Welcome Back, Coach Ed Orgeron: College Football's Fantastic Mr. Fix-It

Adam KramerNational College Football Lead WriterSeptember 28, 2016

GREEN BAY, WI - SEPTEMBER 3:  Defensive line coach Ed Orgeron goes through warm ups before the game against the Wisconsin Badgers at Lambeau Field on September 3, 2016 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
Dylan Buell/Getty Images

The first time I spoke to Ed Orgeron, he was in a bar. Not just any bar, but a really loud bar.

It was a late Friday afternoon in 2014, and the background music was so overpowering I nearly forgot why I had called. I managed to introduce myself. Whether Orgeron heard a word I said at first, he played along.

Then there was that voice. That raw but inviting Cajun drawl. It whitewashed all background noise. It was the same voice heard in The Blind Side, a feature film Orgeron made a cameo in.

It was the same voice featured in a now infamous commercial to sell Hummers in Mississippi.    

At the time of the conversation, he was between jobs after his fallout at USC. Following a public and successful stint as the team’s interim head coach when all hope was lost, he had an equally public falling out once he learned he wasn’t keeping a job he had earned.

He fell off the grid as a result. He didn’t disappear, but he backed away for a while.

His chief concern at the time was whether we would do this interview over the phone or in person in his Louisiana home. “I’ll cook you the best gumbo you’ve ever had,” he said.

The story was published a week later. Orgeron delivered heartfelt thanks. The next year, he accepted a job with LSU to coach the defensive line. And to recruit, of course.

On Monday, less than 24 hours after Les Miles was removed from his position, Orgeron led his first practice at LSU as interim head coach. He was put in a position he knows all too well. He told reporters about it at his introductory press conference 

All I want to do is see them win. I want to see them happy, and whatever happens after that it’s going to be fine. Growing up in south Louisiana, being the head coach at LSU is a dream. It is a well-respected position...and I hold it in high esteem and I understand the expectations at LSU. And I fully, fully intend to meet all those expectations.

Nearly three years to the day after Lane Kiffin was fired on the tarmac, the same process essentially repeated itself, sans tarmac.

As LSU’s decision was taking shape throughout Sunday, Orgeron’s role became assumed. No one was more qualified to execute the nearly impossible task of fixing a broken team in two months.

That’s precisely what he did in 2013 after Kiffin was relieved. Orgeron kicked things off by serving chicken and waffles after practice. He brought back cookies that were previously removed from the facility.

“I think they ate 500 the first night,” he noted.

He energized the program naturally, through his personality. He made it his own in a matter of weeks.

USC closed out the year with six wins in eight games. The groundswell of public support was palpable. 

Had Orgeron conquered UCLA in his final regular-season game, perhaps he would have gotten the job. I made the argument that he should have been given the opportunity regardless.

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 16:  USC Trojans interim head coach Ed Orgeron celebrates the Trojans' 20-17 victory over the Stanford Cardinal with fans at Los Angeles Coliseum on November 16, 2013 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Image
Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Ultimately, he spent a year away from the game. He retreated to his home in Mandeville, Louisiana, to spend time with his wife and three boys. He was inducted into the Northwestern State Athletic Hall of Fame, the university he attended after transferring from LSU.

On Saturdays, he watched football. On Sundays, he went to church. He cooked and worked out. Then he worked out some more. During this time, he also thought about what he would do differently if he ever got another crack at being a head coach.

There wasn’t an immediate rush to return to football. It had to be right.

“I do believe I will be a head coach again. I do believe that,” Orgeron told me. “When that’s going to happen, I don’t know. Maybe it will be next year, maybe not. We’re going to keep all options open.”

LSU was that opportunity. It was a perfect combination and a brilliant decision for both sides. It wasn’t the head coaching job he envisioned, but being the defensive line coach at the school he adored wasn’t far behind.

It allowed him to work at the school he admired since he was a boy. It was a chance to recruit a state he knew exceptionally well—land he covered for many, many years.

When he was officially named to the staff, he changed his voicemail. In this short greeting, he sang a line from “Hold That Tiger,” a song engrained in the fabric of the LSU program.

“I’ve cheered ‘Hold That Tiger’ since I was about three years old,” Orgeron said. “I’ve been all around the country, but LSU is a place I’ve always respected. It’s just an honor to be coaching here. I understand the tradition.”

So here we are again, back where we first started. The man who once injected a storied program with life will be asked to recreate such magic.

Orgeron has eight games to prove to a boardroom full of execs and anxious boosters that the interim label should be shed, which is all too familiar and a bit unfair.

Meanwhile, Tom Herman, Jimbo Fisher, Art Briles and others will continue to be linked to LSU’s coaching vacancy. This won’t stop for Orgeron or anyone else, for that matter.

Along the way, LSU will get a crack at Alabama. Orgeron will get at least one shot at Nick Saban, which could influence his future one way or another. The fact that Kiffin will play a key role in the most important game Orgeron has ever coached only thickens the plot.

BATON ROUGE, LA - NOVEMBER 18: Head Coach Ed Orgeron of Mississippi watches a play against Louisiana State on November 18, 2006 at Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  LSU defeated Ole Miss 23-20 in overtime.  (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Coach O will also get to coach against Ole Miss, the program that fired him after only three seasons and 10 victories years ago. The remaining schedule also includes road trips to Florida, Arkansas and Texas A&M.

It is an unforgiving gauntlet that will have to be conquered with an offense that is starting from scratch. Cam Cameron is out as the offensive coordinator, a decision that was made by Orgeron, according to the Times-Picayune. Tight ends coach Steve Ensminger will fill that role now.

“We’re going to spread the ball out a little bit,” Orgeron said. “Do some different things, change the style of play.”

Whether it’s enough to resurrect a program still ripe with talent is to be determined. The remaining games lead one to believe that an encore would be unlikely. Not impossible, but this will be his most elaborate task yet.

Bringing a fractured team together won’t be the hard part. Orgeron won’t have to manufacture some sort of midseason rally cry. This will come naturally to him, and the players will listen. The man has always been about his players, and they have always been about him.

In reality, Orgeron is not some schematic chalkboard wizard. He is a man of the people first, which is how he became one of the nation’s most coveted recruiters.

That’s another part of the next three months that he will spearhead, and chances are he will help salvage a deep recruiting class that is currently in flux. People gravitate toward him. It’s a gift. It’s a part of his makeup and the reason he is so good at what he does.

In a profession that discourages personality, Orgeron gives off the impression of being more than some sort of sideline cyborg. He is human. Flawed. Unpolished. Likable. Unproven, in many ways.

He is a break from what has become the assumed head coaching mold, which is one of the reasons he’s still operating with an interim tag. But it’s so easy to get behind that cartoon voice and big ol’ heart of his. We can connect with the gumbo enthusiast and the man bouncing around in the standard definition Hummer.

We can relate more to his previous failures and disappointments than we can to a coach in complete control of some elaborate operation.

After waiting his entire life for this moment—for two months that could be pulled from him an instant—Orgeron is living out his dream, albeit on someone else’s terms.

His current situation is perfectly human, too. Whether we’ll be satisfied with the results or not seems almost unimportant. There is little doubt he’ll savor every moment, until he’s asked to stay or told to leave.

 

Adam Kramer covers college football for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter at @KegsnEggs. Unless noted otherwise, all quotes obtained firsthand.