History will record Saturday as the official start of the Barry Odom era at Missouri, but really it’s a journey 20 years in the making.
Odom, 39, will patrol the sideline at West Virginia’s Milan Puskar Stadium in Morgantown, W.Va., as the Tigers’ coach for the first time (11 a.m. on Fox Sports 1), feeling the weight of a state and its flagship university on his broad shoulders.
“I get one shot at this, and I’ve got a lot of people that are counting on me to do it right,” Odom said. “There’s a lot of people here at the University of Missouri that care deeply about this program and athletic department. The state of Missouri is important to me to represent it the right way. There’s a whole bunch of former players that I owe them to do it right. There won’t be a day ever that I forget that.”
Odom originally is from Ada, Okla., but Columbia is home now.
It was for four seasons in the late 1990s as a star linebacker at Mizzou.
It was for two seasons as the head coach at Rock Bridge High during 2001-02, his only previous head coaching experience.
It was for the next nine years as a member of former coach Gary Pinkel’s staff in various capacities.
After three seasons at Memphis as defensive coordinator, Odom returned last season and crafted a Tigers defense that ranked in the top six nationally in scoring defense, total defense and passing defense.
Odom succeeded Pinkel, who retired amid a cancer diagnosis to spend more time with his family, in early December and now begins a mission to surpass his mentor one win — and, he hopes, championship — at a time.
“Coach Odom has very, very big shoes to fill ... ,” MU interim chancellor Hank Foley said at Odom’s introductory news conference. “But I also couldn’t help but notice that Coach Odom has really big feet, so I think he’ll be able to fill those shoes.”
Pinkel, who owns the most MU football coaching victories with a 117-71 record in 15 seasons, has been respectful of the transition, trying not to be an omnipresent figure at the Mizzou Athletics Training Complex during the last nine months.
But Pinkel dropped by his old office Monday.
“I asked him to come by,” Odom said. “I had a couple questions for him.”
Odom has worked hard to put himself in this position, feels prepared to be a head coach and is honored to do it at his alma mater, but he’s also human and sought counsel from someone who’s experienced the rollercoaster he’s been riding this week.
“I told him honestly how I was feeling, anxious and excited for our kids,” Odom said. “I just want to do right for them. I mean, I owe them. They have worked their tails off and have done absolutely everything I’ve asked them to do for a number of months now. I feel the urgency to put them in position to have a chance to be successful.”
Odom isn’t sure exactly when Columbia became home or his dream of leading Mizzou onto the field as its head coach crystallized, but he knows Saturday — with the realization of his decades-long dream — could prove overwhelming.
“I’m going to try to block it out,” Odom said. “I’m not very good on getting emotional. I’ve got to get dialed in and worry about making sure I’m talking to the offense when I’m supposed to and the defense when I’m supposed to.”
That might be the toughest adjustment as head coach. He’s been solely focused on defense for so long, switching the headset between defensive and offensive channels is a new experience — one he admitted to struggling with during scrimmages.
Odom plans to give his coordinators, DeMontie Cross (defense) and Josh Heupel (offense), wide latitude and freedom.
“It’s important when you put a staff together that you get guys that you trust number one, and they better be good at what they do ... ,” Odom said. “There will be a time that I need to say something, but it’s also important that they’re not looking over their shoulder and wondering about what I’m thinking.”
Odom isn’t interested in micromanaging, but he also understands the buck stops with him.
“I do want to be involved enough that I know what we are calling on third and 1,” he said.
First, he’s got to solve the riddle of the headset.
“I’ve been working on that after hours,” Odom joked.
Missouri at West Virginia
▪ WHEN: 11 a.m. Saturday
▪ WHERE: Milan Puskar Stadium, Morgantown, W.Va.
▪ TV: Fox Sports 1
THREE STORY LINES
1. Power Five road opener: Missouri hasn’t opened the season with a true road game against a Power Five conference opponent since 1996, a 40-10 loss at No. 8 Texas in new head coach Barry Odom’s freshman season. The Tigers hope for a better result against West Virginia than the last meeting in Morgantown, a 35-3 loss in 1993. Mizzou won 27-0 at West Virginia in 1926.
2. Negative plays: Missouri’s defense ranked second in the Football Bowl Subdivision, averaging 8.83 tackles for loss per game last season. Only Boston College was better (9.50). Unfortunately, the Tigers also allowed 7.33 tackles for loss per game, which was tied for 114th among 128 FBS teams. Mizzou needs to maintain its penchant for negative plays while eliminating the drive-killing sacks and minus-yardage runs in 2015.
3. Specializing in special teams: During 2010-14, Marcus Murphy — and Chiefs wide receiver Jeremy Maclin before him — spoiled Missouri fans with an array of game-changing plays in the return game. Last season was a different story as the Tigers ranked dead last in kickoff-return average, managing a meager 15.08 yards and trailing the second-worst team in FBS by 1.52 yards. Meanwhile, opponents had a field day as Mizzou also ranked 124th, allowing 26.5 yards per kickoff return. Only Arizona State was worse among Power Five programs (26.83).