LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — During a timeout with two minutes left in the game, while the entire Missouri football team was huddled together, offensive lineman Yasir Durant found his coach on the fringes of the circle. He playfully draped his arms over Barry Odom’s shoulders from behind, whispering something in his ear. Odom laughed and patted the senior on the back.
Odom had several stops to make as he jogged off the field after the game, a 24-14 win over Arkansas to end the 2019 season. First, to his players from Arkansas. He grabbed Taylor Powell by the shoulders and energetically shook his next-man-up quarterback, whose first career touchdown pass was a game-clincher.
Then Odom did the same to Barrett Banister, an under-sized receiver on whom Odom took a chance three years ago, first as a walk-on and now as a scholarship starter leading his team with 60 yards.
Then Odom moved on to Jonathan Nance, a grad transfer who left Arkansas to play his last year of college football for Odom. Nance didn’t blink when a postseason ban was imposed in January, and was at the receiving end of that clinching touchdown against his former team.
Then Odom shared a hug with Richaud Floyd, a redshirt senior whose college career was injury-plagued but given meaning in Year 5 by Odom and the coaches who carved out a role for him as the kick returner.
Then Odom, a former Missouri linebacker, stopped for a photo with two of his disciples: Michael Scherer, who Odom brought back as a grad assistant after college, and Cale Garrett, the last commitment in Odom’s first recruiting class, an otherwise-overlooked, Missouri-born linebacker who became a team captain and was having an All-American senior year before a pectoral injury.
Then Odom got a bear hug. He was lifted in the air by Trystan Colon-Castillo, the team’s most outspoken defender of Odom during a season which saw the Missouri coach’s job security go far beyond precarious.
With each player he encountered, there were warm smiles and laughs. This proved to be Odom’s last trip off a field as the football coach at his alma mater.
Arkansas was Odom’s last chance to make a statement that he deserves to stay in his dream job after a five-game losing streak that jeopardized his future. When asked if Friday was his last stand after the game? Odom said he had “no idea” about his future and repeatedly referenced building next year’s team.
Arkansas did prove to be his last stand, and his players saw it as a testament to his motivational skills.
During a weight-lifting session Tuesday, Odom was tasked with telling his players the news they had been dreading since January. The NCAA had finally decided to deny MU’s appeal of sanctions levied in January, upholding a 2019 postseason ban. Only now could he tell his seniors for certain that Arkansas would be their final game.
The offense had just finished lifting. The defense was entering the weight room. Odom came in with them.
“There’s no way to sugarcoat it,” Odom said to his players. He didn’t want a formal team meeting, like when the sanctions were announced in January. He told them the news.
“For a second, it was silent,” linebacker Jamal Brooks said. “You kind of try to prep yourself that it’s not going to go your way, but then again you want to have some optimism about you.”
“He didn’t think that was going to happen,” Nance said. “Everybody was kind of down. But he lifted us up.”
Odom told his players he loves them. Then he turned his attention to Arkansas: “Everybody’s going to be watching this game because of the sanctions.” He stressed the importance of making sure the seniors’ last memory could be a win, rather than a sixth straight loss. “Go out the right way.”
“He presented it to us well,” defensive lineman Jordan Elliott said. “I think that’s important, presentation of information. He didn’t want the energy in the room to die down. He just told us what it was, and after that we got right back to lifting.”
Odom used the sanctions as fuel for the game, players said Friday, which brought out the best in him as a motivator. It’s why they have come to his defense so often throughout the season. It’s why they held a players-only meeting Thursday and discussed the meaning of this game.
“I trust him so much,” Nance said. “Everything he says in the meetings, I just listen to and it sticks to me because how much emotion he has behind it. A lot of things he says have touched me. I just try to listen to him.”
There was some extra meaning to this game for Colon-Castillo, whose favorite memory of Odom off the field is a conversation they had when he committed to MU.
“I had one deal with him,” Colon-Castillo said. “I told him the only way I was coming here was we never lost to Arkansas while I was here. And now we’re 4-0, so he’s kept his word.”
Banister’s favorite memory is the first time he saw how funny Odom can be. It happened at a recruiting event called “Night at the Zou.” Odom whispered to Banister, encouraging him to sneak up on assistant coach Andy Hill and push him over. When Banister did, Hill gave him a glare. “Coach Odom told me to,” Banister said. Odom pretended to look appalled at Banister, adamantly saying: “No I did not.”
“He’s good to his players,” Banister laughed. “We love him.”
Missouri has underperformed beyond imagination in 2019, and it spelled the end for Odom after four years. But his passion for Missouri, his players and the game of football certainly stood out in this last week of the season. Maybe that’s why zero players transferred from Missouri after the NCAA announced the postseason ban last winter.
“One thing with the sport of football, fellas, and I’m going to believe in it forever, is that it is so good for society,” Odom said Friday when asked about trying to overcome the ban. “And it’s good for young men. And it’s good when you are put in a position when your back’s against the wall a little bit. And I know this, the job that I’ve done, this staff has done, for the four years we’ve had ... These guys that are going to walk out of our program, they’re going to be better dads. They’re going to be better husbands. They’re going to be better sons. They’re going to be better brothers. They’re going to make our society better, and I have very strong conviction with that.”
Just as Friday proved to be Odom’s last stand, this might have been his last soliloquy. It’s one his players have heard before.