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COLUMBIA, Mo. — A question from the media rarely catches Missouri football coach Barry Odom by surprise, but one knocked him off guard at last month’s Southeastern Conference media days. A reporter from Tennessee asked Odom about Missouri’s staff having the most African-American assistant coaches in the league.

Odom hadn’t realized that, but it’s true: No team in the conference has more black assistants than Mizzou’s seven, which matches Auburn, Florida and Mississippi State. Only four other SEC staffs have more than four black assistants.

Mizzou’s seven black coaches, out of 10 total assistants, represent a wide mix of backgrounds:

• Garrick McGee (wide receivers) has been a head coach at Alabama-Birmingham and served as an offensive coordinator at four Power 5 schools.

• Veteran assistants Brick Haley (defensive line), Vernon Hargreaves (linebackers) and Cornell Ford (running backs) have been coaching in college programs for a collective 90 seasons, including a couple years in the NFL for Haley. Ford is one of the longest-tenured MU assistants in team history, coming up on his 19th consecutive year on staff.

• A.J. Ofodile (tight ends) is a former Mizzou player on his first college staff after coaching for 15 years at Columbia’s Rock Bridge High.

• Brad Davis, 39, (offensive line) and Ryan Walters, 33, (defensive coordinator/safeties) are the staff’s only under-40 full-time assistants.

On a campus where four years ago student activists demanded the school hire more minority faculty and staff — and where the football team joined the protests and briefly boycotted team activities — Odom doesn’t hide from discussions of race. But he insists he doesn’t hire coaches on the whims of political correctness. (He’s also fired two black coaches in the middle of seasons: Jackie Shipp in 2016 and DeMontie Cross, his former teammate, in 2017).

MORE DIVERSITY

At the same school that hired the Big Eight Conference’s first black football assistant — Prentice Gautt in 1968 — Odom also employs one of the SEC’s two female directors of football operations in Brittany Boehm Jones. By design or not, the staff’s makeup bucks a national trend and, some staffers believe, reflects what they like most about their boss.

“I look at hiring the best person for that specific job and what they bring to our team and our program and organization,” Odom said after a recent preseason practice. “I want the best fit. I want guys that want to be at Mizzou that are great teachers, that are loyal, that care about serving our kids. This happens to be the staff that we have right now. It’s the best group of people I’ve been around.

“You look at any roster makeup and when there are some similarities (to the players), that can only help. But we’ve got to find the right guys for the job.”

Across college football, there’s still a wide disparity between African-American representation at the player and coach levels. At the start of last season, 11.5 percent of FBS head coaches were black and 33.8 percent of assistants, according to the University of Central Florida’s annual study of minority hiring in college athletics. The players were 54.3 percent black. Almost 66 percent of Mizzou’s players are black.

In a time when discussions of race are threaded through everything from politics to entertainment to sports, Odom isn’t consciously trying to earn points for bringing diversity to the coaching industry. But in a conference that didn’t feature a black head coach until Sylvester Croom took over at Mississippi State in 2004, Mizzou’s staff makeup hasn’t gone unnoticed.

Except around the team itself. MU coaches and players interviewed for this story all were unaware Mizzou had the most black assistants in the SEC. Some shrugged at the observation. Others found a deeper meaning.

“You hear a lot of people say this, but knowing Barry and knowing how he operates, he doesn’t see color,” said Walters, one of three black defensive coordinators in the SEC. “He doesn’t see skin tone. He’s aware of it because he tries to be empathetic and see things from a different perspective. But he just went and tried to hire the best coaches he could hire for these positions, and they just happen to be minorities.”

Ofodile has worked with Odom the longest, dating to their time coaching at Rock Bridge in the early 2000s.

“I’m going to tell you what (the staff makeup) says about Barry that I’ve always known: He’s an unbelievable human being,” Ofodile said. “He’s somebody I would run through a wall for. I think all of us on the staff feel that way. More than anything when he chose the staff I think he chose guys that would reflect his beliefs and his values. He chose guys who would genuinely care about the kids in the program and want to be mentors for them. Coincidentally, this is who you land with.

“Hat’s off to him. I wish the world was like that.”

TAKING NOTE

Players interviewed were mostly unmoved by the impact.

“I really don’t even notice (the coaches’ race),” linebacker Aubrey Miller said. “You see it, but I’m worried about getting on the field and worried about helping my team. Any coach I have here I’m going hard for.”

“I love all our coaches the same, any race,” safety Ronnell Perkins said. “We can go talk to them, white, black, Latino, whatever.”

“We have good coaches, good staff, good trainers,” wide receiver Kam Scott added. “We all look at each other like one big family. The coaches, for some of us that are far away from home, they’re like father figures to us.”

That factor isn’t lost on Walters, though he paused when asked about the staff’s impact on a team that’s nearly two-thirds black.

“I want to be careful and not speak for an entire demographic, but at 18 if you’re from a community that’s mostly black, yeah, sometimes it can be a culture shock going to a college campus that’s predominantly white,” he said. “Sometimes having someone around that looks more like you makes you more comfortable. Whether that’s right or wrong is irrelevant because it’s just the nature of the situation. So I think it definitely helps in those circumstances.”

McGee said the staff’s racial makeup never has been a topic of conversation in its meeting room. He called Haley and Davis two of the country’s best coaches at their respective positions — and said the same for cornerbacks coach David Gibbs, who is white.

“We all have a lot of respect for each other in the profession,” McGee said. “We have a lot of fun and we all know who we work for — and we all respect the position of the head coach. At the same time I think the head coach can see that we got a lot of guys around the table that have been around and know what we’re doing.”


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