If Missouri brings the same creativity and approach to its schedule that it did to its appearance at SEC Media Days, start celebrating Tigers.
Mizzou brought its “A” game on Wednesday, a rarity for the program that often finds itself outside the conference’s attention span.
But the Tigers were camera-ready on this day, from linebacker Eric Beisel proclaiming that he was a gladiator in a previous life — plus taking jabs at budding rival Arkansas — to coach Barry Odom putting himself in the hot seat, the Tigers were the most engaging team at the annual media fest that becomes a fan carnival on the day Alabama takes the stage. That also happened to be Wednesday.
Winning in July isn’t the objective for Mizzou, and Odom and players hardly needed to be reminded how last season’s 4-8 finish felt.
“When you win four games, believe me, it hurts your soul,” Odom said.
For quarterback Drew Lock, the hurt ran deep. He’s a Lee’s Summit product whose father and grandfather played for Mizzou. If anyone was born to play for the Tigers, it’s him. By the way, Lock was born in Columbia.
“I have an extreme amount of pride when I put the Missouri jersey on, as did my dad when he played there,” Lock said. “So obviously the lumps are going to be (felt) a little more for me. That just drives me even more to give this university and this state a great season.”
One way that could happen is for Odom to coach a little less. Not by effort but time management.
Like many first-time head coaches, Odom believed in a hands-on approach. That is, he had his hands on everything. That was a mistake.
“I did a little too much last year, or tried to,” Odom said.
Lock noticed it.
“He came out full steam ahead,” Lock said. “He wasn’t going to be a stand-in-the-middle-of-the-field kind of coach. But I think he had to be a little more business that first year. He’s a little more relaxed, in a good way.”
Translating it to the field is Odom’s charge. That will mean less revving the engine in preseason workouts, Odom said. Once the regular season begins, upgrades are needed across the board. Lock’s’ performances sagged against better competition a year ago. The defense collapsed, a stunning development with Odom’s defensive background.
Missouri never seemed on the same page much of last season. At Tennessee, the offense rolled up 740 yards, and Mizzou lost 63-37.
The defense vows to be better, what with a gladiator at linebacker. My, did Beisel have fun in front of the media, which is precisely what should happen at an event that takes itself too seriously.
Beisel, who talked smack before last year’s season finale against Arkansas and backed it up while leading the Tigers to a comeback victory, stocked up for this exercise. Asked about hearing from Razorbacks fans on social media last year, Beisel downplayed the response: “Small things, like death threats,” he said. “Nothing I couldn’t handle.”
Beisel was the smartest person in the ballroom.
“I’m just in my element here,” said Beisel, who sports a red beard and is nicknamed Zeus. “I like to talk. I like to make things personal. That’s SEC football. It’s an entertainment business.”
Nothing drives the product more than winning, and the Tigers are riding a two-year losing streak after winning successive division championships.
When Missouri won its second title, in 2014, the program had posted its ninth winning and bowl season in 10 years. Five of those teams finished in the top 25, and two in the top five. Gary Pinkel had guided Mizzou to its best stretch since the Dan Devine years.
But it took Pinkel, who started in 2001, a couple of seasons to rebuild, and that’s where Missouri appears to be today. Odom, who served under Pinkel for a total of 10 seasons, says he remains in steady contact with his mentor and hasn’t lost the work ethic he held as a Tigers graduate assistant.
“The proverbial hot seat, I put that on myself,” Odom said. “When I started as a GA for Coach Pinkel I felt like I was on a job interview every day of my working life. I’ve continued that approach every day.”
Will it get results? One way to know will be to look at bowl matchups and see if Mizzou’s name is on the list. It takes six victories to qualify for postseason. That should be the bar for this team. That, and continue to have fun.