Maryland-Baltimore County coach Ryan Odom has been unable to turn around this week without being hit with a blast from the past.
The 16th-seed Retrievers (24-10) are one of those unlikely, feel-good NCAA tournament stories, winning their conference tournament in dramatic fashion to gain an automatic bid. They have been in Charlotte since Tuesday, preparing for a first-round game Friday at 9:30 p.m. against top-seeded Virginia (31-2) at Spectrum Center.
Charlotte is familiar turf for Odom, who spent five seasons honing his coaching skills as an assistant – and briefly head coach – for the Charlotte 49ers.
Tuesday, the Retrievers practiced at Queens’ Levine Center, an arena where in 2016 the Odom-coached Lenoir-Rhyne Bears played the Royals. After practice, Odom hoped to visit with Queens coach Bart Lundy, an old friend. Odom’s brother Lane also lives in Charlotte and is a scout for the Utah Jazz.
“This is a familiar place for me,” Ryan Odom said. “I’ve got so many good memories from my time in Charlotte.”
If the Charlotte connections aren’t enough to tug at Odom, he also has deep ties to Virginia. He grew up a gym rat in Charlottesville, where his dad Dave was a long-time Cavaliers assistant coach.
The Odom family lived a block and a half from the Cavaliers’ old arena, University Hall. Ryan would head to U-Hall every afternoon to watch the Cavaliers practice, riding his bicycle into the building and straight onto the basketball floor.
He would shoot baskets, then sit on a chair with then-graduate assistant Jeff Jones – now Old Dominion’s coach and a former Cavaliers player - dribbling basketballs and observing.
During games, Ryan was the water boy for visiting teams.
“He really enjoyed that,” Dave Odom said. “He got to hear the likes of Dean Smith, Lefty Driesell, Jim Valvano and Denny Crum, what they were saying. He got right into their huddles.
“He’d come home after the game and tell me what they said, what he had picked up.”
Odom went on to become a standout player at Division III Hampden-Sydney (Va.), where he finished as the school’s all-time leader in 3-pointers made. He jumped right into coaching, making stops at South Florida, Furman, UNC Asheville, American and Virginia Tech, before landing as an assistant with Charlotte in 2010.
Odom took over the 49ers’ head-coaching job on an interim basis in January 2015 during a difficult time for the program. The 49ers had generally underperformed under coach Alan Major, who went on medical leave 13 games into his fifth season.
Odom took over, with the 49ers going 8-11 the rest of the way.
“The first thing was that it happened so fast for us,” said Odom. “It wasn’t where anybody wanted to be at the time. Our focus was on Alan’s health, which was the most important thing.
“So it’s not like we had time to prepare for it. Our leader was gone and suddenly we had to step into new roles.”
(Another Virginia-Charlotte connection for Odom: Cavaliers director of recruiting/player development Orlando Vandross was also an assistant on that 49ers staff.)
Although Odom wasn’t retained – the 49ers fired Major and the entire staff after the season – the experience was valuable to him.
“I got so much on-the-job training to be a head coach,” Odom said. “You’re making sure the staff is still connected – and we were extremely connected – and the players are now listening to a new voice.
“It was an interesting time.”
Said Dave Odom: “The Charlotte experience still holds him in good stead, even today. It teaches you how quickly things can turn on you. But in coaching, it’s about what you did yesterday and the promise of what you can do tomorrow.”
Ryan Odom didn’t stay unemployed for long, landing his first full-time head-coaching job the next season at Lenoir-Rhyne. He led the Bears to a 21-10 record and a spot in the Division II tournament quarterfinals.
After one season in Hickory, UMBC grabbed Odom. The Retrievers’ program was a mess, winning nine or fewer games for seven consecutive seasons.
Odom re-energized the team. UMBC went 21-13 in 2016-17, advancing to the semifinals of the College Insider Tournament.
“Ever since he got here, it was an automatic click with us and coach,” Retrievers senior guard Jarius Lyles said. “He built that trust and our relationship grew as a team, individually and on the court.”
UMBC wasn’t favored to win its own conference tournament and the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament that came with it. The Retrievers finished second in the America East and advanced to the league’s championship game at Vermont, which has been the league’s dominant program in recent seasons.
“You’ve got to understand, that’s like asking a team to go win a championship by playing at (Duke’s) Cameron Indoor Stadium or (North Carolina’s) Smith Center or (Virginia’s John Paul Jones Arena),” Odom said.
The end of the Vermont game was an affirmation of the relationship – and trust – Odom has with his players. The Retrievers won 65-62 after Lyles hit a 23-foot jumper from the top of the key with .6 seconds left.
“Coach had another play that he wanted to run,” Lyles said. “But me and (guard) K.J. (Maura) thought we had one that would work better. I waved it off. (Odom) was OK with it.”
Dave Odom – a former head coach at East Carolina, Wake Forest and South Carolina - knows how important it is to listen to his players. He said he did that plenty of times during his career, especially when the player he was listening to was somebody like former Deacons great Tim Duncan.
“Ryan is very positive with each player, he listens and understands them,” Dave Odom said. “But what’s really crucial at a high level is to have a sense of fearlessness. You can’t be afraid of the circumstances or the opponent. No matter how big the hill, you’ve got to convince yourself that you can find a way to climb it.”
Virginia is the hill for UMBC and Ryan Odom.
“He’s not afraid,” Dave Odom said.
David Scott: @davidscott14