South Carolina basketball Coach Dave Odom sat on the bus outside Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville Arkansas last Wednesday night and began to cry. He had decide that afternoon to retire as Head Basketball Coach, but the tears welling up were more tears of satisfaction than sorrow, and were sparked by the reminder from Ralph, the long-time Arkansas campus policeman, that Odom lived out what was important.
Odom talks to be understood and takes as much time as he thinks is needed. He decided to end his more than one hour long media retirement announcement Friday with a story reminiscent of Frank McGuire's class and regard for the common man.
After months of thought and discussions with his wife and then with USC Athletic Director Eric Hyman, Odom decided that the USC fans were not enthusiastically supporting his team. He was an impediment to fans of the school he grew to love and his team during a season he still had thought had great promise despite an 8-8 record going into the Arkansas game. So he decided to announce he was getting out of the way, doing what he thought was best for the team and University and its fans.
He told Hyman by phone at 2:30 p.m. that afternoon but no one else except his wife, Lynn. Odom took her on the trip to Fayetteville and the previous road trip to Vanderbilt so that she too could feel the difference in the enthusiasm of those crowds compared to USC's home crowds this season. She agreed there was a difference. But the tears on the bus from her husband still caught her by surprise.
Officer Ralph was a familiar face to Coach Odom, but he had to look at his name tag to address him by name. Coach Odom always liked Ralph because he, like all the people at the University of Arkansas, treated him well each of the three previous times he had visited Fayetteville. Getting off the bus for his 11:00 a.m. shoot around Wednesday, three and one half hours before he told Hyman he was announcing his retirement, he received the familiar warm welcome from Officer Ralph.
Ralph walked along with Odom toward the arena floor. Odom asked: "Ralph, how long have you been doing this?" "Twenty eight years coach," was the reply.
"That's a long time. You about ready to retire Ralph"' said Odom knowing he would make his announcement soon.
"Coach, you know, I think I've got two more years….. I‘ve got a daughter that's a junior (at Arkansas) and I want to see her through." They walked a little ways into the arena and Ralph asked "How about you? Coach, how much longer are you going to do this?"
Odom replied, his mind on the game and his impending retirement announcement "Well, I don't know Ralph. Maybe sooner than later."
Odom has coached in the NCAA Sweet 16, propelled a project named Tim Duncan through a stellar college career to an even more memorable NBA career along with Rodney Rogers and his latest "project" USC's Renaldo Balkman, the N.Y. Knicks first round pick in 2007. Odom recently won his 400th game as a college head coach. That night, using essentially a four guard lineup against the Razorbacks powerful front line led by Seven Footer Stephen Hill and burly Charles Thomas, Odom's plan worked to perfection for a 70-66 upset of the then 13-2 Razorbacks. The smallest starter on the court, 5-9 Devan Downey, had 26 points and the Gamecocks' final four points to nail down a rare SEC road win.
Ralph escorted Coach Odom to the Arena, to and from the locker room to the floor and then toward the bus waiting to take the team away. Only Odom, Hyman and Odom's wife Lynne knew for sure this was Coach Odom's last trip to Arkansas as USC Head Coach. They paused at the door. It was raining hard. "Don't worry Coach, I've got a big umbrella." Ralph brought out the umbrella, put Lynne on one side and Coach Odom on the other and walked them the 30 yards to the USC team bus. Ralph helped Lynn up onto the steps and as Coach Odom got on the steps he turned and thanked Ralph, as he usually did. Ralph then had a strange request.
"Coach, you got a minute?" The rain was pouring down all around. It was an odd time to ask for a moment to talk after spending so much time walking together. Yet Odom complied and came back down off the steps.
"Coach I just want to tell you something," began Ralph as the rain continued to pour down. The words Odom then heard validated a lifetime of teaching, coaching and winning the right way. Odom is known throughout college basketball as a developer of talent who prepares good game plans and as one of the nicest guys in the college basketball coaching profession. The win was a nice way to lead into his retirement announcement that awaited him back in Columbia. What came next was even better.
"I've got a feeling that I may never see you again. I just want to tell you that you've been my favorite coach all these years. "
The rain continued to pour on the men sharing a moment outside a deserted arena with people waiting on Odom to board so they could go home. "Why is that Ralph?"
"Coach, you are the only one who talks to me when you come in. Most of them get off the bus and go in, and play, and leave and rarely ever speak to me. As I've seen all these games all years, I understand how important winning is, but it's far more important - the relationships that you have with people along the way."
Odom, always the teacher, said the story was not repeated on "his day," where the attention was on his retirement and not his successor, for his own pride. He was making a point. His entire-and last USC -team was sitting in the back of the room, some missing class to listen to the announcement. He looked up and toward the back corner where the team sat. "I think its maybe the greatest lesson that all of us can learn."
"It took a guy wearing a security uniform living in another state pulling for another team to drive that lesson home. It's about relationships and memories. "
"I can't say it's the first time I welled up and cried, but it's the first time anyone saw me. Lynne reached over and grabbed my arm and said ‘What in the world is wrong with you, we just won the game.' I told her that it had now dawned on me that for the next two and a half months I'll be doing some things for the last time in my life. I can tell you, I'm going to enjoy every minute of it. Because I'm going to do it to the max. Because you never know when you are going to run into another Ralph."
Odom then rapped his fingers on the podium and told one last joke ("Eric (Hyman) has an announcement he'd like to make about the new coach." He gave what he called a "parting shot" telling the media he felt sorry for them because the pressures and demands of their jobs forcing them to do things they did not want to do- like knocking on his door at 11:30 at night to ask him if he was announcing his retirement the next morning. If Ralph had known of the situation in advance, he might have come all the way from Arkansas to guard the Odom's front door. It's about relationships, after all.
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