Vahe Gregorian

In heat of moment, consider how Mizzou’s Barry Odom compares with Gary Pinkel so far

Stop us if you’ve heard this one: The new University of Missouri football coach inherited a program coming off a losing season and mired in cultural issues that made for a lingering sense of gravitational pull. Who knew how Mizzou ever was going to move forward?

Seemingly validating skeptics who reckoned the coach wasn’t ready to make the jump to this job, his first team won just four games. By his third season, though, his Tigers were 8-5 and headed into a much-anticipated fourth year.

But that momentum was marked by a jarring nonconference loss and a rebound to a 2-0 conference start before an ultimate fizzle. It ended with a measly 12 conference wins to show for his four years and reason to doubt his future.

Enough about the Gary Pinkel era, though …

In fact, there are ample parallels between the tenuous early years of the program that later played in four conference title games in eight seasons and Year Four of the Barry Odom regime.

In fact, Odom (24-22) has a better record through 46 games than Pinkel did (21-25), went to a bowl a year sooner and has four league games left this season to eclipse Pinkel’s four-season cumulative conference record of 12-20.

With Odom embattled once more after two clunkers offset a five-game winning streak in the minds of many fans, with every game still a referendum on his job, it’s a worthwhile context to keep in mind.

So is remembering that Pinkel didn’t coax double-digit wins at MU until his remarkable seventh season, when the Tigers jumped from 8-5 to 12-2.

Trouble is, past performance is no guarantee of future results. Without the benefit of hindsight, who knows where there this exasperating time is going from here?

Not after the inexplicable 21-14 sleepwalking loss against previously 1-5 Vanderbilt alarmingly spurred not a wakeup call but a listless tap of the snooze button a week later in a 29-7 clobbering at the hands of previously 3-4 Kentucky

The sequence is all the more befuddling because it comes just when fans might have thought it was safe to buy in to the program under Odom, whose first three seasons were distinguished by hideous starts and rousing finishes.

It wasn’t just that MU won those five in a row; it was the way the Tigers did it. It wasn’t just that they outscored their opponents 202-58 in that span, or that in the first four of those five games Mizzou’s defense alone outscored opponents 35-31.

It was that they came to play virtually every minute after a baffling season-opening 37-31 loss at Wyoming — which like Vanderbilt and Kentucky was a double-digit underdog.

And it felt like it was because Odom had assembled the staff and talent and cultivated the culture in such a way that he had a certain command over the program, opening glitch notwithstanding.

Considering how he has navigated MU through the outrageous bowl ban it still faces pending appeal for the actions of a rogue tutor, only cynics and those who just have decided Odom isn’t their guy could have said this wasn’t trending the right way.

That team, in those five games? It could play with anyone left on MU’s schedule.

But then …

What seemed a hold on the situation appears to have slipped his grasp again. And the pendulum of perception has swung wildly the other way yet once more.

Deservedly so, even when it comes to someone I fundamentally believe in because of his character, work ethic, recruiting and resolve.

In fact, there are many ways to look at the state of the union for MU, 5-3 overall, 2-2 SEC.

You could make the case that part of this disappointment now stems from a false sense of optimism to begin with, starting with simply too much expected of Clemson transfer Kelly Bryant at quarterback.

At his best, Bryant’s had some fine moments. He just isn’t the savior-caliber player that some supposed him to be … though he sure didn’t get much help from that play-calling in the rain at Kentucky or receivers batting down passes as if they were defensive backs.

For that matter, the offensive line hasn’t been what we thought it would be and the defense might as well have been on skates against Kentucky receiver-turned-quarterback Lynn Bowden Jr. … who somehow ran for 204 yards even as he presented scant threat to pass.

Maybe playing five in a row at home both overinflated MU’s sense of itself and dulled its urgency back out on the road, though that still doesn’t account for the way the Vanderbilt dud morphed into the Kentucky debacle.

Brutal.

What now, though, is what matters most.

Fickle as Odom’s team has been this season, he’s got four November games left to actually define, or at least clarify, where it stands: at No. 8 Georgia after this bye week, home against No. 6 Florida, home against improving Tennessee (3-5) and at Arkansas (2-6).

Odom is 10-2 in November, and he’ll need that mojo to reset if he expects to come out of this season with general faith from the fan base.

For what it’s worth, Pinkel emerged from his fourth season with a 5-6 record and considerable grumbling.

Part of that was an ongoing belief in some circles that his background at Toledo of the Mid-American Conference, and the fact he’d brought essentially his entire staff to Columbia after the 2000 season, made him ill-suited for the prime-time of the Big 12.

Especially at a time when MU had had just two winning seasons since 1983, was facing a defeatist mentality among the fan base and contending with improving-but-still-lagging resources.

Likewise, some figured Odom was overmatched in becoming a first-time collegiate head coach in the crucible of the Southeastern Conference. As for his cultural challenges, you probably could write a book about what it took to try to rejuvenate the program in the wake of the 2015 racial protests on campus and threatened boycott by the team and fallout in every direction.

As late as midway into Pinkel’s fifth season, his status was rickety. A year after the loss at Troy, MU lost a nonconference home game to New Mexico and was sitting at 3-2 down 10 points to Iowa State when starting quarterback Brad Smith was knocked out of the game and replaced by freshman Chase Daniel.

You may know the rest: Daniel led a comeback for a 27-24 overtime win and redirected the season toward a bowl berth that helped put the program on a trajectory to one of its most prosperous times.

So here we are now, at a different sort of crossroads.

For all the parallels between the early Pinkel years and now, there are obvious and key differences: in who these Tigers are, and their specific circumstances.

That includes Odom working for a different athletic director (Jim Sterk) than the one who hired him, an inherently precarious situation, while Pinkel was sustained when he needed it most by the considerably invested patience of working for the man who did (Mike Alden).

It’s easy to snap-judge the season before it’s through, and even at every interval along the way. But it’s decidedly premature no matter what you think in the moment.

And Pinkel’s example is a worthy reminder: Letting things play out before drawing conclusions has its upside … even through downers.



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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.
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