If Pat Jones hadn’t been fired from Oklahoma State after the 1994 season, Barry Odom might not be Missouri’s football coach today.
Odom, who was introduced Friday at Mizzou Arena as Gary Pinkel’s successor and the Tigers’ 32nd football coach, grew up in Ada, Okla., where sports were ingrained in the town’s culture.
“If it was basketball season, you were playing basketball,” he said. “If it was football season, you were playing football. Baseball — that’s just the way it was in small-town Oklahoma.”
The gridiron is where Odom found stardom, earning a scholarship offer from Oklahoma State despite playing his last three high school seasons on a torn knee ligament, but that opportunity vanished when Jones was forced out.
“Pat Jones left, (Bob) Simmons came in and they didn’t have a scholarship,” said Odom’s father, Bob. “That was it.”
Odom couldn’t have predicted it then, but he’s sure now that fate was at work.
During track season, then-Missouri offensive line coach Harry Hiestand spotted Odom and offered him a scholarship.
“He saw me on the track and I think they felt sorry for me,” Odom said. “They had one spot left and said, ‘Come on, we’ll give it to you. Let’s go make this work.’ ”
“It came down between Missouri and Arkansas,” Bob said. “He had a bum knee and had to get that fixed, but Larry Smith wanted him pretty bad. It worked out pretty good.”
Fate wasn’t done intervening. Odom — who legend has it accepted MU’s offer as he went into surgery on his knee — started his career as a tailback.
“That lasted all of one practice,” Odom said.
After that initial practice, Odom was called into Smith’s office.
“I was a little bit in awe of a freshman, day one, going into his office,” Odom recalled.
Smith’s message was blunt: “Odom, you’re not a tailback. You’re a linebacker. You OK with that?”
“Yes, sir,” said Odom, who then headed for the door and eventually into the Tigers’ record books.
He has the seventh-most career tackles at Missouri with 362, so moving to defense that turned out to be a wise decision — awkward as it was at the time.
“It was during two-a-days, so I think it was a morning practice where he played tailback and then the afternoon he was with the linebackers,” said former Missouri defensive tackle Steve Erickson, who played alongside Odom from 1996-99. “The offense and defense wears different colors, so he had a white jersey in the morning and black jersey in the afternoon.”
At that time, Missouri had a fullback named Ron Janes, who was nicknamed “Rhino” and was the lead blocker for so many Brock Olivo runs. During one of the first practices after Odom switched to defense, the first-string offense worked on power runs.
“Here comes Rhino up the middle to try and block Barry,” Erickson said. “Barry went in there face first, and you just heard this collision and this smack. It was one of those kind of pops that everyone stops and goes, ‘That was impressive.’ ”
Nobody really knew Odom at the time, but things changed when the offense tried running the same play again.
“They absolutely stone-headed each other and you’re like, ‘That’s tough. You don’t just do that to Ron Janes very easily,’ ” Erickson said. “I’ll never forget that collision and the toughness (Odom) showed from there going forward. It was evident.”
That grit also has come to define Odom’s coaching career.
After graduating, Odom started as an assistant coach at his high school alma mater, Ada High, in 2000.
He served as Columbia Rock Bridge’s head coach in 2001-02 before joining Pinkel’s staff and serving in various capacities from 2003-11.
Next, Odom spent three seasons transforming Memphis’ defense before returning to Columbia as the Tigers’ defensive coordinator and helping build Missouri into a top-10 defense for the first time since the NCAA began tracking statistics in 1978.
Rhoades said Odom was among five candidates targeted for the job. He declined to name the other four candidates.
The first interview with Odom, who also interviewed with Memphis for its head coaching vacancy this week, was a four-hour meeting at Rhoades’ house.
“We wanted to meet with Coach Odom first to just see how high he set the bar, and he set the bar at a world-championship level,” Rhoades said. “He has great intellectual horsepower, he knows football and has a high football acumen. He is ready, he’s tough, has a competitive fire in his belly. … It didn’t hurt that this is his dream job.”
Rhoades still put Odom the paces with a grueling second interview.
“We intentionally tried to wear him out,” Rhoades said. “He’s smiling, because we tried, and he even got a little ticked off about it, which I liked.”
The second interview confirmed what Rhoades already suspected — Odom was the right man at the right time for the Missouri football job.
“After that first meeting, my heart was there …” Rhoades said. “Then, I needed to get my mind there. In order to do that, you have to talk to other candidates.”
Rhoades said he offered Odom the job Wednesday and Thursday the two sides hammered out the framework of a five-year contract, which is expected to approved during a University of Missouri System Board of Curators meeting Dec. 10-11 at the Missouri-St. Louis campus.
It was a relief for the Odoms, who thought an intermediate step as a head coach at a smaller school might be needed before Missouri would turn over the reins.
“We truly thought we would need to leave and go to another school and have that experience then come back possibly,” said Odom’s wife, Tia, who also is an MU graduate. “Or try to come back, I should say.”
That won’t be necessary.
“At the end of the day, it was about who we felt had the best ability to take us to that next level …” Rhoades said. “We had other options. Coach Odom had other options. But, ultimately, this partnership — both sides, all of us wanted. … He is the right person, this is the right time and this is the perfect fit to lead our program to that next level.”