The Long Road Home
What exactly is home? Is it where you live? Is it where you're from? For Missouri defensive coordinator Barry Odom, maybe it's both.
"I've been here since '96, minus three years I guess," Odom said just days before coaching the first game of his second stint as an assistant at his alma mater. "The people of the state of Missouri are awesome and it's a great place to live in Columbia. Home is always home, where you grew up, but I met my wife here, we've had three kids in Boone Hospital. There's a lot of great people here."
Odom lived the first 19 years of his life in Oklahoma, growing up in the tiny town of Maysville, just outside Ada. He has now spent 16 years in the Show-Me State, all of them in Columbia. He was a linebacker for Larry Smith from 1996-99. He returned to Columbia as the head coach at Rock Bridge High School two years later, then spent nine years in a variety of roles on Gary Pinkel's staff. After three years as the defensive coordinator on Justin Fuente's staff at Memphis, Odom was named to replace Dave Steckel as the leader of the Missouri defense on December 23, 2014.
"We're getting close to him living in Missouri longer than he lived in Oklahoma," said Brad Odom, Barry's older brother by four years. "He left here as a 19-year-old. It's getting close, man. We're gonna have to take his Okie card."
Football is in Barry Odom's blood. So is teaching.
"Growing up, I just kind of thought that's what you were supposed to do," Brad Odom said. "You went to college and you became a teacher."
Both parents were teachers. Their father, Bob, was a football coach. Brad coached high school ball in Oklahoma for years. He doesn't get paid for it anymore, but is still a volunteer assistant with two sons playing high school ball. The third Odom brother, Brian, who is five years younger than Barry, is an assistant on Mike Leach's staff at Washington State. Oddly, Barry was the Odom brother who least eyed a career in coaching growing up.
"Dad worked a physical labor job in the oil field, then moved into more the business side of it and kind of branched off and started his own deal," Barry said. "I thought that was kind of what I was gonna do."
"He wanted to go to work for dad and he wanted to be a businessman," Brad said. "I was like what do you do? He said 'I don't know, you take your briefcase in there and you take care of business.' I'm like, 'I don't even know what that means. I'm gonna be a coach.' That was kind of my deal. That's what I was gonna do. Barry was gonna part-time work for dad and part-time pro bass fisherman."
Fishing, football, wiffle ball, it didn't matter. In Maysville, the Odom boys were always playing some sport or another. Frankly, there wasn't much else to do.
"It's like a thousand people or something. It's tiny," Brad Odom said. "Ada, it's a damn city for us. There's like 12 thousand people there. They got movies and everything. In Maysville, man, it was tiny."
"We played ball," Barry said. "That's just what we did."
The Odoms had a basketball goal. Bob mowed part of the pasture into a football field, another part into a wiffle ball diamond.
"We had our own little sports complex there," Brad said. "It was the real deal."
In those fields, Barry Odom stoked his competitive fire trying to keep up with Brad and his friends.
"I don't ever not remember being part of what they were doing out on the field," Barry said. "Competitively, I'd get it handed to me often so that probably drove my wanting to get better just because I was in that environment from as early as I can remember. Luckily he allowed me to do that as the big brother. That was about an every day deal it seems like."
"Growing up in a small town, you're kind of, you're brothers without a choice, but you get to choose whether you're friends or not," Brad said. "We kind of hung out with each other. Being four years older, he'd always kind of keep up with me and my buddies. Everybody knew from the time he was little that he was something special because he would be up there, we're thinking we're having grown up games and he's out there dominating guys that are four years older than him."
Brad would go on to play linebacker at East Central University in Ada, where he was part of an NAIA National Championship in 1993. Three years later, Barry would sign to play at Mizzou.
Odom was not the biggest linebacker. He was not the fastest linebacker. But he was certainly one of Missouri's best.
"Ever since he was little, you wanted to see if he could do something or not, you tell him he couldn't," Brad Odom said, "It was on then."
At the end of his four-year career, Odom had amassed 362 tackles, ranking fifth on the school's all-time chart. He still stands No. 7 on that list.
"The one thing I remember about him was blowing his knee out in April and being able to play in August," said long-time Missouri assistant coach Andy Hill. "He was unbelievable, to get back and play. I just thought he was bulldog-ish, with the determination he had. That's the one thing I remember about him as a player. He was a leader and he was tough as nails."
That determination would show throughout Odom's career. He was part of the brief pre-Pinkel renaissance of Tiger football. The program went to bowl games in 1997 and 1998, its first postseason foray in 14 years. The Tigers won three games in each of the five seasons prior to Odom's arrival. Mizzou was a modest, but much improved, 24-18 in his four years as a player.
Odom's most difficult year was most certainly his last at Missouri. The Tigers would go 4-and-7, but that was a mere irritant compared to the physical problems Odom would fight as a senior. In week four, Mizzou played at Memphis.
"I was a captain, we were getting ready for the coin toss and coach Smith said, 'Hey, captains, we've got a minute or whatever before we go out,'" Odom recalled. "I really needed to go to the bathroom so I ran down the hallway and it went from carpet to tile and at that time you wore steel tipped cleats. Anytime you hit a slick surface..."
Odom's feet flew out from under him. He says he still doesn't know exactly what he hit, but he walked out of the bathroom with a gash over one eye.
"I walked around the corner and (trainer) Rex (Sharp) looked at me and I'll never forget that look," Odom said. "He just put his head down and said get in here and Doc Smith sewed it up and didn't miss kickoff. So that was a good thing."
Four stitches without anesthetic later, Odom was at linebacker as he pursued a Tiger ballcarrier toward the home team's sideline. After making a tackle, Odom felt something wrong with his hand.
"He said 'I looked down and my thumb is like laying back on my forearm. I can't move it. It's like dislocated and all the ligaments are torn,'" Brad Odom said. "So it's just hanging there by skin. He's like, 'Oh my God, that's not good.'"
Odom made a fist and tucked his thumb inside of it, making his second trip of the day to see Sharp, this time on the Mizzou sideline.
"(He) looked at it and asked me how that happened because I hadn't made a play all day," Odom said. "I agreed with him."
Sharp informed Odom he was done for the day. Odom disagreed.
"They ended up casting it at halftime. That was a painful injury," Odom said. "They just kind of kept recasting it every week. I think every Monday they put a new one on. Rex and I have become really good friends over the years I guess because we spent a lot of time together."
Odom ended up having the thumb repaired at the end of his senior season.
"I was like, 'You gonna get it fixed?'" Brad said. "He was like, 'God, yes, I've got to get it fixed. It's my fishing thumb.'"
After that year, Barry Odom's playing career at Missouri was finished. His time in Columbia was just getting started.
"For a guy that was raised like we were, small town, family's everything, and you move eight hours away and don't know a soul. You better either learn to love it or you're gonna be miserable," Brad said. "You're coming home. I think he just found positives in everything there and had some pretty good success as a player, then was fortunate to latch on at a time when the program was on an uptick and had success and it became like home I think."
Odom served as an intern with the Tiger Scholarship Fund after graduating in December of 1999. Soon thereafter, he returned to Oklahoma, taking a job as an assistant coach at Ada High School, his alma mater. A year later, the job at Rock Bridge opened up.
"Because of a relationship with Dr. Pat Smith from when I was in college...he called me when the Rock Bridge head coaching job came open," Odom said. "Was able to get that job. Was I the right fit for the job? I guess I was at the time, but had I not known him and had a connection to get in for an opportunity to interview, that would have never happened."
Rock Bridge won its conference in Odom's first season, then made it to the state semifinals in his second. The next year, he took a job as a graduate assistant on Pinkel's staff, recommended by Hill.
"We had a good relationship back when I coached here and also he was coaching at Rock Bridge," Hill said. "He was very much a Missouri Tiger, wearing green and gold but he's also black and gold here at the same time. I just knew Barry had the key qualities to be successful at any type of ability. Whatever the job might be, he's going to be good at it."
Odom tested that theory. After a year as a GA, he became Pinkel's director of recruiting. He moved up to the director of football operations and then, finally, to an on-field role in 2009 when he took over as the safeties coach.
"Early on in coaching and before that a high school head coach, going into it, I was able to see the checks and balances on how a program ran from facilities to raising money to administratively, all the things, budget areas, all the scope of recruiting," Odom said. "I didn't know exactly what all went into it. That was awesome for me and I wouldn't trade it for anything now looking back because I understand the big picture."
Following the 2011 season, his third as a full-time assistant coach, it was time for Odom to leave home. Again.
Odom was hired as the defensive coordinator at Memphis prior to the 2012 season. For the first time in his life, he was going to live somewhere other than Oklahoma or Missouri.
"The thing about coach Pinkel is his staff longevity is ridiculous," Brad Odom said. "There's just not any turnover. I think we had discussions just about 'this is what I want to do and in order to do it, in order to have a chance to do it, I think I've got to leave to do it.'"
"When I left, I didn't really think, it would have been foolish of me to think, 'Someday I'm coming back to Missouri,'" he said. "I've got such respect for coach Pinkel and the things that he has done and the way he approaches every day that I knew that hopefully when I left it wasn't the last time that I was ever going to be a a part of his staff. But you never know with time and how things work out if it would happen or would not happen. I knew I was going to take another job, I needed to do the best job that I could."
The job would not be easy. Memphis ranked 117th in total defense in 2011. One of Fuente's first moves when he took the job was to tab Odom to lead his defense. In year one, the Tigers leapt 67 spots in the national defensive rankings. By the end of year three, Odom's charges ranked No. 22 in total defense and No. 5 in scoring defense, spearheading a 10-and-3 season. Programs across the country noticed the renaissance.
"Even the first two seasons, we won four games and three games, but the defense played pretty well," said Wren Baker, who worked in the Memphis administration in 2012 and 2013 before being hired by new Mizzou Director of Athletics Mack Rhoades early this summer. "I think pretty universally he was regarded and respected as really good. Even after the second season, he had some people coming after him and some good people. I think some actual job offers that probably some people would have thought he would have taken. We were really happy that we were able to keep him for that third season, but we knew that he would be a commodity."
Texas Tech and Indiana were among the programs connected with Odom in that 2013 offseason. But he stayed at Memphis, helping lead the program to its first ever 10-win campaign. And then the offers really came pouring in. It would take less time to list the schools which had no interest in hiring Odom this offseason than to list the ones that did.
"There was a lot of turnover this year in coordinators across the country," Odom said. "We became respectable at Memphis at the right time and there were a number of jobs that came open at the same time."
The speculation started even before the season ended. Auburn, North Carolina, Mississippi State, Florida. You name a school looking for a defensive coordinator and you had one considering Barry Odom.
"There's a (media) guy over there that really liked him and he kept putting him on these lists and stuff," Brad Odom said. "I'm a big brother, you know. Something comes out about one of my little brothers, I'm gonna retweet it or put it on Facebook or something like that. You know, I'm proud of him. He called me one day, he said, 'Will you quit retweeting that s---?' What are you talking about? He's like, 'Quit doing it man. You're putting me in a bad position.' I was like, 'What are you talking about?' He's like 'quit retweeting that s--- about me getting another job. Fuente's gonna get pissed.' I was like, here was my response, 'You think Fuente follows me on Twitter?'"
One hardly needed to follow Brad Odom on Twitter to know his brother was a red-hot commodity in the coaching world. As the offers piled up and speculation mounted, the one thing that nobody--even Barry Odom himself--saw coming, happened on December 14th. And it was a game-changer.
"I think we knew that it would take something pretty special for Barry to leave because I think he knew that we were building something special there," Baker said. "Whenever coach Stec went to Missouri State, I think we were all like, 'Yeah, they're probably gonna want to talk to Barry and he's probably gonna want to go back there.'"
Steckel shocked many both in Columbia and in the coaching community when he accepted the head coaching job at Missouri State on December 14th. Speculation around Missouri's search immediately focused on Odom. But Memphis had a bowl game to play. For a week, Odom juggled preparing for BYU with fielding calls about job offers across the country.
"I took all the emotional things out of it on the familiarity with the coaching staff here, the day to day structure of the program, all the things that I knew existed," Odom said. "I removed that part of it and I looked at it in more the capacity of is it a situation that you could step in and be successful. Are the resources there to be provided to give you an opportunity to do what you need to do? Then the work environment on working with the staff and the head coach. All three of those components overrode any of the ideas that I would allow emotionally on anything about coming back to Mizzou. Missouri is always gonna be a special place to me and my family. Once coach Pinkel called me I tried to look at it in an open mind with those things in mind to see if it was the right fit for me and the right fit for Mizzou."
For Odom to be able to remove those emotions from the decision was one thing. For his wife Tia, a native of Kahoka, MO and a Mizzou graduate herself, it may have been more difficult.
"She was really awesome through the whole process," Odom said. "I'm very, very lucky that she said we need to decide--number one, you need to decide--what's the best fit professionally and then we will make it work as a family. And there's probably not many of those wives around. She left some of the late nights, she left those up to me and obviously she was a part of the decision, but she left that side of it to me and I'm grateful that she was able to do that."
When the decision was made, exactly, is not clear. It was announced on December 23rd, the day after Memphis wrapped up its season with a 55-48 double overtime win against BYU in the Miami Beach Bowl.
Barry Odom was coming home. Again.
Dave Steckel did not have any input into his replacement.
"I was completely removed from that. That was coach Pinkel's decision. Truth is it had to be a tough decision. He had three quality guys on the staff that I love like brothers," Steckel said. "I was too far immersed in two jobs in my own world at that time."
Truth be told, in choosing Odom, Pinkel may have found the closest thing to Steckel that he could have.
"I think coach Odom is a younger version of coach Stec," Missouri senior safety Ian Simon said. "I feel like if coach Stec was here, he'd be doing the exact same thing. The intensity's there, the love for the game is there, the passion, the want to to get better every single day is there. I feel like it's just a younger version of coach Stec out there."
"Maybe just referring to Barry loves the game, coming from the linebacker demeanor," Steckel said when told of the comparison. "He was a tough SOB when he played, and he probably coaches like that. I thank Ian for the compliment. I guarantee you Barry's his own man. He's Barry Odom."
"I've met coach Stec a couple of times," Brad Odom said. "I think that (Barry) and Stec probably are, I never really even thought about that, but I bet, I think Barry would have made a great Marine. He really would have."
"Oh, my God, yeah" Simon said. "That'd have been great for him."
The intensity, then, has not left the Missouri sideline. Steckel may have been louder, but the style is very much the same for the Tiger defenders. Even when Pinkel's staff changes, it doesn't really seem to change.
"I expect when you step on the field it's work time," Odom said. "There's not time for mental errors or lack of focus or lack of competitive spirit. That can't exist. Any of those areas I feel pretty firm about as a belief. I don't yell or scream just because it sounds great. I want to be a great coach and a great teacher for our student athletes. I want them to know that when we step on the field together, that we've got full trust in them and they do me and know that I've done everything that I can to put them in position to have a chance to have success."
Every day, Barry Odom leaves his office at the corner of Stadium Boulevard and Providence Road. He drives south, passing all three places he lived as a college student on the way to his newly purchased home in southwest Columbia. The reminders of what is now nearly two decades spent in this town are everywhere.
"I think from 1996 to 2015, I know really every player that has come through here," Odom said. "There will be random, I say random in a good way, various people that stop by the office that I either played with or coached with before.
"There are days that something is told, a story's told that you were there first hand and know about it so that's unique."
In less than a week, Barry Odom will run through the tunnel beneath the south end zone at Faurot Field. Same as he did for four years as a player and nine more as an assistant coach. This time, he will do so as the defensive coordinator, the man charged with stopping the team on the other side of the field. He will likely be too focused on the task at hand to soak in the moment, to let his emotions grab hold of him. Not on that day anyway.
"There are days," Odom says. "I hope it never stops."
Maybe that's what home is.