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Graney: Barry Odom teaches Rebels how to win and then move on

Jackson Woodard is right. Winning is the ultimate goal. Winning is everything.

But as much as the UNLV linebacker and his teammates have done so this season — the Rebels are 7-2, bowl eligible and in the thick of the Mountain West race — learning the nuances of it is just as important.

How to handle winning.

How to enjoy it.

How to not let it encompass your every thought.

How to quickly move on from it.

This is not a program of historical success. Just the opposite. The last time UNLV won at least seven of its first nine games was 1984. You could see a movie for $2.50, and Randall Cunningham was the Rebels’ quarterback.

It hasn’t been a minute. It has been like 100 of them.

Expecting to win

So as first-year coach Barry Odom and his staff have navigated their players through far more ups than downs, teaching how best to grasp it all has been a central theme.

It hasn’t been an entire season under Odom, but things are a far cry from previous years. Wanting to win is one thing. Expecting to is quite another.

UNLV sits in the latter group right now. First time in a long time.

It’s a mindset seemingly born overnight.

“If you take a breath or relax, there is somebody waiting around the corner to knock you off, to beat you,” Odom said. “The mindset is, ‘How good can we get?’ It’s a sprint with no finish line to get there and the clock is always ticking.

“As soon as you sit back and read your press clippings, you’re going to get embarrassed. You’re going to get exposed.”

No one seems to be reading much of them at UNLV.

The Rebels are 4-1 in the conference, and the only loss is a 31-24 setback at Fresno State. UNLV is especially good at home, having won five straight and eight of 10 dating to last season at Allegiant Stadium.

It next faces visiting Wyoming on Friday night, another key matchup for a UNLV team that has its eyes on qualifying for the conference championship game. Another loss could permanently derail such thoughts.

Winning is difficult. So, too, is building a culture that supports it. Odom in a short time has made believers of his team, an attitude that is beyond necessary for success to be created.

His players are all-in.

“Everyone in that locker room is on the same mission with the same goals,” the junior Woodard said. “You celebrate a win, but as soon as you get back, you’re hungry for another one. You get that feeling right after a game — get back on Sunday and start a new week. We’re all on the same mission — to go win.”

A perfect example might be the team’s last game, a 56-14 rout at New Mexico in which the halftime score was 35-7. The Rebels were dominant in every way. They clinched a winning season for the first time in a decade. There was much to celebrate.

But hoots and hollers quickly turned to preparation for Wyoming, a physical side that will offer a much stiffer test than the hapless Lobos.

Odom’s take: It was a mature approach for a team with a lot to play for on a short week.

It’s a race

“We’re only going to be as good as to how many guys we can get playing winning football,” Odom said. “The more guys we’ve got on the bus, the better our team is going to be.

“Are we celebrating success? Absolutely. But the good, the bad, the ugly, you have to correct it and apply it. It’s a race to get to game day. We understand how important this week is.”

Learning to win takes time. Learning how to deal with it does, too.

UNLV under Odom has already accomplished such.

It’s everything.

Ed Graney, a Sigma Delta Chi Award winner for sports column writing, can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on X.

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