Vahe Gregorian

Handling of potential bowl ban illuminates what makes Mizzou coach Barry Odom special

In his palatial office overlooking Memorial Stadium from the Taj Mahal formerly known as the south end zone project, Missouri coach Barry Odom considered the difference between the school’s football facilities now and what might be termed a medieval version he arrived to as a player at MU nearly 25 years ago.

“It’s like you’re at a different school,” said Odom, whose Tigers open the 2019 season Saturday at Wyoming before playing five straight home games. “It really is.”

Indeed, walking in, around and through the $98 million expansion evokes the sort of state-of-the-art stuff we’ve seen over the years at Nebraska, Oklahoma or Texas. No doubt it amends MU’s amenities into at least a credible stature within the athletics industrial complex that defines the Southeastern Conference.

Odom is moved by the players he said cried “actual tears of thankfulness” upon its recent unveiling, and he has a profound appreciation of the urgency (particularly in the never-ending demands of recruiting) of this breakthrough seven serpentine years in the making:

This began as a vision of predecessor Gary Pinkel, who used to like to say “if you don’t see a crane up, something’s wrong.” (Without Pinkel, under whom Odom served in multiple capacities including defensive coordinator, Odom knows he wouldn’t have this job. So he was excited to share with him a tour of a facility Pinkel was “pretty fired up about.”)

At its inception, the concept was supported by then-athletic director Mike Alden only to languish during the brief tenure of Alden’s successor, Mack Rhoades. Ultimately, it was reinvigorated by the belief, and fundraising acumen, of current AD Jim Sterk.

That history is important, because Odom understands that it never was to be taken for granted and that it reflects both an investment in the program and belief in him that comes with enormous responsibility.

But it’s not like Odom suddenly burns to win any more now than he did before or feels any more of the self-inflicted pressure than he always has now or that his sense of the big picture has been altered with the change of view out the window.

Moreover, he was conscious of the ongoing sounds of construction, which parallels the work in progress that his program is as he begins his fourth season facing an absurd NCAA postseason ban that remains under appeal. (Those particular circumstances have illuminated Odom’s gifts as a leader, particularly as he has matured in the job. More on that momentarily).

Most of all, Odom understands that inanimate objects are only as meaningful as how they are animated.

“Now, this building doesn’t make us any better on the field, but it increases the student-athlete experience 10-fold,” he said. “The most important pieces are the people inside the building and … my (goal) is to pour every ounce of effort that I’ve got into the people that touch our players. And also into our players. And I feel good about that.”

From where we sit, Odom should feel good about a lot:

After going 8-5 last season, his teams have improved each year (from four wins to seven his first two seasons) and enter 2019 on the brink of the Associated Press Top 25. His 19-win total is the most in an MU coach’s first three seasons since Warren Powers’ Tigers won 23 from 1978-80, and it appears this team could be his most talented … as well as most indoctrinated in what he wants.

He’s no less than thrilled by the culture he believes he’s established, something he figures shows up in the coachability of his players and their community service efforts he calls “off the charts” and team grade-point averages (2.90 last fall) that have set program records.

His obvious ease with himself now, allowing his personality to show after a guarded start on the job, also reflects assembling a staff he trusts more than ever after some turbulence his first few years. That helps account for why he says his own growth includes “the willingness to be vulnerable and understanding what it takes to get it done and asking and allowing for help.”

Yes, he’s quite aware you’re judged on wins and losses. And for his program to take a step forward, the rest of the season needs to be more like Odom’s Novembers (10-2) than the 9-17 his teams are otherwise.

But Odom also is certain there’s a correlation between how all of these cogs mesh.

This is where you might roll your eyes if you don’t know Odom. If you do know this driven, sincere, smart and humble man who reflects his roots, though, you know he means this as much as he craves winning: The fleeting time he has with these players, he says, is like “an ongoing book,” one that he wants to make about standing for “something that is unlike anywhere in society.”

“Doesn’t matter your last name, where you’re from, how much money you do or don’t have, the color of your skin,” said Odom, who considers it “my calling” to help make a better world through football.

Along those lines, it merits noting that Odom has seven African-American assistants (out of 10) on his staff and a woman, Brittany Boehm Jones, as his director of football operations.

Which brings us back to the looming signature of the season ahead:

Counterintuitively enough, the NCAA’s preposterous bowl ban and other penalties to the school for academic fraud committed years ago by a single former rogue tutor and addressed admirably by the school has had several positive implications:

In an increasingly impatient and instant-gratification world, the fact that no player transferred away with the likelihood looming that they won’t be able to play in a bowl this season tells you everything about the type of buy-in and loyalty that Odom and his staff have cultivated.

And the way Odom has handled it from the get-go offers a glimpse of the life lessons he’s passing on that illuminate how all of this flows together.

This is first and foremost about controlling what you can control, the 12 games you’re promised even as the school continues its “Make It Right” campaign.

“It’s always on the back of your mind, but also I decided early on spending too much time on that doesn’t do anything for us in a positive way,” Odom said. “I do appreciate the approach that our university and athletic department is taking on it. But we’re going to be faced with whatever comes out, good or bad.”

“And now the challenge of the togetherness of our program: How are you going to handle that? How you going to handle it if it’s great news, how you going to handle it if it’s wrong and awful news? …

“You don’t get to choose the cards you’re dealt. You get to choose your attitude and your actions, your mindset, your grit, your toughness on how you handle those things that are handed to you. Earned or not earned. It’s going to be a really, really simple formula. We can’t do anything to control it.

“OK, so what? Let’s go to work. I want our guys to be their best. And if we’re our best, then everything will work out the way it’s supposed to.”

So there sit the opportunities, free to be seized or frittered away. As much as anything else, how his players respond to those dynamics will dictate where this season goes.

Odom is pretty sure each game will come down to the fourth quarter and knows there will be more adversity ahead, even moments of “absolute hell” that come with this job and any others.

He knows that the spiffy new facility will improve the fan experience and keep the sound in the stadium more and maybe change the currents inside a little bit.

But he also knows the prevailing winds can only come from how he prepares his teams to play … and how it actually plays.

With the literal and figurative fresh foundations of the new facility and three seasons beneath him, though, his view has never looked better.

“I don’t think you ever figure it out,” he said. “But I’ve got a real good feeling about where we are.”

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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.