One of the first really big, national 2016 Missouri pieces went up this past week: USA Today's Dan Wolken spent some time with Mizzou head coach Barry Odom and surveyed the state of the Tiger program. You should definitely read it all, but I thought I would highlight a few passages.
Odom, 39, received the opportunity of a lifetime last December when he was named the replacement for Pinkel, who abruptly stepped down due to health reasons. But his dream job also comes with unusual challenges that will test whether Missouri is truly built to compete in the Southeastern Conference over the long-haul.
I realize I tend to look at goals and narratives differently than most -- sometimes that's really good, sometimes it's not -- but "competing in the Southeastern Conference over the long-haul" simply means being able to repeatedly put a good product on the field. It means being able to make solid hires and use the combination of recruiting and development to put a top-20 (or so) product on the field more often than not. In this sense, "competing in the Southeastern Conference" is no different than "competing in the Big 12." It really means competing against yourself, and Missouri has already proven it can do it. It had proven it could do it before it even left the Big 12.
"There has been some challenges with that because I’ve said a million times I have such great respect for Gary and what he did," Odom said. "I’m going to do some of the things he did as a program, but there’s things we’re doing differently. We’re not just wiping the calendar clean and putting a new date on it and saying this is what we’re doing because it’s been done this way for 15 years."
I love this quote. Thinking back on all the situations in which a legend leaves and is succeeded by a former assistant (or an underling of some sort) -- Ray Perkins succeeding Bear Bryant at Alabama (Perkins was a former Bama receiver), Frank Solich succeeding Tom Osborne at Nebraska, etc. -- I have to figure this tripped them up almost constantly.
Obviously Gary Pinkel wasn't Bear Bryant, but he was really good, and he was Odom's boss for a long time. It's really easy to simply fall into the trap of accepting people's assumptions and continuing with a lot of certain habits, and I commend Odom for trying to break those habits where he sees fit, even if he ends up breaking some habits that I like.
The truth is, Missouri’s next coach was going to have a more difficult road regardless of the boycott fallout because the program’s fundamental challenges haven’t changed. It doesn’t have the same tradition or brand name as the school it’s competing against in the East. It doesn’t have a palatial football complex with recruiting "wow" factor, which is pretty much standard these days in the SEC. It doesn’t have the richest pipeline of in-state talent.
This is true. Missouri isn't as easy a job as Georgia or Florida, and it's harder to pull off the "consistent top 20s" thing that I mentioned. But Gary Pinkel's biggest accomplishment might have been proving that you can do it while still leaving room to grow.
Pinkel overcame that because of the way his staff developed and utilized talent, but also because Missouri’s entry to the SEC coincided with the East’s traditional powers experiencing a collective malaise.
I definitely see a "Missouri won in 2013 and 2014 because the East was down" consensus forming among national types, and I want to push back forcefully ... on half of it. Missouri won in 2014 because the East was down. Missouri won in 2013 because Missouri was an incredible football team.
The Tigers were 23rd in my S&P+ rankings in 2014 -- that's good, but it shouldn't win the East. But in 2013, they were sixth in S&P+, and they won a division that also featured the No. 10 (South Carolina) and 11 (Georgia) teams. Sure, Florida suddenly stunk, but Mizzou won a division with three of the top 11 teams in the country. There's nothing "down" about that -- the only weird part was that Missouri and South Carolina were two of the three great teams instead of Florida and Tennessee.
With Georgia, Tennessee and Florida all apparently on the upswing, Odom will not have that luxury.
Granted, there's a Title IX lawsuit coming down the pike at Tennessee, and we'll see what the fallout is from that, but on the field, Tennessee is absolutely on the upswing. They have ranked 19th and 22nd in S&P+ the last two years, and they return a ton of last year's production. I will be surprised if they aren't a top-15 team. But as it pertains to Georgia and Florida, that's a massive assumption to make. Florida looked like it was improving rapidly in its first year under Jim McElwain until it lost Will Grier to suspension, then bombed. Then Grier left. The odds are always good that a team that recruits at a top-10 to 15 level will eventually drift toward that level on the field, but it hasn't happened yet.
Georgia, meanwhile, just fired one of the most consistent coaches in college football for a guy who has no more head coaching experience than Barry Odom. It's easy to assume Kirby Smart will succeed, and he very well might. But there's no "apparently" here yet -- we haven't seen the product on the field yet, and that "product" might include a freshman starting QB this coming fall.
Despite significant roster challenges, Memphis jumped from 117th nationally in total defense to 50th in Odom’s first year. By his third in 2014, the Tigers won a share of the American Athletic Conference title and allowed just 19.5 points per game. And he did it without a strict system, per se, using all different kinds of fronts and pressures depending on where he felt he could maximize the team’s personnel strengths.
It's a lot easier to make predictions and assumptions if you're talking about a guy with a "system" -- Mike Leach's offense, the triple option, Rocky Long's 3-3-5, etc. But I have to say I've quickly grown to love the idea of an undefinable system. Barry Odom has shown the ability to adapt and shift, and I love it. His "system" is "figuring out what you've got and figuring out how best to use it." There are still concepts that need to be taught, and you still probably need some specific concepts you can lean on, but this level of adaptability is the reason I've been so convinced of his potential head coaching abilities.
Though the admittedly un-flashy Odom will generate the least amount of buzz at SEC media days in July, it won’t be any surprise if he maximizes this opportunity because he is both über-prepared and completely cognizant of the situation he’s walking into.
"Über-prepared." Damn right. Barry Odom has been preparing to be a head coach since he was about 13 and has been preparing to be Missouri's head coach since about 2003. Preparation alone isn't enough, but it's certainly a large portion of the battle.
"Some of the ideas and some of the things that our players have seen and been exposed to, it’s nothing different than what they see in the everyday world. They just happen to be two minutes up the street. The worst thing I could do would be to not address it or not talk about it. I’m trying to get our guys to open up and see there’s life outside of this. Yeah, we’re trying to win. There’s a winner and loser to everything we’re doing, but man, your college opportunity is so short, let’s take advantage of every chance we get."