BATON ROUGE, La. – It’s possible that Ed Orgeron’s life changed because of what happened on a 3-foot patch of grass in Tiger Stadium last Saturday.
LSU had two chances to get a potential game-clinching yard against Florida, and continue the momentum it started when Orgeron became interim coach here after Les Miles’ firing.
The Tigers couldn’t do it. They lost, 16-10. Orgeron was left to wonder what could have been or should have been, and with talk about Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher swirling, maybe he’ll be wondering for a long time.
“It didn’t come down to that play,” he said in the football office on Monday. “We made uncharacteristic mistakes that we haven’t made since I was the coach here.
“I think we were too focused on fighting.”
Fighting. Orgeron is likely alluding to the scuffle between a Gators assistant and star running back Leonard Fournette before the game. Fournette reportedly requested to play after that skirmish, even though he was nursing an injured ankle. But fighting has a broader meaning in Orgeron’s life. From his imposing glare to his deep voice to the vim he brings to recruiting to the personal demons he has beaten back to get to his dream job at LSU, Orgeron has always been ready for the fight. That’s what people adore about him; to be in his presence has been to want to fight with him.
He has fought from the patch of grass outside his parents’ home in Larose to the brink of the most exalted job in his home state. The last step, from interim to full-time head coach at LSU, is the fight he has always craved.
Is it a fight he can win?
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From the main hallway in South Lafourche High School down near Cut Off, you can see boats on the bayou. On Tuesday afternoon you could see a guy with a metal detector in front of the school, scanning for gold. You can see Mama’s diner, with roast beef and catfish Po Boys on the menu. But if you were Ed Orgeron in 1977, it was hard to see the future.
“It was a great place,” he says of his hometown, “but you kind of felt trapped.”
What he did have was football. The Tarpons were once-in-a-lifetime good that year. They had a quarterback named Bobby Hebert and they had Orgeron, a hulking defender with big hair and a big grin and a big hit. On the day of the state title game, students packed the stands at 2:30 and sat there for hours until the game began. Orgeron had a clutch sack to help cinch the game. “We broke all kinds of fire codes that day,” says the woman at the school’s front desk.
Orgeron was a hair-on-fire kind of player. Part of it was from playing tackle football with kids much older than him, out in the yard with a huge ditch serving as the 50-yard-line. Part of it was genetic.
“What did he inherit from me? My height,” says his mom, Coco, who still lives in town. “I guess a little part of my personality. The aggressive part.”
Coco once woke her son up on a game day wearing full football gear, including a helmet and jersey, waving pompoms and a shrimp Po Boy. It was 6 a.m.
“I always tell him, ‘Aren’t you glad you met me?’” she laughs.
Coco, at age 75, still has an infectious enthusiasm that makes it obvious where her adored “Bebe” gets it from. But as much as Ed wanted to leave the nest and conquer all the bigger places, it was never easy when he got there.
He went to LSU and returned after only a year. Coco still thinks it was because he was homesick. He transferred to Northwestern State instead, and he made an impression.
“Oh my goodness,” says John Thompson, who was a coach back then. “I can remember vividly him coming into my office in cut-up jeans and a dirty T-shirt. Look at this character. I still see a lot of that in him. That’s who he is: the energy and aggression, that singularity of purpose. He takes that energy and he can laser point it. He’s a true Cajun in any sense of the word.”
There’s a pride and vibrancy in the Cajun culture that’s sometimes difficult for outsiders to understand. It’s a richness of spirit that comes through in the music and in the gumbo, and it came through in Orgeron. Sometimes it came through too much.
“I’d never seen anybody with that much emotion,” Thompson says. “When it was on the field it was gonna be great. When it was off the field, it was really scary. There was gonna be a fight somewhere. It wasn’t going to be a quiet night at all. There was gonna be action.”
Still, that never seemed to create anything but loyalty in those who worked for him or played for him. The transition from player to graduate assistant under Thompson was seamless.
“From a player running the streets with his teammates to a coach who was probably still running the streets but had the respect from his players,” Thompson says.
He had a knack for it: transferring all that emotion and energy to players. He went to McNeese State, then to Arkansas, then to Miami for Jimmy Johnson. He coached Warren Sapp, Russell Maryland, Cortez Kennedy. He recruited The Rock. He was absolutely perfect for his job.
Then he was gone.
A woman filed a restraining order against him. There was a bar fight in Baton Rouge. There were charges (later dropped). He took a leave of absence.
“My lifestyle,” he says. “Living caught up with me. Partying. I’m always one where I’m gonna do, it, do it all the way. Jump in. And I did.”
The behavior is poor, but the candor is unique. The past is not buried, not hushed. It’s part of who he is. “Big, humbling time,” says his first cousin, Tommy Gisclair, who counseled him. Many good ol’ boy assistant coaches became more corporate as the pay scale ramps up, shoving the problematic past into a storage closet somewhere. It’s actually healthier to talk about it openly, but it’s seldom done that way. Orgeron is different. He’s been sober 17 years now.
“Doesn’t try to be the CEO, all prettied up,” says Thompson. “If that’s the kind of coach you’re looking for, that’s him.”
It’s the kind of assistant coach everyone is looking for, that’s for sure. Orgeron could always be humble, and energetic, and he was both when he volunteered as an assistant at Nicholls State in Thibodaux. Football was still his one shot. “Here’s the things I have to eliminate, I got to eliminate it,” he says, looking back. And soon he got a chance at Syracuse, and not too long after that he got a chance at USC. Any smart head coach wanted a recruiter and a defensive line coach like Coach O.
But could he be something more?
He’s had two chances – sort of. He got the top job at Ole Miss, recruited very well, yet still didn’t get anywhere because he didn’t have enough offense to run with the bigs of the SEC. He also came on strong, banging a drum early in the morning to get assistants fired up and challenging players to a wrestling match. “Way too harsh,” says Gisclair. He also blew a 14-0 lead against rival Mississippi State after another failed fourth-and-1 play. Too-much-too-soon off the field, not quite enough on the field.
Orgeron became interim head coach at USC after Lane Kiffin was canned, went 6-2, and still got passed over for Steve Sarkisian. Orgeron was devastated, and many of his players were too. It turned out the Trojans had dumped a coach who had battled back his demons and ended up with a coach who still hadn’t reckoned fully with his. USC might wish it had that one back.
Yet here we are again, Orgeron with a winning record as an interim coach while some LSU backers surely covet the former assistant with the offensive guru reputation. Tigers fans are always hoping for that holy grail quarterback, and Fisher has that charm. As he walked around Orgeron’s old high school field today, South Lafourche athletic director Brian Callais said what surely has been repeated in bars and restaurants all across the state: “I don’t know if Ed’s a big enough name for them.”
If Orgeron funnels all he’s learned from his prior bosses into one worldview, he’s a tough candidate to beat. Not many can say they’ve worked for Pete Carroll, Jimmy Johnson and Paul Pasqualoni. He has combined his hometown pride with plenty of lessons from elsewhere.
“What an honor,” Coco says, “that the state of Louisiana chose a Cajun boy that was raised not with everything, but everything he needed.”
But it can be a long way from interim to the top job, and what happened on that tiny patch of grass on Saturday is not helping traverse the distance.
“Our energy was going against the wrong things,” he says. “We could have done a better job focusing on the task at hand.”
There could be no better job for Ed Orgeron than the head coach of the LSU football team. He is for Louisiana, and he is of Louisiana. He gets it in a way nobody else can. He says when he first walked onto the field as the interim man in charge, “I felt connected to everyone in the stadium. Something I never felt anywhere else. A peace, a calmness. I was supposed to be doing this.”
Yet what is he supposed to do if it doesn’t work out? What would it be like to be rejected by the one place you understand and represent? One of his old friends admits, “I worry about him if he doesn’t get it.” When asked what it would be like for Coach O if the answer is no, Coco says, “Hard.”
Orgeron won’t lobby through the media, even when asked to do so.
“I will not comment,” he says. “My job is to get this team ready for Texas A&M and that’s it. That’s it. Work as hard as I can every day.
“You look at these men and how can you think about yourself? I got to go and shake all their mother’s hands. I’m 55, I’m gonna coach til 70, 75. I get paid for this. It’s my job to give these players the best I possibly can.”
From the time he was on the grass of Larose to his time on the grass in Tiger Stadium, Ed Orgeron has won so many to his side of the fight.
But in football, the fight only gets you so far.
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