Life goes on without you. My chest gets a little tight just typing the words. Be it in relationships or careers or life as a whole, it is a thought that has rendered even strong minds too anxious to function.
There's a romantic in all of us. We want to woo, we want to capture, we want to live happily ever after. In the wooing (or re-wooing) process we'll spend hours, days, spinning around ways to say what we really mean, to say the things that will either win her over or keep her won ever. When we get a chance to get it all out, we go for it. Sometimes it comes out perfect. Often it's rushed.
There's obviously a romantic inside of Barry Odom. Last Saturday night proved that.
Odom got the girl. From most of the period between 1996 and 2015, he played just about every role he could at Missouri — starting linebacker, graduate assistant, director of recruiting, director of football operations, safeties coach, defensive coordinator — hoping to one day become the head coach at his alma mater. He excelled in nearly every single one of those roles, then he was handed the keys to the shop upon his mentor’s retirement.
This looked like a happily-ever-after story. But after a positively miserable start to 2017, just 16 games into his tenure, he’s facing a terrifying prospect, a reality that romantics all lie awake at night fearing: that Missouri’s life is going to go on without him.
Odom just knows he can win at Missouri, and he’s said so. Given an infinite amount of time, he’s probably right. But we don’t know if it will take him three years or 10. And despite all the information at his disposal, neither does Jim Sterk.
We are all part of a big, long story. This one has gone on since Missouri began playing football in the 1800s. In the present tense, some chapters are far more enjoyable than others, but in the big picture, Missouri is good, then it isn’t, then it is again, then it isn’t. The Tigers are part of the Missouri Valley, then the Big 6, Big 8, Big 12, SEC. Circumstances change, people change, and the ball still gets kicked off on fall Saturdays.
Of course, college football's history has only so much to do with actual results. For many, the reason for obsessing over college football actually has little to do with the game on the field and everything to do with the events surrounding the game on the field. The word "pageantry" ("an elaborate display or ceremony") was meant for college football. You probably clap (or wave) to the same fight song that your parents (or alums your parents' age) clapped to a generation before. And while your program's stadium may have been stretched and expanded a few times through the years, the field probably hasn't moved. The grass (fake or real) that hosts a given game on a given Saturday was probably hosting the cleats of athletes decades earlier. Schools don't move their teams like pro franchises. Where you play is quite possibly where you have always played.
In this vein, college football is, to Matt Hinton, "a body regenerating itself." New players come and go every year. Coaches stay anywhere between a couple of weeks and a couple of decades. But for the most part, the school colors remain the same.7The tailgates don't change that often. Season ticket holders plop down in nearly the same seat from one year to another. You meet up with people on fall Saturdays that you don't get to see the other nine months of the year, and you will meet up with them again next year. The game day experience keeps you coming back even when the names associated with the team change.
This is a communal experience, a constant in life. You plan one-third of your calendar year around it. Everything else in your life may change; fall Saturdays aren't going anywhere. And hell, when the fall ends, bowls, recruiting, and spring football are right around the corner.
Odom has a chance to be a part of the Missouri story. Certain names have been featured heavily in it: Faurot, Devine, Pinkel, maybe a Gwinn Henry or Uncle Al. Others get a passing mention — Henry Schulte. Frank Broyles. Bob Stull.
If this job doesn’t work out for Odom, he’ll be fine. He’ll probably land another solid defensive coordinator job, and if that goes well, he’ll quite possibly get another head coaching shot somewhere. He’ll use the lessons he learned at Missouri, possibly with great effect.
But Missouri would be going on without him. It would find somebody new. Eventually it will become good at football again, but it might happen with Odom elsewhere, a brief bit player in the story of the school into which he’s poured everything he has. We saw last Saturday night that that is a terrifying thought for him to process.
The It All Falls Apart Checklist is seeing boxes ticked off left and right. He fired a high-ranking coach. He ranted to the media. He dismissed/lost a key player. A recruit just de-committed. You could say this is all going according to script. But it ain’t over till it’s over.
Odom now begins the most important week of his coaching life. He’s supposedly tinkering with Missouri’s philosophy (a.k.a. actually trying to find one). He’s shuffled the receiver depth chart. His demoralized troops have gotten a little bit of rest. There are eight games remaining in 2017, and aside from what will likely be a nightmarish trip to Georgia in two weeks, no game is entirely unwinnable. He and his Tigers will have every chance to save his job.
Those are the stakes. Either Odom finds a higher level of performance for both himself and his team, or Missouri goes on without him. From one romantic to another, I wish him luck.