What's next? Ed Orgeron sizes up his coaching future
MOBILE, Ala. -- It looked like the receiving line at a wedding. As Ed Orgeron stood against a fence on Tuesday at a Senior Bowl practice -- watching the linemen, of course -- coach after coach came to greet the man who has parlayed one of the finest runs an interim coach has had into ... what? A little more than a month removed from his stint recovering USC's mojo following the disastrous Lane Kiffin era, Coach O remains a man without a team. "You should have gotten the job," former Miami, North Carolina and Cleveland Browns coach Butch Davis said loud enough for dozens within earshot to hear as he shook Orgeron's hand. "You really should have."
But Orgeron didn't get the USC job permanently. Steve Sarkisian did. Orgeron didn't get any of the other open head-coaching jobs, either. That doesn't mean he's unhappy, though. The past four seasons at USC, Orgeron lived out of a hotel. He and his wife had agreed that the family would stay in Mandeville, La., and they made it work as best they could. Now, with no recruits to visit, Orgeron is home. "Being a dad again," he said, "has been wonderful." He has a stepson at LSU. His twin boys are juniors in high school. One, Cody, is a champion tennis player. Wrap your mind around the idea of the gravel-throated Orgeron attempting to stay cool after a lousy call from the chair umpire. "You know what [Cody] told me the first time?" Orgeron said with a grin. "He said, 'Daddy, you can't talk.'"
A month ago, this seemed the least likely outcome. After Kiffin was fired at an airport terminal on Sept. 29, Orgeron led a banged-up group on a 6-2 run that included an upset of eventual Pac-12 champion Stanford. The Trojans hadn't altered their roster a whit, but they looked like a completely different team. They had fun. The collection of former hotshot recruits -- doomed to a lack of depth by NCAA sanctions stemming from the Reggie Bush case -- played to its potential. Orgeron looked like a completely different coach. He bore scant resemblance to the intractable taskmaster whose his-way-or-the-highway style produced a 10-25 record as the Ole Miss head coach from 2005-07.
Certainly, the Trojans' run would put Orgeron's name on some fairly short lists. But other than USC, the jobs that opened weren't necessarily good fits. Texas could afford someone with a more proven résumé as a head coach, and Louisville's Charlie Strong fit that bill. Louisville hired Bobby Petrino, who, despite a litany of issues, does have a 41-9 record as the Cardinals head coach. Penn State hired James Franklin, who just posted back-to-back nine-win seasons at Vanderbilt. The Commodores hired Stanford's Derek Mason, one of the hottest coordinators in the game. Orgeron would have fit at Florida Atlantic, and the former Miami assistant had the south Florida recruiting bona fides required. But that job went to Arkansas assistant Charlie Partridge, who specialized in bringing players from that region to star in northern climes (Pittsburgh, Wisconsin, Arkansas).
Make no mistake, Orgeron does not intend to sit out for long. "Oh, I'm going to coach again," he said. "I'm keeping my options open. I've had several inquiries."
The question is whether he'll return as a head coach. There are still defensive coordinator vacancies at Arkansas and Rutgers, and plenty of other dominoes will fall after National Signing Day (much to the chagrin of the players who will have just signed National Letters of Intent). But if he wants to come back as a head coach, Orgeron could sit out the 2014 season. Orgeron believes he's earned that shot by leading USC's midseason renaissance. USC players believe Orgeron earned the Trojans' job, but athletic director Pat Haden opted for Washington's Sarkisian as part of his continuing attempt to recreate the Pete Carroll era.
What's funny is that the one guy who actually came closest to mimicking Carroll's time USC was Orgeron. "It feels very much like Carroll is back here," USC offensive tackle Kevin Graf said after a November practice. Graf, who wrapped his college career in the Las Vegas Bowl, would know. He redshirted in 2009, the last season Carroll coached at USC. Orgeron considers the lightening of the mood his greatest accomplishment of the '13 season. "It was a great time for us all," he said. "The biggest thing we got out of it was to see the players smile. They were so happy."
Orgeron brought back the good times in Troy by coaching against his own nature. Orgeron's instincts produced a 3-21 SEC record at Ole Miss. Orgeron going against his own nature turned around USC. The question now is which version of Orgeron would a program get? Deliberately changing his style got the desired result at USC. Orgeron was easier on the players than he was at Ole Miss. He placed more trust in his staff and micromanaged less. He didn't scream as much. "I let those guys do their job," Orgeron said. "I let them go home early -- gave them some room to breathe."
So would he do that at the next stop? Or, at the first sign of trouble, would Orgeron revert to the hardass who got run out of Oxford? Orgeron knows these are the questions athletic directors will ask. "Obviously, there were a lot of things that we did right [at USC]," he said. "And there are still some things I need work on."
Of course, Orgeron can point to his former boss as proof that coaches can change. According to Orgeron, Carroll has said it took him deep into his 40s to figure out what coaching style worked best. History seems to support that. Carroll failed as the head coach of the New York Jets and New England Patriots and reinvented himself at USC. Now, Carroll is headed to the Super Bowl with the Seattle Seahawks. Had he been left on the scrapheap instead of receiving another head-coaching opportunity from USC, Carroll may never have figured out how to succeed in the job.
Orgeron was thrust into his second chance as a head coach, and his two-month stint suggests he has discovered the formula to succeed at the helm of a college program. Now, he'll need to convince an athletic director or university president that he can leave his old self behind and maintain the style that brought so many smiles in Troy in the fall of 2013. Orgeron believes he can. "We ran one of the top programs in America," he said, "and did a pretty good job."