UMBC has begun preliminary discussions with men’s basketball coach Ryan Odom about a contract extension, athletic director Tim Hall said Monday, a move that could secure the near-term future of the architect of the Retrievers’ turnaround and the NCAA tournament’s greatest upset.
In a phone interview with The Baltimore Sun on Monday afternoon, Hall characterized the talks with Odom as “ongoing” and “fluid.” But he said top officials at the university, including President Dr. Freeman Hrabowski, have voiced their support for retaining Odom, even as his coaching star rises.
In just two years at the Catonsville school, the 43-year-old has won 46 games, including a program-record 25 this season. On Friday, the Retrievers stunned top overall seed Virginia, 74-54, becoming the first men’s No. 16 seed to win since the NCAA tournament field expanded to 64 teams in 1985. The upset, which brought national attention to UMBC, came a decade after the program’s first NCAA tournament appearance.
“Conversations are taking place, but thoughtful conversations,” said Hall, who hired Odom in 2016 to replace Aki Thomas. “We have to balance thoughtfulness and expediency, and we're looking to do both of those.”
Up for negotiation are Odom’s salary and contract incentives, Hall said, as well as branding opportunities for the program and the size of the school’s money pool for assistant coaches.
Hall acknowledged that Odom, the son of former longtime Wake Forest and South Carolina coach Dave Odom, “wants to, at some point, I think, see if he could [coach] on a bigger stage,” and that the FBI’s ongoing investigation into college basketball recruiting could trigger a series of higher-profile job openings.
But, Hall explained, “I would rather attempt to incentivize somebody to stay versus wanting to penalize them if they want to leave.”
Baltimore basketball history offers a few possible paths forward for Odom, who told ESPN he wants to remain at the school.
Skip Prosser had been a highly respected assistant at Xavier when he came to Loyola Maryland before the 1993-94 season. Inheriting a team that had finished 2-25 the previous year but was bolstered by talented returning players, Prosser led the Greyhounds to a respectable 17-13 overall record, the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference title and the program’s first NCAA tournament appearance.
Three years later, Coppin State made the tournament for the third time under Fang Mitchell, who had spent more than a decade building the program from a laughingstock into the most dominant team in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. After losing first-round NCAA tournament games in 1990 and 1993, the Eagles shocked No. 2 seed South Carolina in their 1997 tournament opener.
While Prosser wound up leaving Loyola after one year to accept the head coaching post at Xavier, where he had been an assistant for eight seasons, Mitchell remained at Coppin State until he was forced to resign after the 2013-14 season.
There was little intrigue when Prosser decided to leave Baltimore after the No. 15 seed Greyhounds lost badly to Arizona in 1994. Former longtime Loyola athletic director Joe Boylan knew that Prosser wanted to return to Xavier if Pete Gillen left the Musketeers for another job. When Gillen went to Providence after the 1994 season, Prosser left Baltimore.
“Midway through the year, we talked about a long-term contract, and I told him, ‘If Xavier opens, you’re going to go back there, and I understand that. and you should,’ ” Boylan recalled Monday. “We had an agreement on that. There was no issue on that.”
Replacing Prosser was another issue. It took three coaches — Brian Ellerbe, Dino Gaudio and Scott Hicks — before Boylan hired Maryland assistant Jimmy Patsos, who needed eight years to get the Greyhounds back into the NCAA tournament in 2012. Patsos eventually left Loyola for Siena after the 2012-13 season.
Boylan understands what Hall might be up against.
“In today’s world, you know who you are and you know what you have” as an athletic department, said Boylan, who retired from Loyola in 2010. “You do the best you can. If a bigger job comes open for a lot more money, you don’t match it. You can’t match it.”
Mitchell was in the unusual position of also being the school’s athletic director when the Eagles made the NCAA tournament in 1997.
Though several fellow coaches talked glowingly about Mitchell, including Temple’s John Chaney, a bigger program never made a serious offer. Mitchell believed then, as he does now, that race played a factor in his candidacy, as did the perceived level of play in the MEAC.
“That’s just the way it’s been,” Mitchell said Monday. He added: “It was tougher because they didn’t really know much about the conference. It became hard to gamble on that situation.”
There is some uncertainty with Odom, and with next season’s UMBC team, too. The Retrievers will lose guards Jairus Lyles and K.J. Maura, their two best players, and guard Jourdan Grant (Archbishop Spalding), their top reserve, to graduation.
Starting forwards Joe Sherburne and Arkel Lamar are expected to return, as is big man Daniel Akin, an All-America East Conference rookie team pick. But UMBC’s success was tied largely to Lyles’ scoring ability and Maura’s defensive presence, and next season’s team could need time to coalesce.
It also might be just as good, if not as memorable. One overlooked consequence of the Retrievers’ win over Virginia? An expansion of their offseason recruiting pool. In beating a No. 1 seed, and doing so with glitz, panache, and two transfers in Lyles and Maura, UMBC should find itself with new cachet among the low- and mid-major schools working the always fertile transfer market, Rivals.com recruiting analyst Corey Evans said.
“I know it's kind of a different ballgame, but [take] Kentucky: ‘If it worked for that guy to a be a one-and-done, why can't it work for me if I go there?’ And that's the same sell Odom can have at UMBC,” Evans said. “I think a guy like Lyles changes the complexion of the entire roster, the entire program moving forward if they use him the right way.”