A football star reared on the plains of Oklahoma to value toughness, hard work and competitiveness, True Son Barry Odom takes over the controls at Mizzou.
Act like you’ve been there before. It’s practically football scripture for fans of a workmanlike, humble approach to the game. The expression’s origin is hazy — some attribute it to Alabama coaching legend Bear Bryant, others to his NFL contemporary Vince Lombardi. Regardless, the ethic might seem old fashioned in this selfie-obsessed era of Snapchat, signing days and scoring celebrations.
As Barry Odom, BS ’99, M Ed ’04, took the podium July 13, 2016, at SEC Media Days in Hoover, Alabama, he most certainly had not been there before. Mizzou’s rookie head coach was promoted from defensive coordinator Dec. 4, 2015, following his mentor Gary Pinkel’s announcement a month earlier that he would retire due to a lymphoma diagnosis. Odom’s moment at the annual press event took place mere hours after Odom learned his boss, Mack Rhoades, would leave his post as director of athletics at MU for the same position at Baylor University.
It was SEC fandom’s first chance to witness Odom’s enthusiasm, confidence and unflappability. In the topsy-turvy world of college athletics, it’s a rare occasion when a 39-year-old first-year coach engenders a sense of stability throughout the program.
“I absolutely know we’ll get a great director of athletics, and the things we’ve done in the past eight months are going to set us up for the next 20 years,” Odom said. “The University of Missouri has been around since 1839, and it’s going to be around a long time. I’m really, really excited about the direction our football program is going.”
Barry Stephen Odom grew up in Maysville, Oklahoma, a small farming community known for being the childhood home of aviator Wiley Post, who in 1933 became the first person to fly solo around the world.
When Odom was a child, his mother, Cheryl, was a public school teacher and principal, and his father, Bob, was about as Oklahoman as a person can be — an oilman, cattle farmer and football coach.
Barry and his brothers, the younger Brian and older Brad, played sports nonstop on the family farm, whether it was basketball on the concrete-slab court or football on the homemade gridiron.
“We strung up lights around the basketball goal, and we fenced off the pasture away from the cattle where there was a stand of Bermuda grass that served as a pretty level football field,” Bob says. “The boys were always either playing or working.”
They also attended OU games with their grandfather and watched Sooners stars Troy Aikman, Keith Jackson and Brian Bosworth, whom Brad and Barry tried to emulate by smashing into dead trees.
When Barry wasn’t living and breathing athletics, he was fishing. During one excursion, he and some buddies encountered a man engulfed in a brushfire. They pulled him to safety, and the story landed in the local paper.
“Barry’s not a look-at-me guy,” Brad says. “Today, kids would probably take out their phone and Facebook it or tweet it. It would have been a much bigger deal if Barry hadn’t helped him.”
As Barry grew, his superior athleticism was undeniable. As early as age 5, he was dominating his T-ball league. By 10 he was an elite sprinter in his age group and competed in regional track meets. At Maysville High School, he took two state titles in the 400-meter dash. And of course, on the football field, he torched defenses as a tailback and crushed ball carriers as a linebacker.
When Brad went off to college about an hour west at East Central University in Ada, Oklahoma, he encouraged the family to relocate so Barry and Brian could pursue a more promising football future at Ada High School, home of the reigning state champions.
“Barry was getting a little bit of recruiting attention but not as much as I thought he should,” Brad says. “I was surprised the family was open to moving. I mean, our grandad was born in Maysville in 1912.”
The tepid recruiting was likely due to the ACL tear Barry had suffered as a freshman, an injury doctors waited until after high school to surgically repair because he was still growing. But it didn’t slow down Odom, who in 1994 set a school single-season record for touchdowns (39) and once scored five in a single quarter. In his only season at Ada, Odom helped the Cougars win the second of four consecutive state championships.
“When he came to Ada from Maysville, it didn’t take us but one practice to realize what we had,” says Larry McBroom, Ada’s football coach from 1980 to 1995 and again from 2000 to 2003. “It was amazing how hard he worked. It was contagious. The guys around him had to pick up their tempo to stay with him.”
Oklahoma State coach Pat Jones recruited Odom, but when Jones was fired and the new Cowboys coach brought along a different tailback, Odom was left twisting in the prairie wind.
“That’s the way it goes, so I visited Tulsa, Arkansas and Missouri,” says Odom, who was hosted during his campus stay by Faurot Field wall-of-fame running back Brock Olivo, BA ’01. “I really enjoyed (Mizzou coach) Larry Smith. I liked his vision and his plan, and I saw it as an opportunity to get a great education.”
Test of Toughness
The 6-foot-1-inch Odom moved to linebacker at Mizzou, started all four seasons and developed a reputation as a physical defender who could play through virtually any injury. Before his sophomore season, he tore his other ACL and later re-tore the first one. He once slipped on the locker room tile and cut the skin near his eye, requiring stitches before kickoff. During his senior season, he played with a cast to protect torn ligaments in his right hand. He was even hospitalized after a spider bite but still made it onto the field.
“Maybe my body wasn’t meant to play linebacker at this level,” says Odom, laughing. “I had the attitude that I’ve been awarded an opportunity. I had one shot to go be as good as I could be. If it takes toughness, then let’s be tougher than the next guy. That’s still a large part of my approach today. When I come into the office, I want to outwork my opponents.”
Odom graduated with 362 career tackles, currently seventh in program history. Sitting five spots ahead of him on that list with 415 is Demontie Cross, who rejoins his former teammate this season as Mizzou’s defensive coordinator.
“Barry was kind of quiet and very businesslike when I first met him,” says Cross, BS BA ’97, a former safety who was most recently co-defensive coordinator at Texas Christian University. “You’d think a freshman wouldn’t be able to play in the Big 12, but he took the bull by the horns.”
Small by NFL standards and worn down by college injuries, Odom knew his future would be not in playing professional football but in coaching. After a brief stint as an assistant at Ada High School, he returned to Columbia to take over the Rock Bridge High School head coaching job from Dan Devine Jr. Odom hired former teammate and NFL veteran A.J. Ofodile, BGS ’01, as an assistant.
“One of the things he has always had is a great feel for people,” says Ofodile, whom Odom hired again in May 2016, this time as Mizzou’s director of football recruiting operations. “Even as a kid coming up through the program, he has commanded the utmost respect from the people around him.”
Always a Tiger
In 2003, Odom returned to Mizzou as a graduate assistant and held various positions — including director of recruiting and safeties coach — for nearly a decade. He took a calculated risk in 2012 and joined the staff at Memphis University where, as defensive coordinator, he improved a squad ranked 117th nationally in total defense to 50th. When Mizzou’s defensive coordinator Dave Steckel left before the 2015 season to take the head coaching job at Missouri State, Pinkel tapped his star pupil.
“Barry is a person of great integrity who treats people the right way,” Pinkel says. “He has exceptional leadership skills and people skills, and he will run a tough, disciplined program. At the same time, he cares very much for his players, and it will show.”
The players care for him right back, as evidenced by the viral video of the moment Odom was revealed as the new coach in December 2015. The team erupted in a show of joy, mobbing the young coach, jumping in unison and chanting his name.
“I was really happy to have him back,” says former Mizzou safety Ian Simon. “He always stayed in contact with me throughout the years. He’d always send me a happy birthday text and check to see how I was doing, so it felt like that connection never really went away.”
Staying connected is paramount to Odom, whether it’s with family back in Oklahoma, assistant coaches and student-athletes on the sideline or high school prospects on the recruiting trail.
As alumni, Odom and his wife, Tia, BS Ed ’99, are deeply connected to their alma mater. So much so that when Odom is recruiting for Mizzou, his approach is less a sales pitch than a trip down memory lane.
“I knew when I went in to interview for this job I was going to know more about the University of Missouri — our athletic program, the state of our football team and the institution — than anybody sitting behind the door,” Odom says. “I’m able to point out the great things about our business school or walk through the J-School and point out a couple of the professors I know who are still there. In Jesse Hall, I mention that I was in that provost’s office one time because I didn’t act right in the classroom.
“Recruiting is fun for me because I give the campus tour.”
And why shouldn’t he? After all, he’s been here before.