His football coaching career was nearing an end, but one duty remained for Gary Pinkel. In a meeting with Missouri athletic director Mack Rhoads, Pinkel went to bat for his defensive coordinator, Barry Odom, to succeed him.
“About two weeks ago,” Pinkel said. “It was my shot to tell him about this guy. It wasn’t about hiring a Mizzou guy. It would be great. It sounds good. But this was about hiring the best guy.”
To Pinkel, that was Odom, who coordinated the Tigers’ stout defense this season after spending the previous three years at Memphis.
The Pinkel-Odom relationship extends to 2003, when Odom wrapped up his high school coaching career to become a Tigers’ graduate assistant. He quickly moved up the ranks: director of recruiting, director of football operations, and finally in 2009, assistant coach overseeing the safeties.
Pinkel was impressed every step of the way.
“He’s a very good people person, tough, competitive, pays attention to detail,” Pinkel said. “He’s demanding, but he also loves his players. You could just see that he’s got it.”
Pinkel saw it and made a note. He said after Odom’s news conference Friday at Mizzou Arena that he grew as close to Odom as any assistant he’s worked with. They remained in touch when Odom was in Memphis.
So, when Pinkel announced Nov. 13 that he was battling follicular lymphoma and would step down after this season, he thought of Odom as his replacement.
“Did I ever think he might be the guy down the road?” Pinkel said. “To be honest with you, yeah.”
Pinkel thought that would happen four of five years later, but battling cancer has become his priority and the timetable moved forward.
And Odom is faced, for the first time, with the choices that confront every new coach, starting with his staff. Who stays, and who goes?
An offensive staff shakeup would seem likely, starting with coordinator Josh Henson and offensive line coach A.J. Ricker.
But two key recruiters will stay. Cornerbacks coach Cornell Ford, who came with Pinkel from Toledo in 2001 and is the lead recruiter in St. Louis, will join Odom’s staff along with longtime Mizzou assistant Andy Hill, who handles Kansas City. Ryan Walters, the safeties coach who followed Odom from Memphis, almost certainly will return as well.
The Tigers ranked 126th out of 127 Football Bowl Subdivision teams at 13.6 points per game this season. Mizzou averaged 280.9 total yards per game as the offense struggled with Maty Mauk and Drew Lock at quarterback.
“I don’t want to put a time on it, when we’re going to have a staff in place,” Odom said. “There are still teams playing. The urgency to be on the road and go recruiting is at a high level. We’re going to find the right fits for any openings we have.”
One name that has surfaced as a possible new offensive coordinator is Josh Heupel, who has the same position at Utah State and previously was Oklahoma’s offensive coordinator. Heupel was the quarterback and Heisman Trophy runner-up on the Sooners’ 2000 national championship team.
What kind of offense will the Tigers operate? Odom said he’ll rely on his instincts as a defensive-minded coach to shape an offense.
“You look at offenses that presented you problems, from a game-planning standpoint, from a personnel standpoint, how those things affected your game-planning and calling a defense,” Odom said. “You just can’t walk out there and say we’re going to be a spread offense. That may not fit what you have.”
Offense, or at least quarterback play, wasn’t an issue under Pinkel, who developed a line of quarterbacks from Brad Smith to Chase Daniel to Blaine Gabbert to James Franklin to Mauk.
Mauk’s suspension in late September accelerated the timetable for Lock, a freshman.
Odom said he plans to hire a defensive coordinator and “will gravitate more toward the defense because that’s my background.”
The search for Pinkel’s replacement occurred in a year that was complicated by a couple of factors. Many jobs opened before the season’s end, and potential candidates for Missouri were being suggested for other schools with openings, such as South Carolina.
Also, MU football players made themselves part of a campus protest against racism and threatened to boycott a game. Shortly after they made their stance, Missouri’s university system president and the MU chancellor resigned.
That issue seemingly would have been of interest to candidates — Rhoads said five were targeted but didn’t name them — but insisted that wasn’t the case.
“It played no role,” Rhoads said.
But it did contribute to a hectic end to a season in which the Tigers fell short of expectations at 5-7 overall and 1-7 in the Southeastern Conference. Odom called Pinkel about 30 minutes before the new coach was introduced to the team, and when Pinkel saw the video of players cheering Odom when he was revealed as their next head coach on Thursday night, he felt a sense of relief.
“That,” Pinkel said, “was awesome.”