COLUMBIA, MO. • The punt sails high into the thick swamp of August humidity, plops in the hands of Aarion Penton and instantly the head coach swarms the return man. Barry Odom swings a black leather pad and smacks Penton as he dashes upfield. Another punt blasts in the air for the next set of hands, and Odom’s pad goes flailing after another returner.
“Come on now, hang onto that ball,” Odom warns.
And there you have the first major difference between Missouri’s new head coach and the guy he replaced.
Gary Pinkel was nothing if not stoic on the practice field. Quiet, usually alone, he scanned the action, jotted notes. As the CEO of Mizzou Inc., Pinkel coached the coaches.
On the same field where he first roamed the middle of Missouri’s defense 20 years ago, Odom is everywhere. He’s coaching the punt coverage unit. He’s touring the linebacker drills. He’s in the end zone making sure receivers tap their feet inbounds. There is constant motion, endless energy from the 39-year-old Odom who’s never been a college head coach but makes it look like he’s done it for decades.
He wears the same faded, sweat-stained black Mizzou cap he’s had since he returned here 18 months ago as defensive coordinator, and a whistle around his neck with a black Sharpie fastened to the string. The attire is as consistent as his demeanor. Day in, day out. Players want to play for him and coaches want to work for him because he brings the same approach to every day. No frills, no flash.
“He’s the same guy, very focused, very determined, very intense about getting the job done,” said longtime assistant Andy Hill, now working for his third Mizzou head coach. “As a first-time head coach he’s done a fabulous job from December to now getting the staff together, organizing all the stuff we’re doing. Feeling your way through it as a new person is usually pretty difficult for most coaches, but he’s done a real nice job. I think it’s showing on the field, too.”
So many questions meet the start of Missouri’s 2016 football season and its fifth year in the Southeastern Conference, from its untested offensive line to its gnarly road schedule. Coming off a 5-7 season that ended with Pinkel’s retirement, the one unknown looming over the program starts with the head coach, a former Mizzou linebacker whose only head-coaching experience came at Rock Bridge High School, 14 years ago.
What kind of coach did MU hire when it promoted its defensive coordinator last December? How will the youngest and least experienced head coach in the SEC navigate through adversity? How will he handle success?
Odom has prepared himself for this opportunity for years, guided by a few simple self commandments.
“Control what you can control,” said Odom, who will turn 40 on Nov. 26, the day after Missouri’s regular-season finale against Arkansas. “You’ve got a job to do. There are going to be things you really want to fix immediately, but it takes some time to work through it. There’s some patience involved, but you’ve got to make immediate decisions for what you feel is right for your program at that time. ... If you make your decision on what’s best for your team, usually it’s going to be the right thing.”
“It wasn’t too long ago that I was a high school coach,” he continued. “The field is still the same distance from goal line to goal line. I also realize every day driving into work that I’ve got a tremendous opportunity to lead a bunch of guys, a bunch of student-athletes and change their lives. I embrace that opportunity.”
This much we’ve learned in Odom’s time as head coach: He’s not Pinkel.
Yes, he worked for the program’s career wins leader for 10 of his 15 seasons in Columbia, but Odom already has built his own identity and severed ties with familiar traces that defined the program under Pinkel. For starters, he got rid of most of Pinkel’s staff, including longtime loyal position coaches Brian Jones and Craig Kuligowski, as well as strength coach Pat Ivey.
Odom expanded MU’s recruiting territory and reinvested in Texas. He won’t be as cautious with the freshmen on his roster and plans to play as many as 10 this season.
Pinkel always had players vote for four senior captains on the first day of preseason camp. Odom delayed the process to let the team’s leadership develop. Underclassmen are eligible.
He ended Pinkel’s rule that players live in the dorms during camp. This summer, players could live in apartments off campus — as long as they stayed out of trouble this summer. During camp, Odom reinstated two-a-days, a tradition Pinkel ended a few years back. The Tigers gathered for lighter morning sessions most days — Odom called them run-throughs, not walk-throughs — followed by harder, full-pads practices in the afternoon.
The most obvious change for the players is the open door they now find on the second floor of the team facility.
“The first thing he did when he became head coach was put an Xbox and a PlayStation in his office,” linebacker Michael Scherer said.
Players can pick out the music in Odom’s office. There’s candy, too.
“Twix bars,” Scherer said.
It’s not that Pinkel didn’t enjoy his players or develop relationships with them. But things are noticeably different. Scherer called Pinkel’s office “a forbidden area.” No more.
“You don’t have to wait in line,” linebacker Donavin Newsom said. “You don’t have to knock.”
“When you get off the field you can vibe with him,” tight end Sean Culkin added. “He’s cool. He’s a player’s coach that you love to have conversations with, hang with, joke with, chill out with.”
Odom can recruit coaches, too. Greg Brown left Louisville to coach cornerbacks under Odom, who’s almost 20 years younger. Brown has coached under John McKay, Bill McCartney, Nick Saban, Bobby Petrino and Jeff Fisher but believed in the guy with zero college head-coaching experience.
“He’s genuine. He’s smart. He’s tough,” Brown said. “He just knows how to get the job done. Bottom line, these players will run through a wall for the guy.”
Colleagues describe Odom as a throwback, a link to the program’s forgotten ascension in the 1990s, when Larry Smith’s triple-option offense and punishing defense led MU to winning seasons in 1997-98. Shortly after he settled into his new position, Odom adopted the motto “Toughness Wins” and plastered it everywhere around the team facility, on social media and in his players’ minds. It’s hardly lip service. It speaks to his roots in college football, born from the Smith era when the Tigers rose from irrelevance one grueling yard at a time.
The Pinkel years brought Mizzou to the national consciousness, and ultimately, into the SEC. But the Smith years still burn in the new coach’s soul.
“Larry gave me a chance. I’ll never forget that,” Odom said. “He instilled toughness in our program. There were days we maybe wondered why we were doing inside run period for hours on hours it seemed like. But he also had a plan of teaching us that great competitors continue to work and strive to get what they want. It won’t ever be easy.”
Ask Odom about the influential people in his life and he starts with two coaches: Larry McBroom, his high school coach in Ada., Okla., and Harry Hiestand, the offensive line coach who recruited him to Mizzou. Odom, a record-setting running back in high school, had committed to Oklahoma State, but when a new staff pulled his offer, he chose Missouri over Arkansas.
“Harry recruited the type of guys that were grinders, the hardest working kids that never wanted to come off the field,” said Corbin Smith, Larry’s son and MU’s tight ends and special teams coach during Odom’s playing days. “That’s how Barry grew up and that’s the way he played. Most guys like that are the ones who get into coaching and have the most success in coaching.”
Odom came to Mizzou as a fullback, but the staff had other plans. He moved to inside linebacker and played immediately.
“Barry wasn’t a 6-3, 245-pound linebacker who could run a 4.6,” said Smith, who lives in Arizona and runs the Larry Smith Football Academy, a coaching clinic named for his father, who died in 2008. “Barry was, what, 6-1? Maybe 225? But he would knock your block off.”
“Barry was not one of those guys you recruit who’s a sure bet,” said Moe Ankney, Mizzou’s defensive coordinator from 1994-2000. “He wasn’t a big guy. He didn’t have great speed or those physical qualities you look for. But he had great instincts. He was smart.”
And popular with teammates. DeMontie Cross, now Odom’s defensive coordinator, was a senior safety in 1996, Odom’s freshman year.
“He is a throwback,” Cross said. “Coach Smith brought a very unique brand. We went from (Bob) Stull, who’d fly it around and throw it everywhere, to smashmouth football with Coach Smith. That rubbed off on both of us. Our practices were tough and grueling. That’s the way football has always been played. And he’s trying to bring that back.”
Odom ended his career as MU’s No. 4 all-time tackler. Bigger stars were on Smith’s two bowl teams — Brock Olivo, Corby Jones, Justin Smith — but Odom was a core part of the program’s rise.
“He turned out to be a much better player than we ever thought,” said Ankney, now retired in Portland, Ore. “I can’t remember at any time Barry having any weakness. He was a stalwart.”
For Odom, to guide Mizzou into the future, his instincts told him to connect to the past. (He even hired Smith’s old director of operations, Mike McHugh.) It’s a part of Odom’s makeup colleagues admire, even those from afar.
“A lot of guys in the coaching profession who had success and elevated their careers, they forget where they came from,” Corbin Smith said. “Barry is the furthest thing from that. He’ll always remember his roots.”