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A football lifer: Barry Odom eager to get UNLV rebuild going

Updated December 27, 2022 - 10:20 am

The University of Missouri’s football team had lost five consecutive games after a 72-43 victory over Missouri State in the 2017 season opener, leaving coach Barry Odom in search of a spark.

So he gathered the playbooks, game plans and scouting reports the Tigers utilized the first six weeks and summoned them to a team meeting room inside the school’s practice facility.

When the players arrived, he piled the papers inside a Gatorade cooler, doused it in gasoline and set ablaze the failings of the previous five games. That fire also ignited a six-game winning streak that would propel them to a postseason bowl berth.

“He won’t always light things on fire,” said former Missouri quarterback Drew Lock, “but he knows how to motivate players.”

Perhaps Odom is the coach who can spark success within UNLV’s football program, the one he was tabbed Dec. 6 to lead as the 13th in its forgettable history.

He brings to Las Vegas four years of head coaching experience at his alma mater Missouri, where he would win exactly half of his games — and an immeasurable amount of respect from the hundreds of players he coached.

His teams are taught to be tough. He’s a former linebacker at Missouri who endured three torn anterior cruciate ligaments before the conclusion of his college career.

But his players are also taught to be tender. He’s a married father of three who cedes crucial household decisions to his 7-year-old daughter, Anna Lockwood.

“She’s in charge. When we talk about family, he admits that,” said Odom’s high school football coach, Larry McBroom, with whom he maintains a friendship.

A linebacker first

That he does, unsheathing a wry smile at the mere mention of his family.

Now 46, he’s been married 22 years to Tia, whom he met as a student-athlete at Missouri. School pictures of their three children are taped to a wall behind the desk inside his spacious second-floor office at the Fertitta Football Complex.

They join a trio of UNLV football helmets, two red Rebels visors and a red Rebels foam finger as the only decorations installed thus far amid two busy weeks touring the Las Vegas Valley and its high schools.

Eldest son JT is a senior linebacker whom his father hopes follows him to UNLV. Youngest son Garyt is a sophomore quarterback with a heap of scholarship offers fron Power Five programs.

JT plans to conclude his senior high school season in Arkansas, where Odom spent the last three years as the Razorbacks’ defensive coordinator. Garyt will conclude high school in Las Vegas, although Odom said he isn’t yet sure what school he’ll attend.

“We’ll be making the jump to this city together, and we can’t wait to be residents here full time,” Odom says with a subtle Southern drawl developed in his native Maysville, Oklahoma.

The town of 1,086 sits 33 miles south of Norman, where Oklahoma won three national championships under coach Barry Switzer and doubled as Odom’s childhood muse. Odom’s grandfather had two season tickets to Sooners games, allowing he or his brothers, Brad and Brian, the annual opportunity to attend one.

“Early on, I decided I was going to be a college football player,” said Odom, the second son born to Bob and Cheryl, retired teachers to whom he credits his work ethic.

Pickup football games in Maysville helped Odom develop the speed and strength he would showcase for three years at the town’s high school, where he’d tear his right ACL as a freshman, star at linebacker and running back anyway and win consecutive state championships in the 400-meter dash.

But his recruitment remained tepid until he moved in 1994 an hour east to Ada, where McBroom had developed a dynasty. Odom was a seamless fit, starting at linebacker and running back and competing with what McBroom termed “an incredible focus on doing the right thing and doing it the right way.”

“He didn’t care whether he had the ball in his hands of whether he was faking or blocking,” said McBroom, under whom Odom began his coaching career in 2000 at Ada. “Really a selfless player that played with great intensity and had a great calm about him,” and one who rushed for 1,570 rushing yards and 39 touchdowns while leading the team in tackles.

Another stellar spring on the track for Odom coincided with the availability of a couple football scholarships at Missouri when other commits failed to qualify academically. As a lifelong Oklahoma admirer, Odom committed in part because of Tigers coach Larry Smith’s persistence — and in part because the Big 12 “was a conference I grew up on and something that I wanted to be a part of.”

Holding respect

Lest we forget, Odom has already helped rebuild one college football program at Missouri, which endured 13 consecutive losing seasons before Odom and his fellow freshmen arrived. Missouri would cover the cost of Odom’s first ACL repair, allowing him to enroll at the beginning of the spring semester in 1996 and debut as a freshman linebacker that fall.

He’d play 42 games for the Tigers — enduring ACL reconstruction between his freshman and sophomore seasons and at the end of his senior season — captaining them in 1999, his final fall playing football. He also earned All-Conference honors and remained one of the most explosive players in the program despite the injuries, covering 40 yards in 4.5 seconds, bench-pressing 500 pounds and squatting 700.

“His commitment to the team, he never wavered on that whether he was injured or not able to play or going through rehabilitation,” said former teammate and Tigers defensive lineman Daniel McCamy. “I had confidence in him that he was always getting himself in the right position. Always doing the prep work and always knowing what was coming.”

The Tigers qualified for bowl games in 1997 and 1998, a feat Odom, still in supreme shape, says remains “one of the most rewarding things that I’ve been able to accomplish in sport.”

A one-day tryout with the Chicago Bears would precede the beginning of his coaching career at the insistence of McBroom. He’d spend a year coaching and teaching at Ada before Rock Bridge High School in Columbia, Missouri, whisked him away to be its head football coach for two years.

At Rock Bridge, Odom assembled a coaching staff comprised of his former Tigers teammates who’d occasionally don protective equipment to practice with the players. He bucked conventional wisdom by installing a spread offense, a rarity in that era.

His wife would wash uniforms and help him prepare the field for play, developing within Odom an everlasting understanding and appreciation for each and every role within an organization.

“He’s got a quiet confidence. He wasn’t much of a yeller, necessarily. But he held respect,” said former Rock Bridge quarterback Chase Patton, who also played at Missouri. “Looking back, it was his very first coaching job. But you’d have thought he’d been doing it for a long time.”

Odom wasn’t long though for high school, knowing he wanted to coach at the college level. He was contacted after the 2002 season by former Missouri coach Gary Pinkel, who was seeking a graduate assistant on his 2003 staff.

The graduate assistant would earn a Master’s degree in education and become a recruiting director — turned director of football operations turned safeties coach.

A three-year detour to Memphis as its defensive coordinator paved the way for a return to Missouri in 2015 to coordinate Pinkel’s defense as well. But Pinkel announced toward the end of the season that he would retire at its end amid a battle with lymphoma.

The players, Lock said, wanted Odom to succeed Pinkel. And that he would, albeit after a lengthy interview process.

Odom’s first order of business was intensifying the program’s winter workouts, “but it made us tough. It showed who really wanted to be there, who really wants to win and how hard we were willing to work,” said Lock, the backup to Seattle Seahawks quarterback Geno Smith.

“He knows how to get the best out of guys and how to get the best out of guys really fast. He can sniff out the weak ones who might not be in it, and he’ll know the guys that are ready to bust their ass for him.”

‘Nothing I would trade’

Odom fosters a family environment through football, helping facilitate bonds that extend beyond the confines of the gridiron. He maintains relationships with his high school and college teammates, inviting them to bowl games when his teams would qualify. His network of friends extends across the country and includes some of the most influential figures in college athletics.

While at Missouri, Odom would regularly plan dinners and other team-oriented outings for his players — simultaneously deferring to the team’s leaders and allowing their voices to flourish in those settings.

Linebackers would connect with offensive linemen who’d connect with specialists who’d connect with quarterbacks.

“It’s really cool, how close he brought us together,” Lock said. Their camaraderie, he believed, help them beat teams in the SEC that traditionally attract more talented players. Like Florida, Tennessee, Arkansas and South Carolina, all of which the Tigers beat under Odom.

Following a rebuilding year in 2016, Odom coached the Tigers to winning records and bowl games in 2017 and 2018. They finished 6-6 in 2019, his final season at Missouri.

His successor, Eliah Drinkwitz, has not coached the Tigers to a winning record in three seasons.

Odom doesn’t lament anything about his coaching career, offering optimism instead about the perspective he’s gleaned.

“There’s nothing I would trade for the experience I had,” Odom said, listing in succession the jobs he’s held. “You learn every year, you self evaluate, you find ways to make yourself better, your staff better and your team better. And you continue to put those things to play moving forward. I think I’m a better coach today than I was a year ago — and even that much more than five years ago.”

Contact Sam Gordon at sgordon@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BySamGordon on Twitter.

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