The tug twists and stretches the football program from both sides here. You can see it. You can feel it. You can hear it. One side will win, and soon, carrying the careers of grown men and the self-esteem of a proud fan base with it. The man most in charge knows this, and has been on both sides, and now being in the middle of it is the welcomed challenge of a football life.
Missouri football’s good times are remembered by even the shortest attention spans. Players and coaches heard they couldn’t compete in the Southeastern Conference and made the league’s championship game twice in the first three years. The most successful coach in program history holds an office on campus — part consultant, part psychologist, part famous fan.
The bad times are even more recent. The university is trying to claw away from what some say is the worst year in decades, and football was an important part of that. A boycott that may have been the final push for a completely upended leadership structure. More to the point, seven losses in eight conference games. One of the worst offenses in major college football.
History is not kind to programs that fall back in the SEC. The league moves fast, without apology. Eight years ago, Tennessee pushed out the most successful coach in program history. The Vols have lost more than twice as many conference games as they’ve won since, and only last year did better than 7-6.
On Saturday, a new Missouri athletic director will watch his new football coach begin what they both hope is a new and more stable normal. The Tigers will be more than a touchdown underdog, which seems appropriate. This was never going to be easy, a proud history against a brutal last year. The stakes are high.
Barry Odom, the proud alum about to coach his first game, is thrilled to be the one carrying this burden.
“A lot of people are counting on me to get it right,” he says. “I owe them to get it right. There won’t be a day, ever, that I forget that.”
Let’s start with the football. There’s a lot here that Odom needs to get right. Coaches talk all the time about culture, about how good culture can win games you should lose and bad culture can lose games you should win. Missouri had, well, the kind of culture that goes 1-7 in league play.
“It was like, ‘Wow, what’s going on?’” says Jordan Harold, a junior defensive lineman. “You could tell there was something missing.”
Josh Augusta, a senior, is more descriptive.
“We had a lot of players that really (weren’t) into it,” Augusta says. “Didn’t compete as hard as they really could. We were a young team last year. Some people just didn’t get it. I feel like we needed more leaders to pick the younger guys up, and bring them with us.”
Odom’s response is to push and pull and yell, and in rare moments of silence tell anyone listening that toughness wins. It’s counterintuitive that the promotion of a defensive coordinator to head coach means the defense is being coached differently, but that’s exactly what’s happening.
Actually, everyone is being coached differently. They are lifting more weights, and more often. The Tigers won’t take days off after games, instead attempting to get ahead of their next opponent early in the week.
Where Gary Pinkel operated like a CEO, delegating, and coaching the coaches, Odom is deep into the action. Last year, Mizzou had the nation’s worst kick-return teams, so this year, Odom is coaching the kick-return unit.
Most of the men he worked with last year are gone. These are Odom’s coaches, and they have changed some of the minutia, like how captains are selected and how freshmen are viewed. Two-a-days are back, and maybe this is a generational thing, but Odom is more accessible and open to meeting with players.
Recruiting is the most important part of any college program, and Odom is making major changes there. It’s still early, but Odom may be targeting further up the recruiting rankings than Pinkel. He’s also emphasizing Texas, put satellite camps in Chicago, and his recruiting coordinator has strong relationships in Detroit. The appropriate buzzphrase: build the footprint.
Maybe there are kids in what is traditionally Big Ten territory who want to play in the SEC. The league has largely ignored recruits outside the South, preferring to pick from the copious talent nearby. Maybe Mizzou can be the program for those kids in the Rust Belt.
But it’s interesting that the defense is being coached differently, too. Augusta says more is being put on their brains now, rather than just their bodies. A year ago, the linemen took their stance and listened to hear the linebackers tell them which way to go. Now, it’s up to them to look into the backfield, recognize how many tight ends and running backs are in, and know what that means for their gap assignment.
Maybe these are small things. Maybe, in the chaos of a thousand decisions made everyday, these are insignificant things. But they are different things.
This is another back-and-forth, one more personal and internal. Odom is a beloved figure at Mizzou, where he’s still the No. 7 tackler in program history, and is now the face of the athletic department — even if it’s by default.
Odom is respectful of Pinkel, his first boss at college and for whom he worked for 10 years. But Odom also came from a town of 1,200 people, where he learned about hard work and humility, and once rehabbed a torn knee ligament in less than half the time of the typical schedule. He is a proud man, used to starting at the bottom and pushing further than anyone is used to seeing.
He is the youngest coach in the SEC, but he knows his career and how he’s thought of at his school will be determined by this new job.
“(Coach) Pinkel had such an unbelievable run here for 15 years …” Odom said. “But you always want to be the best. So in my mind, I want to take what he did, the platform and blueprint and keep a lot of that intact but also infuse some new ideas.
“Ultimately, I want to win a championship.”
Odom is talking about his part of this fight. The motivation and the techniques and the game planning. That’s the part we all tend to pay the most attention to, especially now as the games come every Saturday.
But it might end up being the easy part.
Three weeks after his hiring became official, Jim Sterk is only now pulling out of that weird area between past and present. They threw him something of a going-away party at San Diego State on Wednesday, and the next day he flew to Columbia. On Friday, he planned on traveling with the team to Morgantown, W.Va., for the first game of his new job as Mizzou’s athletic director.
There is so much to do, of course. The man he replaces earned a reputation for poor communication, both within the walls of the athletic department and with fans and donors around the state. Those relationships need healing, and trust, and that’s only the beginning of what Sterk faces in the challenge of his life.
“The list is not for the faint of heart,” he says.
Even with massive fundraising as Mizzou graduated into the SEC, the school ranks 11th out of 13 public conference schools in athletic budgets. The men’s basketball program was one of the worst in any major conference last year.
Part of Sterk’s transition has included multiple conversations with SEC commissioner Greg Sankey and his predecessor, Mike Slive. Both told Sterk that Mizzou is behind in facilities, so one of the new A.D.’s top priorities is “a crystallized and focused vision” for a football practice facility on par with other SEC schools.
This has become a frustration around Mizzou, with previous A.D. Mack Rhoades slow-tracking the process, but Sterk wants enough of a plan and fundraising to break ground in the next year. This project will feel a tug between urgency and quality, because facilities like this are a major factor in recruiting.
Odom’s vision of expanding Mizzou’s recruiting base is interesting, but won’t matter as much if the school doesn’t have the facilities — or, at least, a tangible plan — to back it up.
“That’s no secret,” Sterk says. “That’s what we need to focus on.”
That’s how this thing will go, and how the futures of many careers will be boosted or stalled. Odom was hired by an A.D. who bailed, but the talk about new A.D.s “wanting their own guy” is among the most overdone in college sports. Odom and Sterk are in this together now, their success and failure forever linked, and it’s impossible to say who has the heavier lifting.
Those sorts of distinctions aren’t important, of course, not with so much at stake. The only thing that matters is pushing a football program forward, against the tide, because falling further behind is not an option anyone wants to live through.