasts and indoor track athletes all were denied opportunity to shine in the postseason when the NCAA canceled its championship events. Mizzou’s two diamond sports had just started their seasons when COVID sent them into hibernation. Steve Bieser’s baseball team faced a postseason ban but was positioned to have a breakthrough regular season with key returners up and down the lineup. The same was true for Larissa Anderson’s softball program. Instead, both settled into quarantine and planned for the future.
3. JUSTICE FOR ALL
Soccer player Eryka McIntyre, center, leads protesters in a chant as they march through the University of Missouri campus in Columbia to protest social injustices in the U.S. on Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2020. Photo by Colter Peterson, firstname.lastname@example.org.
College athletes sparked social justice movements on campuses across the country in 2020, but Mizzou was among the very first programs that turned words to action. On June 4, MU football players organized a walk of solidarity in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, bringing together coaches, administrators and members of local law enforcement for a march that started at The Columns and ended at the Boone County Courthouse, where 62 athletes then registered to vote.
The march prompted discussions within the football program that helped launch the team’s Mizzou 4 Change movement, a series of community service actions and events the team organized during the summer and fall.
2. HOOPS REVIVAL
Missouri teammates pose with the Braggin' Rights trophy after they defeated Illinois in an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Dec. 12, 2020, in Columbia, Mo. (AP Photo/L.G. Patterson)
Picked to finish 10th in the SEC, right where they were seeded in last season’s conference tournament, Martin’s team tipped off his fourth season with a start unseen at Mizzou in nearly a decade. The Tigers head into the holidays having passed every test: A neutral-court victory over nationally ranked and reigning Pac-12 champion Oregon; takedowns of solid mid-major programs Wichita State and Liberty, the former coming on the road; and, most impressive, a third straight win over Illinois, ranked No. 6 at the time, at a mostly empty Mizzou Arena in a Braggin’ Rights Game unlike any other in the series’ storied past. The Tigers are closing December with the best credentials of any SEC team. After the Illinois win, MU broke into The AP Top 25 for the first time in seven years, reaching No. 16.
1. DRINK IT UP
Missouri head coach Eliah Drinkwitz works the field on the first day of football practice at the University of Missouri in Columbia on Monday, Aug. 17, 2020. Photo by Robert Cohen, email@example.com
When Missouri hired a 36-year-old with just one year of experience as a college football head coach, the university was betting on upside. In Eli Drinkwitz, Mizzou’s campus leaders saw energy, charisma and offensive innovation. Through a year on the job, he’s more than lived up to their expectations. Local recruits were among the first to buy in, committing to Drinkwitz and his rebuilt staff before the Tigers played a game under the new regime. The momentum carried into the fall, when after early stumbles against Alabama and Tennessee in the SEC’s reshuffled 10-game schedule, the Tigers won five of six games, clinched a .500 record, toppled defending national champion LSU, squashed a five-year losing streak to Kentucky and held off Arkansas with a last-second field goal.
A 49-14 loss to Georgia underscored the gap between Mizzou and the elite programs in the SEC — Alabama, Florida and UGA outscored the Tigers by 78 points — but Drinkwitz’s rookie season signaled unmistakable progress.
Placed sixth in the SEC Eastern Division, the Tigers (6-5) will play Iowa in the Music City Bowl.