On March 16, 2018, UMBC defeated Virginia, 74-54, in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament, becoming the first No. 16 seed to knock off a No. 1 seed in men’s tournament history. And with the upset, PressBox’s Sportsperson of the Year was set. This year, PressBox honors two Sportspersons of Year — head coach Ryan Odom and guard Jairus Lyles.
Odom guided the Retrievers to a 25-11 record in his second year with the program. PressBox’s Stan “The Fan” Charles and Glenn Clark sat down with Odom to talk about the upset, its impact and more.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and content.
PressBox: As the first No. 16 seed to defeat a No. 1, what is it like — for you as a coach and for your players — to always be able to say, “We were the first to ever do this?”
Ryan Odom: Certainly it’s a blessing for us. That’s kind of the simplistic way that I view it. Our players worked extremely hard for that moment. Certainly it’s been life-changing for all of us, from our coaching staff to players to administration to overall campus community, it’s been life-changing. I mean, it really has. Going, from a basketball perspective, from anonymity to all of a sudden you’re out in front of everyone is a big change. I think the way that our guys handled that was spectacular. There are a lot of universities that wouldn’t have been ready for that moment, to all of a sudden have everybody Googling everything about you to Twitter to just trying to find out what’s this place all about. I think the more people began to investigate, they began to see all the really cool things that are going on here. And so I take a lot of pride in that, more so than just the first ever beating a one seed. I think as coaches, we all felt it would happen at some point.
PB: So you’re sharing this award with Lyles, who was not a player you recruited. How were you able to get to a place where clearly there was a level of trust between the two of you?
RO: We had to go through our peaks and valleys in year one, I think. I think the short answer to that is I knew it was going to work when he decided to come back because I think he and I both were committed to making it work. I think he’s an amazing kid. I think like in any transition, there are going to be peaks and valleys. You have to develop a trust for one another. Obviously, we’re talking specifically about Jairus, but that goes really for the whole team. … You have to work at it. You can’t just spend time on the court and be together on the court every day and that’s really it, that’s all we get, because you’re not going to develop the trust that you need to be able to move forward. So I think as Jairus and I began to spend more time together — certainly after year one — he made a decision to stay at UMBC and to finish things out. It only grew from there. I think that was a big decision.
PB: When athletic director Tim Hall first contacted you about coaching at UMBC, what were your perceptions of the school? And when you decided to take the job, what were your expectations of what you could do here?
RO: So you start with Tim, right? You move to the leadership with [university president Dr. Freeman] Hrabowski and what he’s been able to do here from an academic perspective. It matches me, personally — my beliefs in terms of college athletics and everything. Then you talk about Baltimore and a recruiting footprint that’s extremely fertile. Basketball is important here. Not saying that other sports aren’t important, but basketball clearly is important here in our area. And then you talk about they’re building a new arena. And so there’s an investment that’s taking place here. So you’ve got great leadership in Tim Hall; high academic institution, great leadership with our president; investing in athletics and specifically men’s basketball and women’s basketball and volleyball here with this new arena. And not only just those three sports — we’re investing in all of our sports because we have an academic center, we have a new training facility, new weight facility. It’s all on the uptick. And so all of those signs pointed to, OK, this could be — and I think I did call it a sleeping giant in my press conference. This could be a place that could grow. Did I think it would grow that quickly? No. I don’t think anybody would’ve said they’re going to go in there as a staff and win the championship in two years.
PB: How does the run last March change what you now see as possible here?
RO: That’s one of the reasons I stayed here. Because now we have a great arena, we have a practice facility, we have recruiting tools that were not available to us before, and then all of a sudden you have this historic moment. Not only did we win the championship but then we won a game in the NCAA Tournament, a game that had never been won. And so now, from a recruiting perspective, we don’t have to go out and introduce ourselves. They see UMBC, they see the logo, they know it. That’s an impactful thing.
I think we have a blank canvas. We had a blank canvas when we first came in, and we still do. We can continue to make it what we want to make it, but I think it’s really important going forward that we don’t forget who we are and what we’re all about. I think that’s the great thing about UMBC is the priorities will never be out of whack. The academics will always be first. They’re here to do that, they’re here to chase their dreams from that perspective. And then they’re also here to chase their athletic dreams, as well, and become the best that they can be.
PB: What Shaka Smart did at VCU, does that seem attainable, to build something that solid for that period of time?
RO: We want to compete for a championship every year. I mean, we don’t want to shy away from that. I think that’s the goal in mind. We don’t want to be the team that’s trying to recreate that one big magical moment in March, 16 over one. We got that. It’s done. We’ll always have that moment. Now it’s just about being consistent and growing our culture, growing a winning culture that we’ve established so far. Protecting it I think is really important, but I’m not going to compare us to anyone else and kind of what others have done. I want us to just go, continue to attack and continue to grow our program, continue to graduate our kids and just be a program that our university and the greater Baltimore community can be proud of.
PB: Have you had a moment since this all happened when it hit you how different things were?
RO: There are a ton of different moments, honestly. I’m sitting at the ESPYs and they’re getting ready to announce the winner [for “Best Moment”], and I’m a bit nervous, I’ll be honest, at that point. And I’ve got to get on stage and try to communicate all the thanks that we have for winning. I knew it was a possibility that we would win, obviously. We’re one of four or five or how many ever were nominated for that particular moment. That was a unique experience for me. It was great for our players. It was awesome for UMBC, but it was a little nerve-wracking for me because I’m watching all these Hall of Fame sports personalities take the stage, one after another. And I’m thinking, “Oh my gosh, I might have to walk up here in a minute.” So in a way, I won. I didn’t have to go up.
PB: After the win against Virginia, was there any part of you that felt the fanfare was too much?
RO: No. I think the short answer to that is that game meant — the further I’ve gotten removed from it — that game didn’t just mean a lot to the UMBC players and to the coaching staff and our school. That game meant a lot to a whole lot of people. I mean, I’ve gotten letters from elementary schools in New Jersey. I’ve got boxes and boxes of letters from people that were inspired by that moment.
At the time, I’m not thinking about that, when it first happens. But after the fact, I’ve gotten so many calls from folks. It’s one of those moments where everyone will remember that watched it. They’ll remember where they were when that moment was happening. Any time it comes up in conversation when I’m speaking with somebody that I’m just seeing or just meeting or whatever, they proceed to tell me, “Oh, I was doing this when the game was going on. I was sitting in my hotel room. I was actually in Vegas. Or I was in this place or I was in that place.” So I think it’s bigger than just us. It’s a moment that a lot of folks that love sports will remember because the little guy a lot of times gets told you can’t do something. People love to see the little guy come up and prove others wrong.
PB: Was there any one of those random letters that really meant something in particular to you?
RO: The one from a math teacher in an elementary school in New Jersey. … He and his class wrote this long letter chronicling what he does every March with his, call it, fifth-grade class. And they go through the Tournament. It’s teaching probability and statistics and figuring out picking the teams. … Then he said, “I always tell them, a 16 has never beaten a one.” And so obviously the probability of that, it’s zero percent, right? (laughs) And so, he said, “I’ve just been hoping that I see it in my lifetime, so that one day when we do this every year that it happens.” And so they sent me this huge poster. They sent me pictures of all the kids. Every kid wrote something in there and what it meant to them. It was just really cool. We sent them something back, a signed ball by all the team. It was pretty neat. They took pictures when they got the ball. It was very neat.
PB: Was there anybody in the basketball world you heard from after you won that just kind of blew you away?
RO: Scott Van Pelt tweeted at me. Kevin Plank sent me a text after we won.
PB: Your father has a long coaching resume, including seven years as an assistant at Virginia and head coaching stints at Wake Forest and South Carolina. What did he say to you after the win against Virginia?
RO: It wasn’t much. I didn’t really have time, honestly, for much of a conversation right when it ended … but it was a great embrace. It was a great hug. Mom and Dad were both standing there together right after we won. It was very simply, “We’re really proud of you and the guys and the staff.” It was a special, special moment, and I could only imagine what they were doing in the stands at the time. I don’t have any video of that. I’d love to have video of it. The cool thing for me is the roles have kind of reversed now.
PB: Having a dad that is a coach, how soon did you know you wanted to follow in his footsteps?
RO: I didn’t at all. My plan was to do something in the financial world. Back when I was growing up at UVA and even prior to that, the rules were so different. You could be gone all the time. So all the old coaches talk about it in his generation where they’re gone for weeks at a time. Summers, they’re working camps and coaching at the Five-Star Basketball camps of the world. And literally, he would spend all of July up there at Five-Star working the camps. … So it was just me and mom, me and my brother and my mom. My brother had gone away to college because he’s seven years older than me. So it was literally just Mom and I a lot of times. And I was like, “I don’t know that I really want to do that. I don’t know that I want to be traveling like that all the time. I like being home.”
When I was graduating from college — and I had always thought about playing, I loved to play. And it became apparent — you go D-III, chances are you’re not going to play past college. It’s kind of over at that point. So you know that kind of going in. But I still at that point felt like, “I’m going to go do something in the financial world.” I was an econ major. I had always thought about going to New York and doing something on Wall Street or whatever. And I did an internship in Charlotte, ironically, right downtown, not too far from that arena, at Bank of America. … But I wasn’t ready to give up the ball at that point and haven’t looked back since.
PB: Did you ever put yourself in Virginia head coach Tony Bennett’s shoes?
RO: Right after the game, to be honest. As soon as I got to my hotel room, I had to focus on Kansas State. I called my friend who worked for Tony because he and I worked together. So I didn’t make any phone calls other than to family members. I didn’t answer any texts. I didn’t do any of that because my phone’s basically, I just kind of turned it off. But I did call my friend because I knew they were experiencing a really low low. So I left him a voicemail, just letting him know I was thinking about him. And then I text Tony shortly after. I can’t remember if it was after we lost to Kansas State or if it was before the game. I’d have to look in my phone to find out. But I text him, just wanting him to know that I was thinking about him because it truly was a bittersweet moment. There’s plenty of other teams that — not that I wanted to beat anybody else, you want to beat whoever you’re given at that particular time, but if you’re allowed to choose, it wouldn’t be them. Like, I wouldn’t have wanted them to experience that. And so I sent him a text, kind of just saying, “I hope you don’t mind me reaching out, but I’ve got a ton of respect for you and your program and what you’re all about. As happy as I am for our guys, I just want you to know I’m thinking about you guys, too.” And he responded just like you would imagine.
PB: Is there a moment you can already tell that 30 years from now when you think about that game will be the one you come back to?
RO: I’ll be honest, I don’t really remember all the plays as it was unfolding. I remember the run that we went on in the second half, you know? It was something that we’ve seen before. We haven’t seen it against a team like Virginia. I’ve seen UMBC teams go on runs plenty in the two years that we’ve been here, but never against a team the caliber of UVA.
… One of the moments that I really remember, honestly, was after the game and it was before we were getting ready to play Kansas State. And so I’m in the locker room. … And then the team goes out, and I’m sitting there by myself in the locker room because we’ve already talked to them about strategy or whatever we typically do before the games. And they go out, and then they come back one more time. I’ll just never forget it. About a minute and a half later, I just hear the crowd go crazy. And it was obvious at that point it’s our team running out. And so that was pretty cool. Because you go from coaching a game in the RAC initially — and it’s kind of silent when we first got here — to then all of a sudden, in a short two years, they’re running out and they’ve captured certainly everybody in that arena (laughs) and probably beyond.
PB: When they make the movie about UMBC’s historic upset, what do you want to make sure they don’t mess up?
RO: Just the personalities of the team. We’ve got so many different guys, and I’m talking about in a positive way — like all of their idiosyncrasies and just cool aspects of their personality I felt like came out for the nation to see. From Joe [Sherburne] getting interviewed and talking about “One Shining Moment” to Nolan [Gerrity] and several of the other guys talking about “Fortnite” to … I can keep going. Just K.J. [Maura’s] father. There are so many different aspects or highlights that you could take, and it would be a shame if they couldn’t incorporate their personalities into it.
For more Best Of, visit PressBoxOnline.com/BestOf2018/.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of UMBC Athletic Communications
Issue 250: December 2018 / January 2019