Walking a North Carolina shore emptied by autumn, the long-time coach pondered what he called life’s undefined “next chapter.” Like many a recent retiree he wanted to remain close to what he knew best, in his case basketball, beyond serving as a TV kibitzer or professional speaker.
“When I stopped coaching,” says Dave Odom, “I was too young to retire but I wasn’t too young to decide I wanted to do something else in life. I just didn’t know what it was.” The unbidden answer arrived via a modern beachcomber’s equivalent of a customized message in a bottle: His cell phone rang.
A week after taking that call, Odom, then 67, accepted a position as director of the annual, eight-team Maui Invitational. The orchestrating role completed an improbable circle of circumstance – Odom had been on the loser’s bench in a landmark 1982 upset at Hawaii credited with sparking creation of the in-season tournament.
A decade has passed since Odom became Maui’s much-envied maestro. He remains a resident of Winston-Salem, pulling the necessary organizational strings from afar to set matchups and arrange backstage matters. Sometimes Odom travels to Hawaii to conduct basketball clinics. Every year he spends two weeks on Maui for the Thanksgiving-time tournament.
“It’s more a position than it is a job, it’s not something I have to do every day,” says Odom. “It keeps me involved with the game, but it’s not something that I’ve got to be worried about grade point averages and graduations and summer camps and social media and all the things our coaches today worry about. The coaching on the court and game preparation, the games themselves, I missed those things. But the other things, I don’t.”
The Goldsboro native’s first visit to Hawaii came as a new assistant on Terry Holland’s Virginia staff. En route to the continental U.S. after two games in Japan, the top-ranked, undefeated Cavaliers paused in Honolulu the day before Christmas 1982 for an expected walkover against Chaminade, then an NAIA school. Instead, in probably the greatest regular-season upset in college basketball history, the Silverswords skewered UVa and three-time national player of the year Ralph Sampson, 77-72.
Following the loss, Holland suggested to Chaminade’s athletic director that Hawaii was ripe for a holiday-season tournament featuring teams from the U.S. mainland. Two years later, the Maui Invitational was born.
Odom also had a close connection with an even greater shocker that occurred this past March, when top-seed Virginia endured another unimaginable single-game flop.
The setting was the opening round of the NCAA tournament in Charlotte, as Tony Bennett’s Cavs faced 16-seed Maryland-Baltimore County. In 135 previous NCAA encounters, No. 16 had never beaten No. 1. That changed when the Retrievers, coached by Ryan Odom, Dave and Lynn Odom’s younger son, came away with a decisive 20-point win.
Afterward the affable, analytical Odom patriarch, a veteran of 42 years in coaching, the last 19 directing programs at Wake Forest and South Carolina, declared his family’s connection to the two extremes of competitive ignominy had been “cemented forever.” He’s since grown accustomed to introducing himself as Ryan’s father, not as a coach who recruited and developed Tim Duncan, won three NIT titles and 406 major college games, and elevated Wake basketball to national prominence with eight NCAA appearances between 1991 and 2001, capped by consecutive ACC championships (1995, 1996).
That professional profile commanded the attention of the elder Odom’s peers, and later the recommendation of former Big East commissioner Dave Gavitt to replace him as chairman of the Maui Invitational. “Everyone we spoke with in the industry said a guy you need to talk to is Coach Odom,” says Steve Skinner, CEO of KemperLesnick, a Chicago firm that controls the tournament, the McDonald’s All-American games and other sports events. “He’s done a great job for us as tournament chairman.”
A key aspect of that role is selecting participants for what’s presently the Maui Jim Maui Tournament, sponsored by an Illinois-based manufacturer of sunglasses. Each year there’s a berth for members from each of the Power Five conferences as well as the Big East and two others. The 2018 field features high-profile competitors Duke, Gonzaga, Arizona and Xavier along with Auburn, Illinois, Iowa State and San Diego State.
Much like a media prognosticator, Odom tries to glean which teams figure to be top-20 caliber. But he goes farther, picking a season ahead. In November 2019, Virginia Tech is the announced ACC representative. He also factors in geographic diversity, schools that bring fans, conflicts with season-ending football rivalry games, as well as the desires of ESPN, the event’s TV sponsor. By NCAA rule, teams can only appear once every four years in an “exempt” tournament.
“I know that history is the best teacher, so I want to try to get as many brand teams in the tournament each year as I possibly can,” Odom says. “There is some guesswork, but I’ve been pretty good at it so far.”
Duke appears this November for the sixth time in the event’s 35 years. The Blue Devils have won five championships and are 16-0 overall. North Carolina (16-3) has been seven times, winning four Maui titles. Following three of those triumphs UNC went on to capture NCAA championships (2004-05, 2008-09, 2016-17). Notre Dame won at Maui in 2017-18.
Surprisingly, some schools spurn invitations, even as coaches from other programs clamor to take a tropical journey for which, like a bowl game, expenses are largely covered. Among ACC members, Louisville hasn’t appeared since 2004. Worthies Florida State, Miami and N.C. State have yet to participate. Odom knows why, but he’s not telling.