Vahe Gregorian

What Barry Odom and Cuonzo Martin share, and why that’s great for Mizzou

Cuonzo Martin is a sleek 6-foot-6, forged out of urban East St. Louis, Illinois. Barry Odom is a brawny 6-foot or so, sculpted in rural Oklahoma.

On the surface, the University of Missouri men’s basketball coach and football coach seem as distinct from each other as their sports.

But you could get a glimpse of the meaningful truth otherwise when Odom last week took a microphone alongside Martin during the Mizzou Coaches Caravan stop at Chicken N Pickle in North Kansas City.

When Odom masterfully imitated Martin’s rich, deep voice, it not only cracked up Martin and a crowd of what appeared to be several hundred but also reflected a common language they have cultivated — something amplified in how they’ve handled hard times with their program that we’ll get back to shortly here.

It’s a voice and vision, even, surely rooted in shared experiences that don’t immediately meet the eye:

Martin grew up in a more obviously severe environment, but Odom was reared in a once-idyllic world beset by economic desperation. Each still thinks wistfully of friends who either died or were ruined by those circumstances, and each is grateful for the nurturing forces of family and mentors that helped them find their lives through sports.

Martin’s mother, Sandra, would take him and his siblings to visit beautiful homes in affluent suburbs to see “what you can have.” Odom looked many days at the note his mother, Cheryl, stuck on the inside of the door to a bedroom he shared, reading, “I can because I think I can.”

Call it coincidence, but each also played with remarkable tenacity with and through injuries that would have debilitated most. Martin ultimately had four knee surgeries, Odom six.

When people think of them as athletes, invariably “heart” comes up. Martin’s “no excuses” mantra translated to Odom’s “find a way” makeup.

Same as now. Because one way or another, that was all prologue to the common denominators in how they do their jobs now, something for which Mizzou fans should be grateful.

“I would suggest our passion for loving and caring for our student-athletes is unique in the way it’s handled and thoughtfully carried out in a direct approach,” Odom said.

It’s a cynical world, so scoff if you must.

But I’ve known Martin for what he reminded me the other day was 30 years now, including first talking to him about his cancer in 1997. I typed Odom’s name for the first time when he committed to MU 25 years ago. I’ve traveled with each to their homes.

And I believe this deeply: They are sincere, driven, honest and humble, and they stand for everything we should want to see succeed in college sports.

With, as it happens, amplification from each other as friends and confidantes who talk to each other about everything from athlete welfare to coaching approaches.

That occasionally might be heard in terms they use publicly, such as seeking to “pour into” their players. Or you might pick up on it in the ways that casual conversations with them can turn to everything from mental health initiatives for student-athletes to role modeling to family to their abiding insistence that life lessons are at the center of their work.

On a visit to his office last summer, Odom was preparing to lead talks with his team about topics including treating women with respect, appreciating the cultural differences in society and and dealing with adversity.

It’s a little reminiscent of what Martin tried to convey last summer on a visit to the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Center in East St. Louis, where his staff handed out fliers emphasizing the importance of being trustworthy, treating others as you’d want to be treated and … contending with adversity.

“I’d love to be the last team standing, year after year after year,” said Martin, who is 35-30 with one NCAA Tournament appearance at MU entering his third season. “But you have to see the beauty in the individual growth.”

You can see that priority at once in how Odom is approaching the ongoing NCAA nonsense hovering over his program and how Martin has contended with losing his best player almost immediately at the start of his first two seasons at MU.

When the actions of a rogue tutor resulted in postseason NCAA bans for MU football, baseball and softball, among another absurd punishments after Mizzou handled the situation admirably, Odom was left to galvanize a program suddenly stripped of incentives pending hopes for a successful appeal in mid-July.

Minutes after feeling like he’d sustained a knockout punch, Odom was left to dust himself off and break the news to his team. He understood it didn’t really matter how awful he felt inside.

He had to remind himself that if he let this consume him he’d be drained to a shadow of himself.

Perhaps it helped that Odom, who is 27-24 at Mizzou, had had some practice at rallying his teams — which went 6-0 and 5-1 at the end of the last two regular seasons after wobbly starts.

“‘You’re going to get some things that come your way in life that aren’t fair, Nobody cares about fair,’ ” Odom recalled as his message. “ ‘The world’s not fair, it’s hard, it’s tough, there’s no handouts. So make the best of it. Don’t make excuses. Control the things you can control.’

“ ‘Your feet hit the ground in the morning, get out of bed and your two feet hit the ground,’ ” he added, clapping his hands for emphasis. “ ‘Attitude and mindset, let’s go, you’re in charge of them, nothing else matters.’ ”

Because in the end …

“And whatever (the NCAA hands down), I know this: We’re going to have 12 opportunities to go play really good football, and whatever happens from there happens.”

What’s happened thus far says something, though. No one transferred out because of the situation, Odom said, albeit knocking on a bench as he said, and the football team registered what The Star was told was a 2.88 grade-point average this spring.

Uh, that was 2.89, Odom said, smiling, all part of what he believes is a culture that helps create winning.

Martin, of course, has had to handle crushing setbacks of his own, most notably the loss to injury of Michael Porter Jr. , the nation’s top recruit, minutes into his career and star brother Jontay before last season.

Too bad.

Let’s move forward.

“Here’s adversity; here’s what it looks like,” Martin said. “But now here’s accountability, here’s commitment. Here’s discipline, here’s focus, here’s perseverance. That’s life stuff.

“I don’t wish injuries on anybody. But it’s all life stuff. You’re teaching lessons. That’s the beauty of it for me.”

They’ll be measured as coaches, of course, by how their programs fare in the years to come.

Indeed, how they navigate wins and losses out of some complicated times, with new proving grounds ahead entering Odom’s fourth season and Martin’s third. And attendance is a pivotal issue, with MU’s two most visible and influential programs needing to be successful for the school to have long-haul traction in the Southeastern Conference

But the testimony of their lives will be more about this element of their coaching, which gives Missouri fans every reason to want to see the duo be part of this for years to come.

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Vahe Gregorian has been a sports columnist for The Kansas City Star since 2013 after 25 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He has covered a wide spectrum of sports, including 10 Olympics. Vahe was an English major at the University of Pennsylvania and earned his master’s degree at Mizzou.