Last week, as we were still digesting the news of defensive coordinator DeMontie Cross’ firing and weighing its possible effects — first impression of those effects, by the way: not great — we had a brief exchange in the Rock M Nation Slack room about how much turnover Barry Odom has dealt with in his first year-plus in charge, as compared to the rock-steady continuity Gary Pinkel dealt with at Mizzou.
Odom is on his third defensive line coach in under two years and has now either lost or forced out his defensive coordinator (Cross) and cornerbacks coach (Greg Brown) as well.
It hit me later in the week, however, that this was an unfair comparison.
Pinkel came to Missouri with 10 years of head coaching experience and a much larger “I know I can work with this guy” Rolodex.
There were special circumstances surrounding Pinkel’s hire — there were pretty clear reasons why his first staff didn’t mesh, and we’ll get to that in a bit. But hiring your first staff as a head coach is a massive exercise in randomness. Not only do you have no idea how you will perform with a completely new set of duties, but you don’t know how others will perform in working for you.
Not including Odom or Ole Miss interim Matt Luke, there are currently five other SEC head coaches who are on their first head coaching gigs.
- Vanderbilt’s Derek Mason was hired in 2014. His first staff was an outright disaster — four left after his first awful season at VU, and four left after the second year. Only one member of the original nine-man staff remains.
- Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen was hired in 2009. Of the members of his first staff, four were gone within three years, two after one.
- Georgia’s Kirby Smart was hired in 2016, same time as Odom. He survived the first year turning over only one guy (defensive line coach Tracy Rocker).
- Kentucky’s Mark Stoops was hired in 2013. Only two members of the original staff are still with him. Early turnover was kept to a minimum — only two left within two years — but three left after the third year.
Mason did an absolutely horrendous job with his first staff, and his tenure began with 21 losses in 30 games. His third team rebounded to win four of six, however, and eke out a bowl bid. The Commodores have been a pleasant surprise thus far in year four.
Now go back to when Pinkel first introduced his staff in Columbia back in December 2000, by the way.
You’ll quickly find a common theme.
- Dave Christensen, his first Mizzou offensive coordinator, had coached with him since 1992. So had running backs coach Brian Jones and defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski had coached with him since 1992.
- Defensive backs coach Matt Eberflus had been a Pinkel assistant for seven years.
- Outside linebackers coach Cornell Ford and tight ends coach Bruce Walker had been Pinkel assistants for five years.
- Quarterbacks coach David Yost had been a Pinkel assistant for four years.
- When Tom Amstutz, Pinkel’s first choice as defensive coordinator, left to take the vacant head coaching job at Toledo, Pinkel made Eberflus the DC and brought on Dave Steckel, who had coached at UT from 1992-95 before leaving for Rutgers.
Lots of “since 1992s” in there. But Pinkel’s first year as Toledo head coach was 1991. The only member of the Permanent Pinkel Assistants club directly associated with the Pinkel’s 1991 team was Eberflus, who was at the time a senior linebacker.
I started to piece together what the heck happened to his first-year staff, and my timing couldn’t have been better: last Friday, Pinkel’s autobiography, The 100-Yard Journey, co-authored by Dave Matter, was released. Pinkel talked about his first couple of years in detail.
Pinkel got the Toledo job at an odd time: mid-March. His predecessor, Nick Saban (who wrote the foreward for The 100-Yard Journey), had just taken the defensive coordinator job with the Cleveland Browns, and as a fellow former Don James assistant, he told Pinkel he could get him an interview.
I had already lost out on the head-coaching jobs at Bowling Green and Kent State. Why not try for another? I flew to Ohio for the interview with athletic director Al Bohl. At the time, Nick’s assistant coaches were already planning for the 1991 season. If I got the job, I didn’t have to keep Nick’s staff, but it was strongly implied that it would be a good idea. I figured if I agreed to keep the staff for one year the transition would be a lot easier for everyone involved. From there, I’d see where things led. The job was mine if I wanted it. And I did. [...]
My new staff at Toledo was used to doing things under Nick. I wanted to run things differently. [...]
Five of the nine assistants I inherited from Nick’s staff coached only that first season under me. I was demanding with my staff but always in a respectful way. I was never a screamer or name-caller. I never wanted to create uncomfortable situations. But a couple coaches retired or left the staff.
Looking back, the staff Saban left for Pinkel was awfully impressive.
- Current Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees was defensive coordinator.
- Current Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker was defensive backs coach. (He would remain in that role through most of Pinkel’s tenure.)
- Greg Meyer, who would go on to become Gary Barnett’s offensive coordinator at Northwestern during the Wildcats’ amazing turnaround, was offensive coordinator.
- L.C. Cole, who would go 20-4 as Tennessee State’s head coach in 1998-99, was running backs coach.
- Amstutz, Pinkel’s eventual successor, was on staff as well.
Coach talent wasn’t an issue, but fit clearly was. Toledo had won 13 of its last 16 games before Pinkel took over but went just 5-5-1 in his first season and began his second 3-3. The Rockets would win seven of their next eight games but then went just 4-7 in Year 3.
In The 100-Yard Journey, Pinkel talks a lot — a lot — about figuring out the personality he wanted to develop as a head coach. He knew the basic structure of Don James’ “Process,” but each step is still open to interpretation, and even when he found the coaches who would end up following his lead for 20-plus years, it still took him a while to find his footing. But that first year, with a staff that would almost completely turn over, certainly slowed the Process down.
It wasn’t until his fifth season, the 10-0-1 campaign of 1995, that he totally found himself. Hell, it then took him seven years at Missouri to break all the way through. He almost lost his job after four. It takes a while sometimes.
By the way, no, there wasn’t a performance equivalent to Missouri’s against Purdue early in Pinkel’s Toledo tenure. The Rockets got smoked by eventual national champion Washington, but so did everyone else. The closest thing I can find: a 28-9 loss to a CMU team that would go on to finish just 5-6. The Chippewas leaped to a 21-2 lead and cruised.
Toledo responded by winning six of its final seven games and barely losing to 10-win Bowling Green. We’ll see how Odom’s team responds to a performance I don’t know enough negative adjectives to properly describe.
Between Mason and Pinkel, there are some lessons here in what can happen if you give a guy a lot of rope. The question for Missouri athletic director Jim Sterk, of course, is how much rope can he afford to give? Due to factors not entirely in Odom’s control — the Tigers’ slide began in Pinkel’s final season, and we know school-wide morale was suffering in 2015 even before the November 2015 protests ... which quickly bled over into alumni morale as well — attendance has plummeted quickly. After averaging home attendance of more than 65,000 in both 2014 and 2015, Mizzou averaged just 52,236 last year and is currently sitting at 52,805 (which is almost sure to fall from here on out) in 2017.
Sterk’s fundraising figures have still been impressive, and maybe there’s value in taking things slowly as construction begins on the new south end zone complex in 2018. Combine that with the clear evidence that patience can pay off handsomely — both for Missouri coaches and first-time SEC head coaches — and I figure Sterk really isn’t in a rush to undergo a coaching change.
This post really wasn’t intended to be either reassuring or discouraging. It was simply an exploration. Odom could indeed still succeed, especially as he slowly begins to figure out who on his staff is and isn’t a keeper.
But a few more performances like the one against Purdue, and Sterk might not have a choice but to make a move. These next few games are very, very important.