Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
COLUMBIA, Mo. — You’ll forgive Phil Pitts if he asks you to pinch him.
The former Helias football head coach’s first season as a defensive analyst at Missouri is in full swing as the Tigers begin their fall camp.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity, an absolute dream of mine to not only coach college football but to get to coach here at the University of Missouri with (head) coach (Gary) Pinkel and the rest of these great coaches,” Pitts said. “I absolutely enjoy every day, and I look forward to coming to work every day. It is a dream come true, and it’s something that I know that I’m lucky and blessed to be doing.”
Pitts went 40-15 in four years as Helias’ head coach, winning four district championships and earning two second-place finishes in Class 4. His new job description includes plenty of breaking down film and doing work behind the scenes.
“Just anything that I can do to help (defensive coordinator Barry) Odom and the other defensive coaches make sure that while we’re on the field we’re doing the right thing,” Pitts said.
After graduating from Helias in 2000, Pitts played in 40 games at Missouri as a defensive tackle, tallying 36 tackles in his career and scoring a 49-yard touchdown on an interception against Arkansas State in 2004.
“He’s an ex-Missouri Tiger, so when he walks in here, he knows how we do things,” said Pinkel, who called Pitts “a tremendous asset.”
Odom said he was excited to have Pitts on board in his first season as Missouri’s defensive coordinator.
“He’s a smart football coach,” Odom said. “He’s got a good football mind, and he’s coached at the high-school level. There’s a lot of guys that are players that wouldn’t make good coaches. Just because you played football doesn’t make you a great coach or a good coach, but Phil understands the entire 11 positions on defense. He understands his role. And he understands what we need from that to make us better.”
Coaching in the college ranks was already a dream of Pitts’, but getting to do so at his alma mater — a program that has become renowned for producing successful defensive lines, no less — certainly sweetens the deal.
“All of that is just the icing on the cake,” he said.
Though joining Pinkel’s staff meant leaving Helias, Pitts is happy to still be based in central Missouri.
“I love this place,” he said. “I love mid-Missouri. I love being here. This is home to me. My wife and my family are all from here, and her family is all from here, so to get an opportunity to stick around and raise my kids in central Missouri is, like I said, just more icing on the cake.”
Pitts said he expects Tim Rulo, his replacement at Helias, to have plenty of success, and Pitts is still invested in the school, where plenty of his former coaches and players remain. That said, his focus is on his new team.
“I’ll have to do that nice little balancing act,” he said. “Probably stay in touch through phone calls and texts with some of my friends and watch the news, read the News Tribune, and do all of those kind of things to stay in touch. They know that if they need something I’ll do my best to help them out, but I also believe in what they’re doing, and I know that they’ll do a great job.”
Pitts isn’t the only former Tiger with Jefferson City ties returning to Missouri this season. Jefferson City High School graduate and just-retired NFL star Justin Smith has signed on as a part-time weight room assistant, the team announced Thursday. Though they played for cross-town schools, Pitts said there won’t be any Capital City rivalry on staff.
“It doesn’t matter the high school,” said Pitts, whose first year at Missouri was Smith’s last. “We are Missouri Tigers, and that’s the number one thing that we’re doing. We’re both trying to help these kids and help this program help win football games. … He’s a great resource for us and I’m so glad he’s here.”
Like Pitts and Smith, Odom’s arrival in Columbia is actually a return. He played for the Tigers as a linebacker from 1996-99 and coached from 2003-11 as an administrative graduate assistant, director of recruiting and director of football operations.
Pinkel said having that familiarity helps smooth the transition for new coaches like Odom and Pitts.
“We’ve got ways we do things,” Pinkel said. “I’m very detailed about how I want it done, and I know what works, and the good news is all the guys work hard to do it the right way.”
Odom replaces new Missouri State head coach Dave Steckel as defensive coordinator after holding the same position at Memphis. Odom said he feels a responsibility to do things right, having returned to his alma mater.
“There’s a lot of people that have invested a lot of time and energy and sweat equity into this place long before me,” he said, “and I want them to be proud of the product we put on the field.”
Even some of the first-year coaches who previously hadn’t worn Missouri’s black and gold have some familiarity with the system. Ryan Walters replaces Alex Grinch, who took the defensive coordinator job at Washington State, as the safeties coach. Walters worked under Odom last year at Memphis, as did new Missouri defensive analyst Adam Hicks.
“We did a lot of the same principles and fundamentals of coaching at Memphis last year because of coach Odom’s background,” Walters said. “So it’s been good to come in and see familiarity as far as the teaching and the coaching aspect goes.”