The first practice and news conference before his second season just behind him, University of Missouri football coach Barry Odom stepped off to the side with his sons, J.T. and Garyt.
Alternately tousling their hair or standing arm-in-arm with either boy as he spoke to a reporter, bearing facial hair that straddled being a beard and just not shaving, Odom radiated comfort in his own skin that was hard for him to routinely demonstrate in his first season as a collegiate head coach.
“It’s not even close,” Odom said.
Odom is as intense as ever about the job, maybe more so.
But between a better sense of the dynamics of his staff, naturally deeper engagement of his players and better attunement to his own strengths and weaknesses, he’s also learning to let go of a few things.
“I’ve always for whatever reason had some trust issues,” he said. “So it’s been easier this year. There’s not any hidden agendas in the room, which I can’t always say was the case.”
Odom didn’t elaborate on the hidden agendas, but maybe it’s small wonder he had a force field up much of last season.
For starters, he entered the year all at once as the successor to the momentous Gary Pinkel era, learning on the job in the gnarly Southeastern Conference and contending with the ongoing radioactive fallout from the 2015 football boycott in sympathy with protests against racism on campus.
In the last few days, Odom reviewed his notes from last season, part of a catalog he has logged of every day and every meeting since he started coaching.
He flinched at some of the memories from this time a year ago.
While Odom didn’t specify, no doubt he was referring among other matters to learning just before his first SEC Media Days that athletic director Mack Rhoades was leaving for Baylor and the dismissals of defensive linemen Harold Brantley and Walter Brady on the eve of his first training camp.
Oh, and maybe working for an interim system president and chancellor could have been part of that feeling of flux.
“Usually, when people within the department are coming to see you, the head coach, it’s not great news,” he said. “There was a stretch there where (with) everybody who was walking in the door, it felt like a 12-round fight.”
Just the same, none of that was what made his team’s own 12-round bout end with a 4-8 record, a victory total that Odom at last month’s SEC Media Days memorably said “hurts your soul.”
Odom knows he owns that record.
“Even though I feel I was really, really trained in the different roles under Gary and ready for the job, until you’ve been through it … ,” he said, his voice trailing off before continuing. “There are some of those things, you’ve got Plan A and B and C in place, but you’d better have D in your back pocket ready to go because it’s going to happen.
“But that’s not ‘woe, poor pitiful me,’ right? You inherited some things, and some things I allowed to happen and some things just happened. Doesn’t matter. Go fix it.”
With 10 starters back from an offense that averaged more than 500 yards per game (though just 446 in SEC play), the apparent immediate fix needs to be in for a porous defense that allowed an average of 31.5 points (tied for 89th in the nation) and 479.7 yards (118th) per game.
That was a cruel irony considering Odom rose to the job largely by virtue of his work as a defensive coordinator — including coaxing MU to allowing just 16.2 points a game (seventh in the nation) in 2015.
Ultimately, nothing reflected a broader disruption in the program than the defense, which had lost some key players but also was sabotaged by a combination of poor chemistry and an ill-considered attempt to change schemes.
Odom aborted that strategy at midseason, announcing he would take the reins from defensive coordinator DeMontie Cross as he resumed play-calling duties and abandoning the read-and-react bit to resume a more aggressive philosophy.
He’ll maintain that sort of presence with the defense, even as Cross and Ryan Walters maintain co-defensive coordinator titles.
So it might sound counterintuitive to suggest Odom is letting go even as he’s essentially in charge of one side of the ball as well as game management and all the other CEO-like aspects of the job.
But here’s what he means by that.
“Last year, I did everything from what we were having for lunch to uniforms. All that stuff, really,” he said. “I need to stay away from some of that stuff.”
In other words, reduce the micromanaging by continuing to tamp down his trust issues.
He laughed when asked if he knew the expression “sometimes wrong, never in doubt” and whether he felt he had to project that in his first year on the job.
Now, Odom says, he knows he has the people around him to make him right when he’s not.
“I obviously don’t have all the answers,” he said. “Working together, we’re in a lot better spot.”
That’s easier to do with new leadership in place, from the top of MU’s administration to the athletic director’s office of Jim Sterk, who has emphatically backed Odom publicly and earned Odom’s faith.
At least for the moment, it all feels a long way from last year as Mizzou prepares to start the season Sept. 2 against visiting Missouri State.
“I keep learning as we go,” Odom said during his news conference. “You make corrections, you make changes, you understand what maybe your strengths are and go ahead and admit what your weaknesses are. Which obviously I’ve got a few.”
Fewer by the day, though, the more he can be himself and the more his staff can prove worthy of his trust.