The Retrievers get ready to take on Virginia in the NCAA tournament.
When Ryan Odom was hired as the UMBC men’s basketball coach two years ago, he was ignorant of how the team played. He considered that a virtue. The Retrievers had won seven of the 32 games in their final season under Aki Thomas. There was a lot of tape on what they did well and a lot more on what they did poorly. Odom wanted nothing to do with it.
His first impressions, he knew, had to come from firsthand observations. At offseason practices, Odom saw that he had a potential star in Jairus Lyles, that the team could be a good fit for his pace-and-space offense, that the backcourt might need someone like K.J. Maura brought in. Unencumbered by what UMBC had been, he instead saw what it might become.
“I wanted to make sure that when I went in there,” he said recently, “my eyes were wide-open.”
Forty-five wins later, the last of them sending the Retrievers to their first NCAA tournament appearance in a decade, Odom has turned a team motto — “The work you do in the dark will reveal itself in the light” — into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Lyles has become an overnight sensation, his go-ahead 3-pointer in the America East Conference final endlessly replayed by everyone from university officials to bandwagon fans. The team has merged a committed defense led by the 5-foot-8 Maura, a former junior-college star from Puerto Rico, with a potent offense. And Odom has stepped out of his father’s shadow with a program-changing turnaround sure to open eyes at bigger schools with vacancies to fill and maybe more to offer.
“He's done an incredible job,” said ESPN college basketball analyst Seth Greenberg, who gave Odom his start in coaching as a graduate assistant at South Florida and later hired him as an assistant at Virginia Tech. “He took a group of players and got them to believe. That's the hardest thing to do. When people are used to losing, creating a vision and getting people to buy in to a vision and share the vision and trust the vision and trust you as a new coach … is not easy. But he's genuine. He's sincere. He's believable.”
Even if the No. 16 seed Retrievers’ season ends, as expected, on Friday night in Charlotte, N.C. — nearly 97 percent of the brackets in ESPN’s Tournament Challenge have them losing to top overall seed Virginia in the first round — the work Odom has done already has revealed itself.
It was not easy. When Tim Hall was named UMBC’s athletic director in July 2013, the program was in bad shape. The previous coach, Randy Monroe, had followed the Retrievers’ first-ever Division I NCAA tournament appearance, in 2008, with four straight losing seasons. Thomas, Monroe’s successor and a hire of former AD Dr. Charles Brown’s, had months earlier completed an eight-win debut season. Three more years of single-digit wins later, Thomas was gone, too.
“When I came to UMBC, we had had what I'll call fits and starts of competitive success, but nothing where you could look in the annals and say, ‘Here's all the various championships that we've won,’ ” Hall told Athletic Director U in November. “We needed to have somebody who not only could do all the basketball things right ... but also understood where we were in terms of our progression of building a program.
“That's not the right fit for everybody. Part of what we say here is, while other entities are busy preserving their tradition, we're actively creating ours. And Ryan was somebody who wanted to really be a part of creating this new tradition.”
Basketball had driven Odom to all kinds of unexpected places already. As a kid, after school let out, he’d often head back to his home in Charlottesville, Va., change into his basketball clothes and bike over to Virginia’s old arena, University Hall, where his father, Dave, the future Wake Forest and South Carolina head coach, worked as an assistant.
Ryan Odom would shoot around a little, then shoot the breeze with Virginia graduate assistant Jeff Jones, who later hired him to his staff at American. After a childhood that afforded him a front-row seat to great coaches (Terry Holland, Jim Larrañaga) and great players (Ralph Sampson, Tim Duncan), Odom showed he’d learned something along the way. At Division III Hampden-Sydney, he started all four years at point guard, led the team to two NCAA tournament appearances and finished fourth in career assists.
“Obviously, it's in his family,” said William & Mary coach Tony Shaver, who coached Odom at Hampden-Sydney. “Ryan was that type of player. He was a great shooter but very knowledgeable about the game. I mean, he really understood the game, as you can imagine. So all those qualities were there.”
Greenberg, who served with Dave Odom on Holland’s staff at Virginia for a season, lived with the Odoms briefly while apartment hunting in the area. Ryan Odom was just “a little Smurf” then, he joked, not even a teenager, and already could imitate the free-throw stroke of every Virginia player ("Tom Sheehey! Othell Wilson!”).
Odom “grew up in a basketball pedigree,” Greenberg said, and his resume soon became proof of that good grooming. By Odom’s 30th birthday, he was on the bench at an Atlantic Coast Conference program, rejoining Greenberg as an assistant at Virginia Tech after stops at Furman, UNC-Asheville and American.
Hired in 2003, he was in Blacksburg for seven years. In 2010, he moved on to Charlotte, a Conference USA school, for “a little bit more power and say in the program,” said Thomas Leachman, a friend of Odom’s since college. When head coach Alan Major stepped aside for health reasons in 2015, Odom was named interim coach and went 8-11. He was not retained.
“Becoming a head coach was the closest I've ever been to fatherhood,” Major said. “You can read all the books on parenting that you want, but it doesn't get real until that child is born.”
It was easier the second time around. Hired in 2016 to coach Division II Lenoir-Rhyne, Odom had the Bears shoot 3-pointer after 3-pointer and win game after game, advancing to the national quarterfinals for the first time in school history.
Leachman recalls a conversation he had with Odom at a friend’s house in Tennessee around that time. Odom was happy at Lenoir-Rhyne, but he mentioned Hall to Leachman. In 2011, Odom had sat next to Hall, then the AD at Missouri-Kansas City, at a dinner in Richmond, Va., during the invitation-only Villa 7 coaching consortium. Over Italian food at Mamma Zu, they had gotten to know each other.
“They're building a new arena [the $85 million UMBC Event Center], I don't know what's going to happen [with Thomas], but what do you think of UMBC?” Leachman, who used to work in sports marketing, remembers Odom asking.
That answer is now self-evident. Less so is what Odom might think of his future at the school after this run ends. The Retrievers are set to return three starters next season, but the two who won’t are Lyles, the program’s best-ever scorer, and Maura, the team’s engine.
On his way to 406 career wins, four Coach of the Year honors and over four decades coaching the sport, Dave Odom never spent fewer than three seasons at any of his three Division I head coaching posts. Ryan Odom’s coaching mentors would advise similar patience. They know how long it took him to get here.
Said Shaver: “I just think so often in this profession, people think bigger's always better. And it's not. It's not. I'm not trying to talk him into staying at UMBC, but it's what's led me in my profession.”
And Greenberg: “Don't take a job because it's for more money. Take the right job. If you get an opportunity, make sure it's a place you have a chance to win.”