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On Verge of a Title : 18th Season Could Be Ultimate One for Coach

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

A pillar of stability in the often unstable environment of coaching, Bill Odell will soon complete his 18th season at Millikan High School in Long Beach. It will be the ultimate one if his team defeats Saddleback High in the CIF Southern Section 5-AA championship game Saturday night at the Los Angeles Sports Arena.

Odell has taken Millikan to the brink of a CIF title twice before--the Rams lost to Verbum Dei in the finals in 1974 and to Mater Dei two years ago.

He was besieged Monday. His phone seemed to be always ringing. A fair number of well-wishers called, along with newspaper reporters and a cable TV network requesting interviews.

There was videotape of Saddleback to analyze, strategy to devise, practices to plan, parking arrangements to make, tickets to allocate.

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And his little office was busy with the coming and going of players, eager to view the videotape of their 83-80 victory over St. Monica in the semifinals last Saturday night.

As is his manner, Odell took it all in stride, with no trace of irritability.

The rigors of coaching have in fact failed to leave any signs of fatigue or stress on Odell, who, although approaching 47, has retained a trim, youthful, dark-haired appearance.

The victories have accumulated as steadily as the seasons--Odell’s overall record is 304-162. This season, in which success occurred rather unexpectedly because there were only two returning lettermen, the team is 23-6.

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Has Adjusted to Change

The nature of Odell’s teams has changed over the years, but he has been able to adjust.

“I’ve been able to change, but without compromising some of the things I feel are important, such as character and discipline,” he said.

He won with a mostly white team in the early 1970s and wins today with a predominantly black team; most of the players are bused to the east-side school from areas near downtown Long Beach.

“We’ve changed ethnically so much in 18 years,” Odell said of Millikan.

But he does not see that as the reason the skill level of his players is much higher now. It is because “all kids have more exposure to (basketball). We were almost confined in the early ‘70s to a fundamental way of doing things. By the end of the ‘70s we were doing more exciting things, not just because of the black kids but because basketball has changed.”

He is not surprised that he has stayed so long at Millikan. “I’m fairly stable,” he said.

“It’s his stability,” agrees Lakewood High Coach Tim Sweeney, “that makes him and his program successful.”

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Long enamored of the school and its administrators, Odell said there is no reason to leave: “It is a home for me. Very special.”

Feelings of Satisfaction

The real souvenirs of his past are not trophies but feelings of satisfaction that have come from watching youngsters progress and develop and “knowing you’re helping people . . . that’s what keeps me here.”

Also, he has stayed because of a desire to keep his wife and children secure. “My family is so important to me,” he said.

His son, David, is a former Ram guard who now plays as a senior for Westmont College in Santa Barbara. His daughter, Susie, is a volleyball star at Westmont. It is the alma mater of their father, an all-city player at Huntington Park High who chose Westmont because it is a Christian school.

Odell’s reputation extends far beyond merely being a sound basketball technician.

“He demonstrates a high degree of concern for his players, not just on an athletic level but on a personal level,” said Bob Swanson, who played for Odell in 1980. Swanson is minister to collegians at the First Baptist Church of Lakewood, of which Odell has long been a member.

Odell’s former players tend to remain loyal to him.

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Doug Marty, an All-CIF player at Millikan in 1978, helps Odell as a part-time assistant coach.

“Great coaches can get the most out of their teams,” Marty said. “Great teachers can inspire players to be good citizens. He does both. He wants to teach basketball and instill good values.”

A study in moderation, Odell is devoid of the irate outbursts common in many coaches.

“He raises his voice sometimes, but is under control,” Marty said. “Some coaches turn into crazed animals on the court; he’s on an even keel. But in the gym he is very much the competitor.”

Terry Hilliard, who leads the Rams with an average of 14.6 points a game, said Odell yells at the players only if they make mental errors. “It’s just to get us pumped up,” he said.

Odell recalls occasionally “displaying anger” to players or officials, but does not remember losing his temper.

“The bottom line is that it’s just a high school basketball game,” he said. “Win or lose, you’re still teaching and getting across what you believe in. You like to win, but education goes on whether you’re winning or losing.”

He Instills Pride

What he tries to instill is pride.

“Pride in who they are and what they do,” Odell said. “That carries over to practice and games, and to the rest of their lives.”

And pride in how they present themselves.

He addressed the team briefly Monday afternoon about the logistics for Saturday night: “The bus leaves at 5. We need to dress nicely. I’m not talking about your best sweat suit or Levis outfit . . . churchgoing clothes.”

This directive drew no complaints.

Odell said the biggest change he has detected in players over the years is that their egos have expanded.

“The I part has become greater,” he said. “On the court it has become, ‘ I’m going to outdo you.” You spend more time getting back to a team concept. It’s the biggest battle we have now.”

Odell has won that battle this season. “Early on we were selfish,” he said. “As we were able to put away our selfishness, we became a better team.”

A Positive Attitude

Jeep Jensen, who is second on the team in scoring with a 13.5-point average and first in rebounds with an average of eight a game, said Odell has given the team a positive attitude through his emphasis on working together. “We get excited when we see our other players do well,” Jensen said.

And now Odell awaits the championship game.

“It will be nice to win, but the world will not be over if we don’t,” he said. “People say this has to be the least talented team I’ve taken to the finals . . . but I’d have to think about that. I feel real good about taking this group anywhere. It’s a together team that’s willing to pay the price.”

Soon, he will come upon that bittersweet time when faces that have become so familiar in the last three years will disappear. “It’s not sad,” the coach insisted. “You have to prepare them to go out, to go on to bigger things. I love to have them come back to talk, but they have to have the ability to let go.

“The last three weeks I’ve gone over next year’s roster six times . . . who’s going to improve, who’s going to grow.”

He is happy that after all these seasons, the excitement of yet another one, with new people to help, is still there.


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