When the dust was beginning to settle on the 41-14 blowout of the Missouri Tigers by their counterparts of the same name at Auburn, Barry Odom met with the press with fire in his eyes. For those who support Missouri, what was said need not be repeated (though a full transcript can be found here). Odom talked about the future of his football team, repeatedly labeled the project he had been handed a “turnaround,” and promised wins and glory in the future.
Odom’s remarks were fiery and passionate. They were full of emotion. He was stepping up to the plate, drawing from his past, and swinging for the fences. Unfortunately for Odom, the pitch was already in the catcher’s mitt when his bat entered the zone.
The 2017 Missouri Tigers football team has not been a disappointment. It has not underperformed. It has been a complete and utter embarrassment. For all but two halves of four full games (the second half against Missouri State and the first half against South Carolina) the Tigers have been ruthlessly humiliated on the football field. They sit at 1-3, with two losses in their conference already. Since their defeat of Missouri State, the Tigers have averaged ten points a game, scoring only three total touchdowns in three contests (including one in Saturday’s game that was of no consequence). More than that, the Tigers have been feckless on defense, allowing an average of 40 points per game. Supposedly Odom’s specialty, as he was a defensive coordinator at Memphis and Missouri, the Tigers’ D have looked entirely lost, regardless of the opposition.
Odom’s answer to these four bad performances was simple, a classic response of coaches that are searching for answers: this is a project. I wasn’t handed the keys to a Lamborghini, but an old Thunderbird that was once great, and that I can restore to its glory days. This is, as he said repeatedly, a “turnaround.”
The problem with Odom’s logic is that no Missouri supporter signed on for a “turnaround.” No one thought that this was a full rebuild. Yes, 2015 was a very hard season, especially with the news that Gary Pinkel, one of the Tigers’ greatest coaches and one of the architects of their transition to the SEC, would be retiring due in part to a battle with cancer. That season finished 5-7, admittedly, a mark that would need to be improved upon going forward. But the 2015 season followed a two-year stretch that included two SEC East championships, two bowl wins, and a combined 23-5 record. Though some fans may have admitted that the Tigers had over-performed in those two seasons, few if any were willing to concede that the program was in need of a full rebuild. In fact, many, myself included, were initially underwhelmed by the Odom signing, believing that the Tigers had had enough success to make a bigger splash and land a more prestigious hire from outside the program.
But, speaking for myself, I warmed to Odom, seeing the absolute joy with which the players received the news of his hiring. Odom seemed to hire good coordinators, his initial recruiting moves looked strong, and excitement began to build. The 2016 season, though finishing at a disappointing 4-8, showed promise. They ended on a high note, winning two of their final three games, both in conference, and beating rival Arkansas. Missouri fans prepared for 2017 expecting a return to at least Bowl Season, if not seven or eight wins.And therefore, few fans were prepared for another “turnaround” season.
Therein lies the core problem with Odom’s speech. It constructs a falsely deflated expectation of his program. No one entered 2017 believing the Tigers were a “turnaround,” excepting that they believed it was a continuing (and improving) rebuild from the year before. And yet, through four games, Mizzou has showed no sign of improvement, and many, many signs of regression.
Through four games last season, the Tigers were 2-2, beating up on tune-up opponents Eastern Michigan (61-21) and Delaware State (79-0, their only FCS opponent that year), and barely dropping a razor thin loss to tough division opponent Georgia, 28-27. They had lost two games by a total of sixteen points.
Through four games this season, the Tigers are 1-3 with two conference losses. In their only victory, they allowed 43 points to this year’s FCS opponent, Missouri State, who remained neck-and-neck with the Tigers throughout the first half. In their three losses, they have lost by an average of 29 points, well beyond their total margin of defeat of 16 points in two losses through four games last year. This is not progress. This isn’t a turnaround. It’s a total regression. And it does not speak well of Odom’s tenure.
These problems are not all Odom’s to bear. The University of Missouri is facing a lot of problems and the issues and unrest across the campus may well affect the product on the field. But Odom cannot be entirely excused for this poor a performance. The state and the university have committed a lot of money to the football program, and those commitments demand results. If Barry Odom cannot deliver those results, the team needs to look elsewhere for its leadership.
Let us be fair about expectations for Odom going forward. In the next four weeks, Missouri goes to Kentucky, then to Georgia, then hosts Idaho, and then travels to UCONN. They must go 3-1 in that stretch. Kentucky is one of very few conference opponents that remain conceivably beatable for the Tigers. They must take advantage of those opportunities. A win at Georgia would be an incredible accomplishment for Odom, and would pour ice on his hot seat, but it seems extremely unlikely if not impossible. A loss against either Idaho or UCONN should mean an immediate end to Odom’s tenure at Missouri.
In the final four games of the season, Mizzou plays home and home against Florida and Tennessee, and away and away against Vanderbilt and Arkansas. At the moment, both Arkansas and Vanderbilt look vulnerable, though two straight SEC road wins would be an incredible accomplishment. Should Odom remain at the helm through the end of the season, a split in these final four games would be terrific, regardless of where the wins fell.
On the whole, Missouri must win four more games this season for Odom to keep his job (or, at least, for fans to be content with Odom keeping his job). Idaho and Connecticut are non-negotiable, a loss in either game would be a blight on an already unseemly season. With those two wins in hand, Missouri needs to find two wins in their remaining six conference games, four of which are on the road. This is a tall order, but the program must show improvement from a 4-8 finish last year. So far, they have shown nothing of the sort, and Odom’s seat remains firmly planted in the flames.
I respect Barry Odom. He seems to be a terrific leader and a wonderful man. I love that he was a player at Mizzou and has returned as its head coach. I would love nothing more than to look back on this article with embarrassment in years to come, reflecting on the long and successful tenure of Barry Odom as the head coach of Missouri. Unfortunately, I do not think that is likely. The Southeastern Conference is not the place to groom and nurture novice head coaches. It is a cutthroat conference with too much exposure and too much recruiting talent to quietly endure a long rebuild, particularly with countless tenured coaches who would gladly take any SEC job offered to them. Odom’s Tigers need to show improvement in the immediate future, or they cannot remain Odom’s Tigers for very much longer. Saturday’s game at Kentucky will tell us a lot. If they are at least competitive, there may be hope. If they are embarrassed again, it’s time to start looking at shortlists. Let’s hope, for Odom’s sake, that they bring home a “W.”