Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
COLUMBIA, Mo. — Following such an eventful fall, there was little chance of a boring winter for the Missouri football staff.
In early November, the Tigers boycotted football activities in protest of racial incidents on campus. Later that week, Gary Pinkel announced his plans to resign after the season, leaving his successor Barry Odom to handle a recruiting class that would have a unique set of questions.
Odom and his staff’s approach to those questions? Answer them.
“We’re going to approach anything that comes across our table with honesty,” Odom said Wednesday at the team’s National Signing Day event. “I’m about dealing in truth. (I) really painted the picture for what this place is, and I care deeply about the University of Missouri and the state of Missouri, and the quote-unquote issues that were on our campus, that was something that was no different than our society in whole.
“It’s our job as coaches and as mentors and as leaders to provide a platform for our student-athletes to teach them about life and to make sure that we’re helping them in every area.”
The boycott’s aim was to bring about the end of graduate student Jonathan Butler’s hunger strike. Butler was refusing to eat until then-system president Tim Wolfe resigned for his handling of racist events at Missouri, among other complaints held by Butler and protest group Concerned Student 1950. Wolfe’s resignation was a cause backed by a group of black Missouri players in their initial announcement of the boycott, and Wolfe resigned less than 48 hours after that announcement.
The football team’s involvement put the university on a national stage, and the protests reportedly led to fewer enrollment applications at Missouri. There was a fear the football team would see a similar drop in recruiting interest.
Cornell Ford, one of three assistant coaches remaining from Pinkel’s staff, said that wasn’t the case. Missouri’s main recruiter in the St. Louis area said he didn’t lose any recruits because of the protests.
“No, not one,” Ford said. “Not one. Because, if you look at when Gary Pinkel resigned to coach Odom coming on, all of my guys were still intact. I’m talking about my guys in the St. Louis area and all the guys that I was recruiting, and of that group I lost one just here recently, but we picked up two, so it’s all good. I came out on the plus side.”
Like Odom, Ford said he approached the situation with honesty.
“Listen, I told parents just exactly what I thought,” he said. “I never B.S.’d them or sugarcoated it. We had some issues, issues that needed to be addressed. No more issues than probably what (other people) have in their workplace over there. I don’t think that the problems we had here were major, major problems. But just like other workplaces, they needed to be addressed, and our kids stood up for something, and we stood behind our players.
“That’s kind of how I explained it to them, and I think most parents understood that. I think most parents respected that we stood with our players.”
“I think there was a lot of respect on how some of the things were done,” Odom added, “that we addressed the issue and didn’t run from it, and as a team and as a program we grew together, closer, in my opinion, through some of the things that we went through.”
The first-year coach knows the topic is a difficult one.
“Anytime that you bring up race, and I’m not afraid to say it, everybody gets a little touchy about it, and that’s the way life is,” he said. “I would hope that as a football team — and I know as a football team that we’re going to be able to make this place a better place with the way we handle ourselves.”
Newly hired defensive coordinator DeMontie Cross, who is black, said he did not experience racism during his time as a Missouri player in the ’90s.
“So at the heart of me I knew that things would be OK,” he said.
The next step was convincing that to parents and recruits.
“The hard part is trying to say, OK, to the recruits, ‘This is going to be fine,’” said Andy Hill, another holdover from Pinkel’s staff and a long-established recruiter in the Kansas City-area. “But at the same time, every other school is going in there … attacking us: ‘Well it’s not what it was. Missouri is different. Missouri has changed. Your position coach, who is he?’ Any little crack in the armor when it comes to recruiting, it makes parents, it makes players nervous.
“And so when you have a head-coaching change and you certainly have a transition like we did, then it makes those guys wonder, ‘Am I making the right decision?’”
Hill said there were similar concerns when Missouri made the transition from the Big 12 to the Southeastern Conference in 2012.
“There’s always some question mark,” he said. “‘This is not the Missouri I committed to. This is not the Missouri I thought it was,’ and you spend a lot of time saying, ‘It’ll be fine.’”
And largely, it worked, safeties coach Ryan Walters said.
“The reception was good,” said Walters, who coached under Pinkel for a year and recruits in the Atlanta and Dallas regions. “They understood, and they were just more curious than they were afraid of what happened. So once you talked to them about it, they kind of realized (to) take it for what it really was, and you move on.”
Having Odom on board helped with that.
“He did an awesome job,” Hill said. “He’s the same guy every single day. You talk about consistency and doing things right and being about Mizzou, that’s Barry Odom. He did a wonderful job talking to players. If he got in front of parents, it’s easy to see … he’s a straightforward person, and he’s a guy that will put a smile on your face when he’s talking to you.”