By now, the introductory press conference is more of a television show and a presentation than anything else so they brought the band and balloons and cheerleaders and everyone stuck to script.
Barry Odom, the gritty former linebacker who grew up in Oklahoma but by now is what they call a True Son here, is the new football coach at Missouri. He is talented and serious and impatient and competitive and intense and a dozen other adjectives you find in most successful football coaches, and it is impossible not to feel good for a man who works hard and achieves his dream job at the exact place he wants to do it.
School officials did not tell the players who their new coach would be, instead letting Odom walk in the meeting room to what very well may be the most enthusiastic welcome a coach is capable of receiving. It was a beautiful moment, one that will be replayed over and over again across this state and probably during TV broadcasts next fall.
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Winning the press conference has become a term people use for these situations, and that was never going to be a problem for Odom. The press conference, which was Friday at Mizzou Arena, never stood a chance. The harder part will be winning games.
“I’m going to need a lot of help,” he said. “There will be bumps along the way, and I embrace that.”
In a lot of ways, Odom’s hiring and his success or failure will be viewed through two prisms — the first as an extension of Gary Pinkel’s culture, and the second as whether Odom is ready for such a challenge at 39 years old and without any previous head coaching experience.
The first way will probably be a little overblown. Odom is expected to make major changes to the coaching staff, including big money for a new offensive coordinator. His comfort with the players and history with the school are particularly important at this moment, but he is expected and motivated to make this his program.
The second is a calculated risk by athletic director Mack Rhoades, who said he did not prioritize previous experience as much as finding the best man for the job.
Missouri football was built into a consistent winner by Pinkel, who had 10 years of on-the-job training at Toledo. With more money and the move to the Southeastern Conference, Mizzou is now a bigger job than when Pinkel took over with much more experience than Odom has now.
Odom talked of expecting to win championships, plural, and the last nine SEC champions have been led by men who took their jobs with previous head coaching experience.
With South Carolina’s job open, Missouri is one of five SEC schools with men in their first head coaching job. That includes Georgia, the last school to win a conference title by a man in his first head coaching job, and a program whose hiring of Kirby Smart — beloved former player, successful defensive coordinator — vaguely mirrors Mizzou’s selection of Odom.
But if you look a little closer, the more successful programs — Alabama and LSU among them — are the ones with more experienced head coaches.
There is no one way to do this, of course. Nationally, exactly half of the top 20 programs in the playoff rankings are led by first-time head coaches. Of those 10 men, seven (including Southern California’s Clay Helton) were promoted from within. And it’s worth noting that one of the three first-timers hired from outside was Tom Herman, whom Rhoades tabbed at Houston last year.
So this is much less about following any specific script, and much more about finding the right fit — the right man for the job at the right time.
There is no such thing as a perfect candidate. Every hire requires faith, and projections, and more than a little guessing. No vetting or interview process can eliminate that. You just have to ask questions.
“If there’s an area in your resume that’s missing, first of all, do you recognize that fact?” said Mike Alden, Mizzou’s former A.D. “And how do you plan on building the support base around you to address that? Because that’s the reality.
“If they haven’t been a head coach, it’s about, ‘OK, what’s your plan? If we put you in this role, how will you support that area as you grow into that position?’ ”
Alden’s biggest hiring mistake was Quin Snyder over Bill Self as men’s basketball coach in 1999. Snyder was an assistant at Duke, and Self had been a head coach at Tulsa and Oral Roberts. That’s an oversimplification, of course, but experience is a major component.
Alden’s biggest hiring success was the only job he absolutely had to get right, and that was selecting Pinkel. His 15 years in charge of Missouri included a conference change, suspensions, arrests, a player’s death, administrative unrest, regular cycles of criticism, and just this year a player boycott over campus racial relations.
That’s a lot to survive, and through it all, among Pinkel’s best qualities have been his steadiness and confidence. The best way to develop those strengths is through experience.
Pinkel said his biggest mistake as a young coach was trying to be too much like Don James, his mentor at Washington. Pinkel said it took a few years to develop the awareness and conviction to be himself. He is closer with Odom than he is with most of his assistants, and said he has known for a long time Odom would be a head coach, in no small part because of his willingness to be his own man.
“He knows what he wants to be, and who he wants to be,” Pinkel said. “We’ve kind of indirectly talked about that. He knows that, he’s on top of that.”
Whenever a new coach is hired, the temptation is always to make some grand judgment, yay or nay, and those are always less informed versions of the guesses made by the administrators who do the hiring. I happen to think that with Mark Richt being an unrealistic choice, this was the best move for Mizzou, but who knows?
The truth is these things are usually decided by fit, and by the coach’s ability to maximize his own strengths and diminish his weaknesses. As we look at it today, Odom’s strengths appear obvious: he is popular with his players and the program’s fans, has an advanced football mind, and understands the culture. His biggest weakness appears to be a lack of head coaching experience.
His success or failure in the biggest job of his life will depend on his ability to address that.