Vahe Gregorian

Ode to Odom: how Mizzou’s football coach brought the Tigers back from the dead

The night of the debacle against Purdue, Missouri football coach Barry Odom went home, took a shower, briefly spoke with his family and headed into the night.

Back to his office, where he immediately undertook what hours before he had vowed would be “very frank and open and honest discussions” with his staff (and later his players) after the team fell to 1-2 with a 35-3 loss in which the Tigers looked outclassed and, worse, unmotivated.

He would have had a restless night ahead … if he had tried to rest.

“I don’t know that I went home that night,” the second-year MU coach said in his office on Friday, smiling when asked if his entire staff had been there all night, too. “Not the entire night.”

It was early enough in the season that Odom was certain there was time “to make the wrong right.” But he also was hyper-conscious that it had to be done in the “here and now” or the opportunity could slip away.

By “opportunity,” Odom meant the 2017 season — one in which MU unfathomably won its final six regular-season games to earn a berth in the Texas Bowl against Texas on Dec. 27.

A 6-0 run, in other words, since Odom was 5-13 at MU.

“Boy, you have a different team than when we saw you in that Purdue game,” Southeastern Conference commissioner Greg Sankey told Mizzou athletic director Jim Sterk when he called last weekend to tell him about MU’s bowl destination.

Back in the day, more than just the season was at stake for the program and Odom, a likeable and resolute man who nonetheless appeared overmatched … and now has a two-year contract extension.

After going 4-8 his first year under an athletic director who inherited him and had reaped record fundraising despite the disarray, with fans staying away in droves, his job absolutely was in the balance if the Tigers kept performing in such a way that even former players were compelled to ridicule the state of the team.

Meanwhile, it somehow would get plenty worse before it got better, with Mizzou getting mashed by Auburn 51-14 (the setup to Odom’s well-chronicled rant), losing late and in controversy by a score of 40-34 at Kentucky, and getting thumped 53-28 at Georgia after competing early.

At 1-5, the season seemed doomed. Odom’s future was in jeopardy and any notion it would all be revived was more hope than faith.

At least it was until Odom re-ignited it, symbolically anyway, at a team meeting after what he called “a lonely conversation with myself.”

“I wanted a visual display of putting everything that had happened, good, bad or ugly, behind us,” he said. “We’re starting zero-and-zero, let’s go.”

He thought about just ripping up the props: game plans, scouting reports, social-media posts and news clippings. Then he decided he wanted to really “jolt” his team a bit.

He secured some lighter fluid from the equipment room and a cooler to contain the fire.

He put the heap of paper in — “it was a lot of stuff,” he said — set it ablaze and stood in front of it as he spoke to the team.

“I used a little too much lighter fluid, but that’s OK,” he said, smiling. “I just kept throwing it on, and it kept building. I could see the guys’ eyes, looking behind me.”

Any relationship between that and the six-game winning streak that has ensued is purely coincidental. Even Odom will tell you this.

But you might surmise that he had his players’ attention, at least as Sterk envisioned it: “‘The guy’s burning something up there — what’s he going to say next?’”

The truth is more complicated, of course, than a tidy snapshot it’s so tempting to suggest was the pivotal moment.

It was more about pure resolve and the daily grind.

Before the deluge came a mere trickle: a 68-21 win over Idaho and 52-12 victory at Connecticut — two overmatched teams that nevertheless salved confidence and helped create momentum.

Then came romps over Florida, Tennessee and Vanderbilt and a wild 48-45 win over Arkansas.

Naysayers will note the schedule was favorable down the stretch: Three of those four teams lost their coaches this season, including two immediately after losing to MU.

But … so what?

You play the conference schedule you have, and Mizzou entered that stretch with as many question marks as any of those programs and made its season by being the stronger-willed one.

Meanwhile, as the Chiefs have demonstrated with their second-half cave-in against the softest part of their schedule, nothing is assured.

Behind the tangible developments — remarkable defensive improvement, quarterback Drew Lock’s ascension from a great talent with lapses in his game to among the nation’s best, the establishment of a running game — was the engine that drove it all.

With blinders and noise-canceling headphones on, Odom called upon the relationships he has with his players.

Those relationships were on display when they swarmed him when he was promoted from defensive coordinator … something he’s told himself he has to work on “365” … something he now believes if he hadn’t kept up, “We wouldn’t be sitting here today.”

Somehow, he kept them realizing they still were free to write their own script for the season even if it wouldn’t be easy.

“That’s no different than when you walk out in the world: It’s a mean place, it’s a hard place,” he said. “But the sooner you can realize that, but also realize that you can go get what you want if you set your mind to it and are willing to put in the work, you can do anything you want to.”

In hindsight, the Tigers’ trudging start seems just as inexplicable as the fast finish, but there are lessons in that, too.

The truth is that this team began the season both overconfident and fragile, traits that more often than not are linked.

And as Odom saw it, the early dominoes fell this way:

Mizzou had spent a lot of the preseason focused on the SEC opener against South Carolina, which he figured helps explain the messy 72-43 victory over Missouri State in the opener and a little about the Purdue game that followed the collapse against the Gamecocks.

MU, you’ll remember, led that one 10-0 before having the lead evaporate in a matter of moments on the way to a 31-13 loss.

“When all the emotion and energy and everything went to the other sideline, we weren’t mature enough to handle the adversity that hit us,” he said. “We didn’t respond very well, as a staff or as a football team.”

It carried over, he believes, to the Purdue fiasco.

That perhaps included some unreconciled fallout from the firing of defensive coordinator DeMontie Cross, something Odom should have done before the season, considering he had demoted Cross last year (he was the defensive coordinator in name only) and if he was that ready to get rid of him this season.

Meanwhile, Sterk made meaningful moves the week after the Purdue game.

Instead of hiding out as some ADs might do in that situation, he visited Odom the next morning in his office — perhaps when Odom still was there from the night before — and offered encouragement.

He also offered public support for Odom in interviews across the state, including with The Star.

On Friday, Sterk reiterated that his job is to offer all the tools and support he can for his coaches and reminded that he believed in Odom, among other reasons, because of the special way he has seen him connect with players, win or lose.

For that matter, he added, “I think he willed (them to win) a couple games.”

None of this means MU has arrived, naturally.

Odom now must replace offensive coordinator Josh Heupel, the new head coach at Central Florida, and Lock may or may not return.

Odom knows you’re always “a day way from a new challenge.”

“I don’t know that ‘comfort’ or ‘ease,’ either one is the right word, because you’re never really comfortable,” he said. “But I know that we’ve made tremendous progress moving everything in the right direction.”

If MU beats Texas, he’ll have another building block in place: being one of the few teams in college football history to win seven straight after starting 1-5 and having the exclamation point be a win over the former Big 12 rivals whose influence on the conference was part of MU’s decision to leave for the SEC.

For that matter …

“There’s not anybody in our room who was recruited by Texas,” Odom said, “so (the players) understand that too.”

Whatever happens against Texas, though, the program has made a momentous turn — particularly considering the depressing weight of the last few years.

There’s no way to know if it has been fixed exactly.

But it’s sure turned thanks to his team’s persistence and collective character.

“They strained, they competed, they had want-to,” Odom said, adding, “I’ll use their example forever that I’m in coaching.”

An example he set, too, starting in the darkness when all looked lost.

Vahe Gregorian is a sports columnist at The Star: 816-234-4868, @vgregorian

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