The drive between Northwestern State and Mandeville, Louisiana is roughly four hours. It’s an unassuming trek—with two roads doing the majority of the heavy lifting—although Ed Orgeron isn’t concerned with when he’ll finally make it home. For the first time in his professional life, there is nowhere he has to be.
Even through his thick, unmistakable Cajun drawl, you can hear the joy in Orgeron's voice as he navigates the familiar terrain. After a picture-perfect weekend—one that centered around football, albeit in a much different capacity than what he’s accustomed to—the former Ole Miss and USC head coach is embracing his newfound freedom as a free agent, dad and husband.
On Friday night, Orgeron watched his son Parker, a junior, lead Mandeville past rival St. Paul’s with two second-half touchdowns. The very next day, Orgeron was inducted into the Northwestern State Athletic Hall of Fame, the university where he played his college football.
“It was a great honor,” Orgeron said. “If I was coaching, I would not have gotten a chance to do any of this.”
As he makes his way back toward Mandeville—the city the Orgerons decided to call home when he latched on with the New Orleans Saints back in 2008—one can’t help but wonder why he would want to come back to a sport that has not always been reciprocal with its love.
He was chewed on and spit out at Ole Miss. At USC, his reward for bringing an unresponsive program to life was time off. He has logged thousands of nights in hotel rooms away from his family, a product of his magnificent recruiting track record. And then there’s the profession itself, a cutthroat and cruel way to make a buck, albeit a lucrative one.
For the first time in forever, Orgeron can say “home” and mean it. There’s no disclaimer attached, no strings that require discussing. He’s not living out of a suitcase, and the anguish of USC is more of just a bad scar than an emotional drain.
He sounds at peace with where he is and what he’s doing, and yet, his coaching itch has never been this strong. For reasons we couldn’t possibly understand, Orgeron is ready to trade in this stress-free life for a headset.
“It never stopped,” Orgeron said. “I didn’t leave because I didn’t have the coaching itch, that’s for sure. It was something we felt like we needed to do. But we’re ready to coach more than ever right now. I promise you.”
A Weekend with Ed Orgeron
Like your college football Saturdays, Ed Orgeron’s game days revolve around food, the great outdoors and football. Before he leaves the house, he wakes up his son, makes him breakfast and takes him to football practice. As soon as he’s where he needs to be, Orgeron heads to the gym.
Even at the age of 53, Orgeron is a fitness junkie. He can still bench press 325 pounds comfortably and squats 315 pounds for reps, which probably isn’t far off from many of the players he has coached in his weight class.
After lifting and running, Orgeron heads home to cook for the second time. He prepares another meal that he and his wife enjoy by the pool and patio. They relax together, a Saturday ritual that is still somewhat foreign to both. When the first games come on, the day takes a different tone.
At that point, Orgeron is a coach again. He spends his Saturdays exactly like you do, bouncing from station to station and soaking in as much football as he can.
“We watch as many games as we possibly can on Saturday, sometimes watching games until early in the morning the next day,” Orgeron said. “We get up on Sunday, go to church and then come back and do the same thing with the NFL. It’s kind of cool; I’ve never had a chance to do this.”
He doesn’t just tune in because he loves the sport, although the baseline for his obsession begins there. Orgeron, like the rest of us, is watching to see each chapter of the season unfold. But he’s also watching to perfect his craft, a never-ending process for a coach.
“I really watch No. 1 as a coach, especially to see all the spread offenses,” Orgeron said. “I want to see who’s doing well and just keep up with it. I’m trying to get as much as I can out of it.”
When USC plays, the situation changes some. His consumption of the game reaches a more personal level that he won’t find anywhere else. There are no hard feelings—at least none that he cares to share—and he’s more focused on the people he’s spent a great deal time with, from family rooms to the practice field.
“It’s never going to be like watching any other team,” Orgeron said. “I don’t watch every play, but I’m obviously very interested in the well-being of those young men. We’re tied to them and we wish them the best.”
A Time for Reflection
One of the best lessons Orgeron has taken with him over time—through success and failure—could be summed up in a delicious item.
One of Orgeron’s first orders of business when he was handed the reins to the USC head coaching position was to bring the team together. To do that, he appealed to taste buds.
He brought in chicken and waffles, although that wasn’t enough. After talking to a handful of players who wanted their sweet-tooth options returned to the cafeteria, Orgeron also brought the cookies back that were lost in the Kiffin era. The players responded accordingly.
“I think they ate 500 the first night,” Orgeron said.
Cookies, of course, are only a small portion of the bigger picture. What has made Orgeron valuable as a coach is the way he manages people.
He’s not a chalkboard wizard. That's not to say he doesn’t know the game and the areas he teaches, but Orgeron’s value—the thing that separates him from just about any other coach in the country—comes in the way he manages personalities. It's his natural ability to get an entire team to run through a brick wall at the snap of a finger.
It’s about compromise and, more importantly, understanding the pulse of your team. For Orgeron, it was about taking his experiences at Ole Miss—a situation he struggled with—and tweaking the margins.
“When you have five years to think about what you would do as a head coach again, there are a lot of thoughts that you write down,” Orgeron said. “I told myself that when I got my chance again, these are the things I wanted to do. So I did them.”
Orgeron was granted this opportunity after the Trojans lost 62-41 against Arizona State. He was named interim coach follow Kiffin’s removal, and the team responded to the change, winning six of the next seven games.
It set up a matchup against rival UCLA, a game that many felt was Orgeron’s opportunity to turn the interim tag into something far more official with a win.
Regardless of the circumstances or whether this scenario was considered within USC walls, the Trojans lost to the Bruins and Orgeron was removed as coach, making way for the hiring of Steve Sarkisian. Although there were conversations about keeping Orgeron on the staff, it didn’t transpire.
Having bonded through difficult times, through small, meaningful actions and his overall inviting style, the players didn't hide their emotions when Orgeron wasn't given the job.
You're not going to find a better recruiter, coach, or father figure that is anything remotely like Ed Orgeron!— Kenny Bigelow (@_mcmxcv__) December 1, 2013
Words can't explain how I'm feeling right now....just lost a father. Way more than a coach #coachO— Leonard Williams (@LWtrojan94) December 2, 2013
How hard will Sark's job be? Players openly crying after Orgeron's departure. #USC— Ryan Abraham (@insidetroy) December 2, 2013
“You look at the overall body of work, and we had a lot of success there,” Orgeron said. “We’re very appreciative of the time with the USC family, and they were very good to us.”
The offseason came and Orgeron processed the past season and the path in front him. As he dealt with the disappointment of not getting the head-coaching position at USC, he processed his next move at home.
Although he had conversations with teams about various positions, none of them ever developed into something serious.
“I never really entertained anything, and I wasn’t really looking for anything to be honest with you,” Orgeron said. “After looking back, we feel that taking this year and spending it with my family off was one of the best things we did.”
What’s Next for Coach O
The Silly Season is on the horizon. Soon, your Twitter feeds and bottom tickers will be flooded with rumors of coaches being fired, coaches being hired and other strange, newsworthy developments regarding vacant positions.
Scott Roussel, who has turned this maddening time into a profession at FootballScoop.com, believes this upcoming Silly Season could be an active one for Orgeron.
“Ed has been very clear that he will return to coaching, and the respect that the coaching community has for him allows him some flexibility to investigate potential head coaching opportunities,” Roussel said. “Meaning, a lot of head coaches would love to have Ed on their staff and will hold a position for him a few weeks, and possibly longer, while he checks for the perfect fit out there.”
Head-coaching vacancies have already started to open. Kansas, in need of a recruiting boost, would make quite a bit of sense for both parties. Other opportunities will undoubtedly follow, and Orgeron—if granted a platform to state his case—could put himself in prime position.
“If Ed is invited to interview for a head coaching position, he is the type of guy whose personality can instantly win over an athletic director and university president,” Roussel added. “He’s lightning in a bottle. He just needs the right opportunity.”
At this moment in time, that right opportunity has not presented itself. Orgeron has yet to really get a serious look, although that will undoubtedly change once the calendar hits November and searches ramp up.
“It’s still early, but I’m sure there will be some options that will come and some things we’re going to like,” Orgeron said. “I just haven’t gotten a serious call from anyone yet.”
For him, in this place in time, this isn’t the worst thing. As he braces for the next chapter of his life and a return to his beloved, grueling profession, there are still high school football games he wants to see.
There is still breakfast to be made and other meals to be cooked. There is still pool and patio time to be shared with his family in a home that he can finally call home with no strings attached.
“I do believe I will be a head coach again. I do believe that,” Orgeron said. “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.”
Adam Kramer is the College Football National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Unless noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.