It was the call I had been waiting for, although I didn’t expect it to arrive on a Sunday night just as I sat down for dinner. The California area code came into focus. Seconds later, the most recognizable voice in all of college football greeted me, tossing a comforting arm around my shoulder from more than 1,000 miles away.
“Adam, my man,” the man said in his unmistakable Cajun drawl. “It’s Coach O. Always a pleasure.”
“Coach O” is the name the football world has bestowed upon Ed Orgeron, LSU’s recently hired defensive line coach and one of the nation’s premier recruiters. He also still bench-presses more than a good chunk of his players and cooks one hell of a gumbo. Although coaching at LSU, he might have met his match in both departments.
I had reached out to Orgeron earlier in the week in hopes of doing a profile—this profile—on his new football digs and gaining some insight into his magical recruiting wisdom with national signing day near. What ensued was a splendid five-day game of phone tag, which should come as no surprise given the timing.
Please note: The worst possible time to request an interview with an assistant coach is the week prior to national signing day. It would be like asking a fireworks salesman to babysit your children on July 3.
But Orgeron, being the person that he is, obliged.
At the time of his call, however, I was miles from my office and without a tape recorder. The interview wasn’t happening. I told Orgeron of my situation and asked if we could reschedule. This is not a request that is typically well-received in the profession, especially with a full calendar like his.
“Of course,” Orgeron said. “I’m jumping on a plane to Tampa and I will call you as soon as I land. Have a wonderful dinner, and tell your family that Coach O says hello.”
Tell your family Coach O says hello.
In one impromptu response—just natural courtesy from a man who is seemingly beloved by all—Orgeron pretty much wrote this profile. He recruited me simply by being himself, which is precisely why some of the nation's elite decide to play for him.
Some coaches make their mark as X's and O's guys; others are motivators. Ed Orgeron is a people person and a recruiter, maybe the best one this side of Nick Saban. Here's how he gets it done.
How Coach O Got His Groove Back
Orgeron’s own unexpected phone call came a few weeks earlier. It was Tuesday, Jan. 13, to be exact.
He was cooking when LSU alerted him that the vacant defensive-line job was his if he wanted it. The Tigers wanted him in Baton Rouge the next day to make it official.
By morning, Orgeron had arrived, and the paperwork was signed. By sunrise of the day after he signed, he and new defensive coordinator Kevin Steele were 30,000 feet off the ground, off to recruit with little time left before national signing day. He has not been home since.
“We were in four states and saw five different recruits in 36 hours,” Orgeron said.
And just like that—one year after leaving USC—Coach O was back in the game.
As he racked up miles and wooed recruits while endorsing a new logo, Orgeron changed his voicemail. People change their voicemails all the time, although typically these modifications aren’t showcased on sports websites.
Orgeron didn’t just personalize his voicemail to reflect his new position with LSU; he added his own flavor and broke out a brief rendition of “Hold That Tiger,” a song near and dear to the program. Baton Rouge-based radio station 104.5 ESPN managed to record his voice while calling the coach live on air.
“I’ve cheered ‘Hold That Tiger’ since I was about three years old,” Orgeron said. “I had some friends that thought it would be a great thing. I took it to heart.”
Although his profession has taken him many places—from Los Angeles to Miami to the NFL to Mississippi—Louisiana is where Orgeron and his family call home. He was born there. He played his football there. He coached both college teams and NFL teams in this state. When USC told him he would not be retained despite resurrecting the Trojans following Lane Kiffin’s dismissal, he headed home to Louisiana.
When I first spoke with Orgeron back in the fall, he was driving home from the Northwestern State campus after being inducted into the school’s hall of fame. Before Orgeron became one of the nation’s best recruiters, he was a dynamite defensive lineman.
At the time we spoke, Orgeron’s future was uncertain. Embracing Saturdays with the stress and strain that comes with them was something he didn’t necessarily miss at the time. But he did miss the game dearly, and he sat out the year in hopes of landing the right opportunity.
While the plan was to find a head-coaching vacancy, it’s hard to envision a better fit than LSU.
“It means a lot to represent the people of Louisiana,” Orgeron said. “I have close friends, family, ex-coaches all the way from North Louisiana to South Louisiana. 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.”
The Art of Recruiting
There is one enormous advantage Orgeron holds over almost every other coach he will recruit against: He has an IMDb page, and they do not.
“The movie The Blind Side has given me so much notoriety,” Orgeron said. “I walk in and people kind of know who I am because of it. I get it a bunch.”
Orgeron appeared as himself in the 2009 movie about Michael Oher, a player he recruited to play at Ole Miss. His brief cameo in the movie has prompted a slew of living-room conversations on the coach’s appearance in the film. It’s another trick in a robust bag.
Oher isn’t the only notable recruit Orgeron has landed. Leonard Williams, a candidate to be the No. 1 pick in the upcoming NFL draft, committed to USC in large part because of Orgeron’s influence.
Others who were charmed by Orgeron over the past few decades include Pro Football Hall of Famers Warren Sapp and Cortez Kennedy. There are many, many more, and it's a group not just restricted to the defensive line. Orgeron has recruited numerous positions and the hype (or lack thereof) that comes with them.
“I get the same amount of satisfaction when I recruit a diamond in the rough,” Orgeron said. “You may not know it when you recruit them, but the Mike Pattersons, the Dexter McClusters and the Greg Hardys—the 2- and 3-star guys that become All-Pros—give me just as much satisfaction.”
For Orgeron, whether he’s securing a commitment from the nation’s most coveted player or a difference-maker down the road, the process begins early. A solid class isn’t built in a matter of weeks or in a flurry of phone calls.
It takes years to earn trust from a player and his family, which is something Orgeron tries to do the moment he makes a connection. In fact, upon learning that he had landed the job with LSU, Orgeron reached back out to players he had already started recruiting as sophomores when he still worked with USC.
These relationships stayed intact through a year off and a cross-country move. It’s not just about saying the appropriate things the player and his family want to hear; it’s being one of the first to say these things.
“One of the things we’ve had success with is early identification,” Orgeron said. “If you can be first to identify them, get to know them and get them to your camp, then you’ve got a chance. It’s a process.”
Once a player has been identified, the real work begins. This is where Orgeron is in his element.
Although recruiting has evolved into a more digital craft, it’s much harder to work the room and let your personality shine through text messages. Face-to-face contact—being able to look a player in the eye—has always been Orgeron’s desired route.
“The communication with the guys is more accessible, but I’m still an old-fashioned recruiter,” Orgeron said. “I believe that being there in person and in someone’s home is my strength. Being able to go in there and letting the parents know they can trust me, I think that’s an important thing.”
Once Orgeron is welcomed inside, he doesn’t spew an over-the-top sales pitch. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
Instead of loading up on promises and trying to suffocate the family in guarantees, Orgeron approaches each new visit with the utmost care. There is little talk of actual football at first, as Orgeron guides the conversation to academics and traditions before ever moving to the chalkboard.
“I really want to be a good listener and find out what they’re looking for in a university,” Orgeron said. “I want to find out who is the decision-maker and get them to trust me. I don’t try to sell hard.”
Eventually, football will be at the forefront of the conversation. Of course it will. But the process of securing a commitment from a player stretches well beyond one visit. And even when a verbal is finally secured, there are the prospects of keeping it.
That’s what makes recruiting so incredibly difficult. Making an impression is one thing; holding off dozens of other successful people delivering a similar message is another. To appeal to a potential player, authenticity is critical. It can’t be forced or manufactured, but rather something unique that somehow separates one sales pitch from another.
This is where Orgeron’s path takes a sharp turn from that of most other recruiters.
“That’s my secret. I just go in there and I am who I am,” Orgeron said. “They can feel it, and that’s what they want. Players want a coach that’s real. They want a guy they can relate and talk to. They also want a guy who has had success. I don’t think I have to go in there and tell them about myself. Most of them already know me.”
For the Love of the Grind
Between visits, Orgeron spends his nights in unfamiliar hotel rooms. His workouts, which were an integral part of his college football-less routine last fall, have been condensed to push-ups and sit-ups on the hotel floor. It’s all his schedule has allowed over the past few weeks.
Meals are consumed on the road or in a recruit’s dining room.
Recruiting at this level takes a special kind of person. It demands a road warrior. It requires someone willing to toss his life aside in favor of the task at hand. It takes a genuine human being who genuinely enjoys being around other people.
Orgeron meets all of the necessary criteria, which is precisely why LSU wanted the coach to go to work in his backyard.
“I enjoy this just as much as I enjoy being on the grass,” Orgeron said on recruiting. “I enjoy coaching. But when I went to the NFL, recruiting was what I missed the most.”
His success and passion have intertwined. Orgeron has found an extreme niche where he can leverage his gifts—perhaps more effectively than any assistant coach going right now—and he also embraces the extreme timeline.
This Wednesday, that timeline will come to a sudden halt. LSU will tie the bow on one of the nation’s finest recruiting classes with national signing day. Elite talent in Louisiana and elsewhere will fax their letters of intent to Baton Rouge, making it official. Orgeron, although new to the program, will have played a significant role in the ritual.
With so little time left to make an impression and so much to gain, now is not the time to stop. In reality, however, it never truly stops. Orgeron has already moved on.
There’s always another town to visit and a family to woo, even when the cycle has reached a conclusion. While fanbases will celebrate the end of the recruiting cycle as one, Orgeron won’t be partaking in the festivities. In fact, intensive recruiting for the 2016 class—the next batch of recruits to join LSU—began this week. After all, early identification is key.
“It’s a celebration,” Orgeron said. “Then the cycle starts again. There’s no time to rest now.”
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.