Moments of truth: Ed Orgeron's lifetime of making mistakes and learning from them preps him for dream job at LSU
Ed Orgeron Sr. worked for the phone company in Larose, La., where Bayou LaFourche meets the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway on its way to the Gulf of Mexico. Those who loved him called him Bebe (pronounced Ba-Bay). He was supposed to be the baby of the family, and that nickname stuck even after his parents had a 13th child and made him a big brother.
Bebe always knew how to work. His father ran a vegetable stand. He worked on tugboats before settling in as the foreman of a crew that installed cable for Ma Bell. And by God, if Bebe's barrel-chested oldest son—who got his size from his mama's side of the family—wanted to come home instead of playing defensive tackle at LSU, that kid was going to work, too.
So at the end of the sweltering summer of 1978, Ed Orgeron Sr. put Ed Orgeron Jr. on a crew digging ditches for cable. Everybody knew everybody in Lafourche Parish back then, so some passing motorists couldn't help but point out that a certain member of South Lafourche High's 1977 state title team was on the side of the road with a shovel in his hand instead of getting ready to play Indiana in Tiger Stadium.
You didn't make it.
Junior looked at Bebe.
Bebe said "Dig."
"You can go from the penthouse to the outhouse really fast," a much older Ed Orgeron Jr. says as he sits on a brown leather couch in the LSU head coach's office and tells this story. When he hits the word "dig," it rumbles through his throat and out his mouth in that French-accented foghorn that sounds like he swallowed gumbo made of gravel. That voice is instantly familiar to almost everyone named a top-100 recruit in the past 15 years. Ditto for anyone who shopped for a Hummer in northwest Mississippi between 2005 and '07.
When Orgeron worked at Miami, Syracuse, USC and Ole Miss, he got mocked for that voice. In Louisiana, he's embraced for it. That's why Baton Rouge attorney Kent DeJean, after exchanging pleasantries with Orgeron in French, said this during Orgeron's first head coach's radio show on Sept. 28: "I'm very proud as a resident of Acadiana and a Cajun, for the first time in the history of LSU football, we have a coach that doesn't have an accent."
Junior, or Little Bebe, or Bebe, or Coach O—he's known by many nicknames—has dreamed of this moment for decades. He left LSU as a freshman, but LSU never left him. In those years when he was recruiting for another school and drove across the Mississippi River on Interstate 10 and saw Tiger Stadium standing sentinel, he wondered what it would be like to return. When he did finally get hired in 2015 to coach LSU's defensive line, he wondered whether he, a son of Louisiana, might ever get the chance to lead the entire program.
And then it happened. Les Miles could only bend space and time on so many occasions. When the Tigers dropped to 2–2 following a Sept. 24 loss at Auburn that ended with an LSU touchdown wiped off the board because the ball wasn't snapped quickly enough, Miles finally had to pay with his job for his refusal to run a more evolved offense. Had the attempted coup Miles survived last November worked, LSU would have hired someone with a proven track record as a head coach. Orgeron may or may not have been retained. Instead, Miles kept his job. Emboldened, he ignored the order from athletic director Joe Alleva to change the offense. Miles did exactly the same thing he almost got fired for in '15, and he got fired for it in '16. At that point, LSU needed someone to step into the head coach's office. Preferably, it would be someone who had handled this sort of situation before. As it turned out, LSU had a coach on staff who had handled this exact situation before. So now Orgeron is back in the penthouse. How long he stays there depends largely on how many games he can win.
LSU will play its third game of the Orgeron era Saturday when the Tigers face Ole Miss. After blowing out Missouri, having the Florida game postponed to Nov. 19 because of Hurricane Matthew and shaking off an early funk to whip Southern Mississippi, this will be LSU's toughest challenge since Orgeron took over for Miles.
It will be personal for Orgeron as well. His first chance to be a head coach came at Ole Miss, and he blew it. From '05 to '07, the Rebels went 10–25 overall and 3–21 in the SEC. Orgeron made nearly every mistake a first-time head coach can make, and just about everyone—from the staff to the players to the support personnel—breathed a sigh of relief when he was fired.
But maybe Orgeron needed that. After all, he used a list of mistakes he made at Ole Miss as a reference of what not to do when he was handed control of USC's program following the firing of Lane Kiffin in 2013. Orgeron went 6–2 as the Trojans' interim head coach, beating eventual Pac-12 champion Stanford with a roster gutted of its depth by NCAA sanctions. But USC didn't give him the full-time job. How could athletic director Pat Haden show up at the Bel-Air Country Club with this boisterous Cajun in tow? That choice crushed Orgeron, and he went home to Louisiana to regroup and decide what he wanted from his career.
But maybe the USC slight happened for a reason, too. Maybe it happened so Orgeron could be at LSU when the Tigers needed someone who could provide a calming force after a firing. Maybe it happened so Orgeron could get a crack at the job he really wanted all along. "I always wonder how the pieces of the puzzle fit together," Orgeron's wife, Kelly, says. "But it sure is a good feeling here."
Orgeron's life is filled with these moments. Some of them were mistakes he made. Some happened in spite of his best efforts. Most turned into lessons that he can use now as he chases his dream job.
Moment No. 1: Leaving LSU
To understand Orgeron, it helps to understand who raised him. "I hope you're hungry," CoCo Orgeron says as she opens her front door for a visitor. Junior was always hungry. Growing up, he loved gumbo, shrimp étouffée and shrimp burgers—patties of ground shrimp mixed with parsley, onions, eggs and flour. When CoCo made shrimp burgers, the boys would come in from playing ball in the field along Louisiana Highway 1, devour every last morsel and head back out to the field to play more. On this day, CoCo has gumbo on the stove. Earlier, she mixed three quarters of a cup of oil and a cup of flour and stirred for 45 consecutive minutes until the roux matched the color of a copper penny. Then she added the chicken and sausage and spices. She also made potato salad. From her oven hangs a dish towel that proclaims its owner the "Queen of Damn Near Everything." And she is. Like her son, the 5'10" CoCo can command a room.
CoCo's father was a trapper, and she and her sister skinned minks and muskrats as a child to help the family business. They let her hunt on occasion, giving her a pack that she wore on her back to hold the critters she'd dispatched. They'd better be dead when you drop them over your shoulder and into the pack, she remembers, because an enraged mink climbing on one's head can be a nasty bit of business. She eventually moved in with her sister and sister's husband so she could attend school. The trapping camps had tutors but only to a point.
Meanwhile, CoCo's future husband had a different experience. Remember how everyone has a nickname or five? On Bebe's first day of school, the teacher called roll. According to the story CoCo heard from her late in-laws, when the teacher came to Edward Orgeron, no one answered. Later, the teacher asked Bebe's father (Coach O's grandfather) if his 12th child was indeed named Edward. "I don't know," came the reply. He'd have to ask his wife. Adding to the confusion was the fact that the boy spoke only French. He learned English within months, and after school he would work on the tugboats and then for the phone company.
Junior grew up in a different era. He played "bitty basketball" in elementary school and multiple sports as a high schooler. He didn't have to skin any animals to put shrimp burgers on the table. Bebe and CoCo stressed college because they knew a degree would allow their son to make more money and avoid the kind of work that would wreck his body. Bebe told Junior sports would be his way out. Bebe and CoCo were thrilled when Junior headed to LSU and equally displeased when he returned home a few weeks later. But they didn't think he'd be there long once Bebe, who died in 2011, put Junior on that ditch-digging crew.
A few months later, Junior got a call from his high school teammate Bobby Hebert. (Yes, that Bobby Hebert, the one who played for the Saints and the Falcons.) Hebert was playing quarterback at Northwestern State in Natchitoches, La., and the Demons could use a country-strong defensive tackle. "Where's that?" the young Orgeron asked his friend. It didn't matter. He had football again, and Bebe and CoCo knew their son would finish what he started this time.
Moment No. 2: Leaving Miami
After spending a year as a graduate assistant at Northwestern State, Orgeron worked a year at McNeese State. He tells a story that he was back home shoveling shrimp when he got an offer to become an assistant strength coach at Arkansas. Orgeron tells this story in speeches, and it ends with him throwing the shovel in the bayou and leaving to take the job. CoCo remembers when he got it, too. "Five hundred dollars a month, bubba," she says, laughing. "Don't spend it all in one place."
After two years in Fayetteville, Orgeron left to be a graduate assistant at Miami. In 1989, head coach Dennis Erickson promoted Orgeron to defensive line coach.
Orgeron made his name coaching Cortez Kennedy and Russell Maryland. He also recruited and coached a 6' 5" defensive tackle from Pennsylvania that Hurricanes teammates called "Dewey." The player's given name? Dwayne Johnson. Orgeron also was instrumental in convincing a high school tight end named Warren Sapp that his future was on defense.
But a dark side emerged while Orgeron worked in South Florida. He'd been in trouble before—a battery charge from a bar fight in Natchitoches in 1984—and he would find it again. In 1991, a Dade County woman was granted a restraining order against Orgeron after accusing him of repeated violence. (A permanent injunction was granted and then rescinded in 1992.) Then, in July 1992, Orgeron was arrested in Baton Rouge and charged with battery, failure to leave the premises and misrepresentation during booking. According to news accounts from the time, a drunk Orgeron head-butted the manager of a bar after Orgeron had been asked to leave. Years later, Orgeron would later tell the Orange County Register that he'd become angry after he wasn't allowed back in the bar to retrieve his credit card.
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Following the Baton Rouge incident, Miami placed Orgeron on probation. Later, he took a leave of absence. He never coached at Miami again. The charges in Louisiana were dropped after Orgeron reached a settlement with the victim, but the damage Orgeron had done to his reputation would take years to correct.
Orgeron tried to clean up his life back home in Larose for a while before volunteering to coach linebackers at McNeese State in 1994. In 1995, Paul Pasqualoni hired him to coach the defensive line at Syracuse. The following year, a loss on the field would lead Orgeron to the person who could help him deal with the other problems.
Moment No. 3: Losing to Miami…again
On Nov. 30, 1996, Syracuse entered the Carrier Dome with a shot at the Big East title and a trip to either the Orange or Fiesta bowls. Hours later, Syracuse had fallen to Miami for the sixth consecutive season. Virginia Tech would get the Big East's spot in the Bowl Alliance. Syracuse would go to the Liberty Bowl to face Houston. Like any coach, Orgeron seethed about losing an outright conference title and a shot at a major bowl.
But not all losses lead to despair. Some of them lead to blind dates. David Saunders, who had worked with Orgeron at Nicholls State, was working at Arkansas State at the time. Saunders and his wife had a friend named Kelly, and they decided to do a little matchmaking. Jonesboro, Ark., is only 70 miles from Memphis. Maybe Kelly would like to meet their friend Bebe for dinner.
Dinner came second. First, Kelly and Ed joined the Syracuse players and staffers as they toured Graceland. Then they ate. Then they strolled on Beale Street. They couldn't help falling in love. Two months later, they were married.
Orgeron now had a wife and a stepson named Tyler. Kelly and Tyler left Arkansas for central New York. Soon, the family would grow. Kelly was pregnant with twins that next winter when Paul Hackett hired Ed to join the staff at USC. Ed left to recruit for the Trojans, but Kelly couldn't join him until after the babies were born. CoCo froze her fanny off in Syracuse helping with newborns Cody and Parker. And on the night before Ed and Kelly's first anniversary, Ed took his last drink of alcohol.
Moment No. 4: The Ole Miss disaster
Orgeron recruited so well under Hackett at USC that Pete Carroll retained him when he was hired. Then Orgeron recruited so well under Carroll that he helped build a dynasty. That didn't go unnoticed. In December 2004, Ole Miss athletic director Pete Boone hired Orgeron to replace David Cutcliffe.
Many of the coaches who worked for Orgeron at Ole Miss would rather forget what happened in Oxford. Orgeron hasn't forgotten, though. He knows exactly what he did wrong because he spent years building a list of all the mistakes he made running the Rebels.
Here are a few of the things that happened during that span:
- During an early team meeting, he ripped off his shirt and dared any player to try to fight him.
- He required everyone at practice—players, coaches, managers, etc.—to dive on any fumbled ball. One pile ended with a dislocated shoulder for an assistant coach.
- He went through video coordinators the way Spinal Tap went through drummers. Working 6 a.m. to 2 a.m. isn't sustainable and usually turns counterproductive.
- He chugged Red Bull in the mornings and then charged through the offices banging on a bass drum as assistants tried to work.
- During a lightning delay against Wake Forest in 2006, he put the players through a full-contact scrimmage. The Rebels wound up losing 27–3. The Demon Deacons ran the ball on 53 of 58 plays.
- He wanted to fight reporter Steven Godfrey because Godfrey had reported accurate injury information.
Naturally, none of this produced winning teams*. "He tried to do everything by himself," Kelly says. "Head coach. Defensive coordinator. Recruiting coordinator. He tried to do all those things and have more control of all those areas." This drove the staff mad. It also drove Orgeron mad. He wanted everything perfect, but he squeezed everyone too tight. Orgeron knows this. After the Ole Miss firing, Carroll would tell his former assistant that he didn't determine his ideal coaching style until age 51, when he was in his second season at USC. Orgeron was 46 when Ole Miss fired him.
*It wasn't all bad at Ole Miss. Ever the master recruiter, Orgeron did stock the program with so much talent that it helped Houston Nutt go 18–8 in his first two seasons in Oxford. Plus, the dealership commercial that drew so many chuckles left Orgeron with a Hummer that he still has to this day. A few years ago, CoCo asked to borrow it. This allowed the residents of Mandeville, La., to watch a Cajun grandmother pilot an H2 while her teenage grandsons alerted her to anything she might be about to run over.
Moment No. 5: The next big chance…
Orgeron didn't want to just sit on his Ole Miss buyout. He went back to work almost immediately as the defensive line coach for the New Orleans Saints. He studied how Sean Payton ran practices and marveled at how much the Saints could accomplish in a short period. After a season, he joined former USC co-worker Lane Kiffin's staff at Tennessee and then followed Kiffin back to USC a year later. Tired of moving the family with each job, Orgeron set up Kelly and the boys in Mandeville and lived out of a hotel.
While toiling again in Troy, Orgeron continued to refine his lists. He knew what he'd never do again if he became a head coach. He also knew exactly what he would do. "It really was simple," he says. "It came to me, finally. If I treated those players like I treated my sons, we'd have success."
As he learned from experience as a coach and as a father, it dawned on Orgeron that even though he loved his sons more than anything, he didn't let them push him around. He could praise them but also draw a bright line when it came to discipline. He could do the same for his players. He finally understood that players didn't need to fear him to play their best for him. They needed to love him—and they'd work even harder if he showed them he loved them right back. The same went for the staff. If Orgeron quit trying to micromanage his assistants, he'd do his job better and they'd do theirs better.
The opportunity to put this plan into action came when Haden fired Kiffin in a private airport terminal at LAX early on the morning of Sept. 30, 2013, shortly after the Trojans returned home following a 62–41 loss at Arizona State. After Orgeron's first practice that following Wednesday, someone asked him what was different about his first week as USC's head coach versus his first week as the head coach at Ole Miss. "I didn't take my shirt off today," Orgeron cracked. Check one item off the "never do again" list. Orgeron did little things like bring cookies back to the training table and order Roscoe's Chicken and Waffles for team dinners. He did big things like allowing offensive coordinator Clay Helton to call plays. Kiffin had called all the plays before—with far less success than he's currently having at Alabama.
Orgeron let his assistant coaches coach and stayed out of their way. "Here's the deal," he says now. "You don't have to make every decision. That's the part that I made a mistake on. You can delegate decisions to people that have expertise in that area." He let the players have fun. His list had been correct. While his Rebels had underachieved, his Trojans outplayed expectations. Still, Orgeron didn't know if two blissful months could show that he had learned from the mistakes of three bad years at Ole Miss.
It wasn't enough for Haden. He hired Orgeron's former USC co-worker Steve Sarkisian, who had been running an average Pac-12 program at Washington. "It was like a death," Kelly says of USC's decision. "It was mourning like a death."
Looking back, though, she wonders if it might have been the best possible outcome. "To me, when those doors are closed blatantly, you go with it," she says. "God's got bigger plans for you. That's not where you were supposed to be."
Moment No. 6: Staying home
When Orgeron left USC, he had his friend Tommie Robinson call former boss Miles. Robinson told Miles that Orgeron was looking for head-coaching jobs, but if anything opened at LSU, it was the one place Orgeron would be happy to be an assistant. The Tigers weren't hiring, so Orgeron spent 2014 at home in Mandeville.
His time as a stay-at-home dad started off well enough. He and Kelly went to movies. He cooked steaks for Cody and Parker to devour when they returned home from school or practices. He got to visit Tyler, who was—and still is—working as a volunteer student assistant in LSU's football program. But it didn't take long before Orgeron began missing the game. "The fun lasted about two weeks," Orgeron says.
The time he spent drying out after getting run out of Miami had been the only other extended period in Orgeron's adult life that he'd been without a team. He thrived on the peaks and valleys of daily competition. Now, his life moved in a straight, flat line. "Where's my teammates?" he says. "Where's the practice? Where's the schedule? Where's the up and down? Where's the competition? It just wasn't there. You just had a big hole."
Kelly had no problem sending her husband back into the fray when LSU finally did call ahead of the 2015 season. And though she knew he'd hated his time away from the game, she's thankful he got to spend a year as a normal dad. "No job, no amount of money would ever be able to replace that," she says.
Those six moments prepared Orgeron for…
Moment No. 7: Living the dream
Sitting on that couch in the head coach's office, Orgeron wants to make one thing clear. He's done trying to convince everyone how much he has changed since Ole Miss. "Whether people believe that or not, I'm not out there to prove that," he says. "This is for the team. This is for the players." The office is barren save for a TV on the wall. Less than two months ago, it overflowed with the collected knick-knacks of an 11-year tenure that included two SEC titles and a national championship. The coach who has the job in January will decorate it. "We would love to have 'interim' removed from the front of his name," Kelly says. "But we don't know what's going to happen. I feel like whatever does happen, we will be prepared. Nothing will ever catch us off guard and shock us like the SC ordeal." Orgeron can't control what AD Alleva will do. He can't control what LSU president F. King Alexander or the trustees will do. He can only work down his list.
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Asked rapid-fire if any vestiges remain from the Ole Miss days, Orgeron repeatedly shakes his head and says no. Coaches and managers don't have to dive on fumbles anymore. Video staffers get more than four hours a day at home. No reporters have been challenged to a fight. Orgeron doesn't treat injury information like state secrets anymore. For example, LSU star tailback Leonard Fournette has an ankle injury. Before each game, Orgeron volunteered that the ankle would keep Fournette out against Missouri, against Florida (had the game been played as scheduled on Oct. 8) and against Southern Miss. And Orgeron told reporters this week that Fournette has declared himself ready to go against Ole Miss. For that decision, Orgeron will rely on trainer Jack Marucci. "This guy has the pulse of the team," Orgeron says of Marucci. He might not have said that of anyone at Ole Miss because he might not have trusted anyone enough. At LSU, he trusts Dave Aranda to run the defense. He trusts Pete Jenkins, the longtime friend hired to take over the defensive line for Orgeron after he was named interim coach at USC and at LSU. He trusts Steve Ensminger to run the offense.
Orgeron's chief suggestion has been to get the ball to receivers in space; in two games since Ensminger took over the offense, 10 different LSU players have caught passes. "There's so much talent on the bench that a lot of times have not been utilized," fullback J.D. Moore says. "We're putting the ball in playmakers' hands that maybe haven't had a chance to showcase their talent."
Practices have changed, too. Ninety-minute walkthroughs have shrunk to 45 minutes. Full-contact practices include less prolonged banging on scout-teamers in favor of a few quality reps matching first- and second-teamers. Players sprint between periods, but hardly anyone runs more than Orgeron. "He's going to run every play that we run," Moore says. "He's going to sprint down the field with us and back. And down. And back. He's doing as much work as we are."
He hasn't ditched all his old tricks. Derek Ponamsky, the Baton Rouge radio host Orgeron hired as his special assistant, was asked a few weeks ago to secure a bass drum. Multiple drums appeared near the desk of administrative coordinator Lois Stuckey. But this time, Orgeron only wanted the drum to keep the rhythm at weekly "heartbeat" meetings. Mornings remain percussion-free. He's also ditched the Red Bull.
"I switched to Monster," he says, smiling. "You've got to match the energy of an 18-year-old."
Not all the new ideas have worked perfectly. Orgeron gave the team victory milkshakes before a recent practice to celebrate the win against Missouri. Center-turned-offensive tackle Ethan Pocic drank a little of his, but he feared a full milkshake plus a full practice might end in projectile vomit. "Not my call," Pocic says. "I just work here." So perhaps the victory milkshakes would make a better post-practice tradition. Still, Orgeron's player-as-son philosophy seems to be working as well at LSU as it did at USC. "We're following him," Pocic says. "We believe in him. If Coach O told us to run through the wall, we'd do it."
He might have actually requested that at Ole Miss. Not anymore. Orgeron knows the only way he'll get to decorate the walls of that office is to keep winning, and the only way to keep winning is to earn the players' love and the staff's respect. "Once you feel comfortable in that role, it's a good feeling," Orgeron says. "Because you've worked to get there. It's just like a football player working on techniques and fundamentals. Finally, I've got it. Finally, I feel it."