Ryan Odom has always lived a basketball life.
From his days growing up as a famous coach’s son in gyms around the ACC and Carolinas, to a college playing career as a sharp-shooting point guard and then on to several stints as an assistant coach, basketball has defined Odom.
This week, his life in basketball took an unexpected turn when he was named the Charlotte 49ers’ interim head coach, replacing Alan Major, who has taken an indefinite medical leave of absence.
Odom, 40, will coach his first game Thursday when the 49ers (6-7, 0-1 Conference USA) play at Western Kentucky (8-5, 1-0).
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“Ryan’s been around,” said Old Dominion coach Jeff Jones, a longtime friend who hired Odom as an assistant at American in 2000. “He knows the game; he’s great with people – whether it’s recruits, parents, people on campus or alums.
“But the biggest thing is, he knows the lifestyle, how hard you have to work. He’s not a guy who’s wet behind the ears.”
Odom’s basketball pedigree is pure. His father Dave is a former coach at South Carolina, Wake Forest and East Carolina, and was a long-time assistant at Virginia. Older brother Lane is a former 49ers assistant (under Bobby Lutz) who still lives in Charlotte and runs a basketball-related business.
Both Odom children were hooked on basketball early. When Dave Odom was at Virginia, the 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 Jones – a former Cavaliers player who was then a graduate assistant – dribbling basketballs and observing.
“He’d sit there and watch me, (coach) Terry (Holland) and (assistant) Jim Larranaga (now the coach at Miami) out there coaching, just soaking it up,” Dave Odom said.
“I mean, Ryan grew up watching (Virginia legend) Ralph Sampson every day. Then along comes (Wake Forest’s) Randolph Childress and Tim Duncan. He’s used to high-level basketball.”
Odom played high school basketball at Winston-Salem Reynolds, then went to college at Hampden-Sydney (Va.), where he played point guard and twice helped lead the Tigers to the NCAA Division III tournament.
Odom’s 82 made 3-pointers in 1994-95 remain a school record, as are the 24 consecutive games he made a 3-pointer that season. His 336 assists are sixth on the school’s career list.
Odom began his career as a graduate assistant at South Florida under coach Seth Greenberg. His first full-time coaching job was at Furman, where he worked for Larry Davis.
Coincidentally, Davis recently replaced Cincinnati’s Mick Cronin, who won’t coach again this season because of a vascular condition that isn’t life-threatening.
After two seasons at Furman and one more at UNC Asheville, Odom landed at American under Jones for three seasons.
Odom said Jones is still “a guy I lean on.”
“Wherever he’s been, we talk about stuff,” said Jones, whose 25th-ranked Monarchs beat the 49ers on Sunday in Major’s final game before taking leave.
“I try to give him good advice and counsel. It’s one of the neat things about coaching. You form these relationships even though everybody is so competitive and busy. It’s such a crazy existence.”
Odom left American in 2003 for Virginia Tech, where he worked again for Greenberg for seven seasons.
“He grew up with (coaching), he understands it,” said Greenberg, now an analyst at ESPN. “He always approaches the game thinking like a head coach. So just because his job duties are changing, it doesn’t mean he will.
“At Virginia Tech, all my assistants did everything: scouting, coaching on the floor, recruiting, administrative responsibilities. That’s going to help him now.”
Odom and fellow assistants Desmond Oliver and Orlando Vandross came to Charlotte with Major in 2010. Odom was promoted to associate head coach last spring and ran the program when Major went on a first medical leave of absence during the summer.
“That’s an advantage for us,” said Odom, who was mentioned as a candidate for recent coaching vacancies at Longwood and UNC Asheville. “But there are no games in the summer. Still, we have a little format that we can follow.”
Odom, of course, also leans on his father.
“Ryan is uniquely prepared to take over on a temporary basis – and beyond if necessary – the reins of being a head coach at Charlotte,” said Dave Odom. “But that said, he knows this is about an opportunity to help the team be the best it can be right at this moment.
“It’s not about him being on a stage to prove himself as a head coach. He understands that. Right now, his total emphasis and commitment must be to help the team reach its potential. Nothing else matters.”
The 49ers have struggled with slow starts much of the season, and Ryan Odom understands that must change if Charlotte is to contend in Conference USA.
“We’ve got to get going a little earlier, to start games better,” he said. “This is a tough deal, with our leader (Major) gone. But it’s going to be a collective effort. I don’t feel the entire responsibility is on me.
“Desmond and Orlando are tremendous, and we’ve got great guys in that locker room. The team as a whole wins games, that’s been the approach here. It’s going to be business as usual.”
Odom, Oliver and Vandross have children. It makes for a familiar setting for Odom.
“It’s great to watch them all go through the same thing that I went through as a kid,” said Odom. “Your dad’s gone a lot, but it’s a lifestyle we’ve chosen and all believe in.”