Ed Orgeron Is the Beacon of Light Down on the Bayou

Economic decline has brought a lot of distress for those down on the bayou. But their Bébé, LSU coach Ed Orgeron, is giving his Cajun people a reason to celebrate again.
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DOWN DE BAYOU — Josh Jambon gestures toward a framed photo of his precious baby. Floating there in the water is the Nicholas C, a giant oil rig supply vessel named after Jambon’s grandfather and the last remaining boat in his fleet until he begrudgingly sold it in 2017.

The photo of the 170-foot ship hangs in Jambon’s office as a steady reminder of the good times in this bayou region, when the booming oil business had the Cajuns flush with cash. Jambon, 58, once presided over a company that supported 15 boats like the Nicholas C, employed more than 350 people and operated from multiple locations across the world. His headquarters here once teamed with noisy workers.

On a random Wednesday in December, it is empty and quiet here, Jambon’s bayou-bred voice the only thing cutting through a soulless building. “As you go farther south down the bayou,” he says, “things have dried out even more.” Business began getting bad here about a decade ago, a result of several factors, not the least of which is the five million barrels of oil that spilled into the Gulf of Mexico during a ruptured BP-operated rig off the Louisiana coast. Everything was impacted in an economical domino effect in the lower reaches of Lafourche Parish, a marshy finger of Louisiana that dips south into the muddy Gulf. On the bayou, the Cajuns survive off their soggy land and their murky water, the oil and seafood industries, and when both are simultaneously affected, life here can get rougher than it already was.

The Cajuns are a dying breed of people living in a constant state of fear in a region that is quite literally withering away. The rising sea is swallowing the soil at a rate of one football field per hour, and the population is declining as waves of residents move north. Meanwhile, this place is one direct hurricane hit away from complete disaster, and its estranged language, Cajun French, is fading.

All the while, they are celebrating here, more ecstatic than they’ve been in years. They’ve got a reason to smile through the financial distress, to laugh despite the economic downturn, and it’s all because of a man they call Bébé. “He brought something back to our parish,” says 77-year-old Coco Orgeron, “hope.”

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Children, their books in hand, crossed Bayou Lafourche for school on a ferry operated by Ed Orgeron's grandfather, Julian. He's pictured here during a ferry cross. He's the older man wearing the hat on the right front side of the ferry.

Children, their books in hand, crossed Bayou Lafourche for school on a ferry operated by Ed Orgeron's grandfather, Julian. He's pictured here during a ferry cross. He's the older man wearing the hat on the right front side of the ferry.

Ed Orgeron used to sack oysters, shovel shrimp and guzzle beers here. His grandfather operated a bayou ferry, and his mother grew up trapping and skinning muskrats. He comes from a long line of hunters and fishers, tug boat operators and oil field workers, gumbo-makers and jambalaya-cookers. Most know him on the bayou, not as Coach O, but as Bébé, a French word meaning baby, a nickname handed down from his father.

On Monday night about 50 miles north in New Orleans, Bébé will lead his home-state’s flagship, LSU, into the national championship game against a perennial powerhouse, Clemson. For many in the college football industry, this is an unfathomable outcome, that a one-time bar-brawling drinker who flopped in his one head-coaching stint would captain a team to a 14–0 record and an SEC championship. For those here on the bayou, this is what they always expected, that their barrel-chested, gravelly-voiced Cajun brother would lead the Tigers to the promised land.

“They made fun of him, (Paul) Finebaum and them, and he’s making them pay for it now,” says Dean Blanchard, a 61-year-old seafood tycoon from the bayou. “Look at the successful Cajuns we have here. They don’t have a clue of what the Cajuns are capable of. What I want to come from this is respect for the Cajun culture.”

Monday’s game is about more than some championship ring. It’s about a subsection of people, like their native son Bébé, persecuted and neglected, their accents mocked and their intelligence questioned. The Cajuns are accustomed to this. After all, these are the descendants of the French-speaking Acadians whom the British forced from their Nova Scotia home in the mid-1700s. They were sent fleeing to French-settled Louisiana, establishing a base on the bayou and later developing a reputation as experts at the seafood and oil field industries, not-so-easily blending into American life.

In fact, it took more than 200 years—and a lawsuit—for the U.S. government to recognize them as a national ethnic group in 1980, and in the early 20th century attempts were made by American teachers to suppress their language. But the Cajuns are an enduring and passionate people, bonded by their ancestral ties and their rich, unique culture—food and festival at its core. They are an emotional people, too, unafraid to cry tears of joy and grief, a welcoming breed to outsiders but also terribly defensive of their own stock. “Cajuns are hard workers,” says Henry LaFont, a 65-year-old attorney raised on the bayou. “They’ll give you the shirt off their backs, but don’t cross them.”

LaFont’s law office sits less than 50 yards from Bayou LaFourche, a 106-mile waterway dammed at its northern point and slowly spilling out south into the Gulf of Mexico. Those who claim to live “down on de bayou”—their words—are often referring to its most southern stretch of about 30 miles. Most commercial and residential property down here is within one-third mile of the bayou, flanked by a highway on its east and west, tiny towns hugging the still water on a rapidly narrowing peninsula. At its end, the great Louisiana marsh swallows the land whole.

Coco Orgeron lives at the most northern point of this southern stretch in Larose. She’s less than a football field away from the water in a brand new house she had built after the driver of a semi-trailer accidentally crashed into the family’s original home in 2012, obliterating the dwelling where she and Edward Sr. raised their two sons, Edward Jr. and Steve. If she were home and not at an overnight stay baby-sitting her grandchildren, Coco would not be here right now. She received a 2 a.m. call from her sister. “Coco,” Mary Ann said, “you don’t have anymore house.”

The bayou is a small, close community. Everyone here knows Miss Coco, a mean cook and feisty but big-hearted woman who uses a cane and peers through thick eyeglasses. “She’s from good Cajun stock,” asserts LaFont. She has become somewhat of a local celebrity—the mother of Bébé. The Wikipedia entry for Larose includes a section titled “notable people.” There’s just one name listed: “Ed Orgeron,” it reads, “head coach for the LSU Tigers football team.”

“He’s proof that dreams come true,” says Coco. “We’re hoping that the oil fields open again, and we have good times again. It’s hard right now for all of us. You don’t want to see all these people leave the bayou. They’re not going to come back.”

ed-orgeron-bayou

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The book is named Jesus Calling and Kevin Gros reads it every morning with his cup of coffee. Ed Orgeron, knowing of his buddy’s hardships, recommended the book to Gros or sent it to him in the mail—he doesn’t quite remember—and it has changed his life.

Gros, 60, was impacted by the decline in the oil industry as much as any other. He used to own 12 supply vessels, all of them delivering goods and equipment to some 6,000 oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico. Under post-BP oil spill regulations, drilling has slowed so much that only 2,000 platforms remain operational, he says. He’s sold all of his vessels, and he and his oldest son are the only two employees left of a company that once stood at 250 strong. “For 10–15 years, we had a good life,” Gros says. “We thought it would come back. It hasn’t.”

Orgeron is aware of his peoples’ plight. He’s closest to some of the most distressed. He attended school at South Lafourche High with Gros and Jambon. During one Christmas, Orgeron dressed as Santa Claus and Jambon and others were his reindeer. In 1977, the trio helped lead the South Lafourche High Tarpons to a state championship, a Cajun-bred team made up of kids nicknamed Spaghetti, Big Foot, White Bean, Vulture, Roach, Snooze and, of course, Bébé. They had surnames like Angelette, Arcenaux, Felarize, Galjour, Terrebonne and Thibodaux.

Many remain close to this day, none more than Gros and Jambon. In fact, Gros watched LSU’s game against Texas A&M from the head coach’s suite while Jambon was somewhere inside Tiger Stadium’s lower bowl, a season-ticket holder for the last 20 years. Since Orgeron’s hire as head coach after the 2016 season, Jambon has been a part of dozens of bayou folks who travel with the Tigers in rented or owned RV units. Many of them have been fans of LSU for years, but it’s their native son that has stirred so much interest.

Jambon, for instance, is the leader of the Coach O Society, a group of bayou-goers who support Bébé in a variety of ways, including the massive party they threw him in spring 2017 after he landed the LSU job. More than 1,400 Cajuns filled the Larose civic center’s outdoor pavilion for the “Coach O Banquet.” If all goes as planned Monday, Jambon says, they’ll hold a second banquet this spring. Orgeron is so popular here that his family has allegedly grown. “All the sudden, everybody down here is Coach O’s cousin,” Jambon says, “which they all could be. We’re… integrated.”

Orgeron doesn’t visit the bayou as much as he’d like, but he is familiar with its current economical situation and his role as the beacon of light for this place. “I do feel like I’m representing them,” he says. “They know I’m part of them. Cajuns all of our lives, we fought. None of us grew up rich and we had to fight for everything we had. We had some heart about ourselves and some character.” They’ve battled the toughest of times. Forget about the first oil decline of the 1980s, Jambon lost even more in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina destroyed hotels, rental properties and office space he owned. Still, nothing compares to this. At the start of the downturn, Gros says his sales quite literally dropped 95% “overnight.” A married father of three with two kids in college, Gros had to sell off family land, hunting camps and other amenities.

In the past when the oil industry dipped, the Cajuns often turned to the seafood business, mostly oysters and shrimp. That is no longer a strong backup plan, says Sid Triche, an 84-year-old lifelong bayou resident. Shrimp prices have dipped drastically because of the influx in imported prawns. The oyster beds, once teeming with life, have been negatively impacted by a freshwater diversion project meant to help slow coastal erosion. Meanwhile, as jobs disappear, so do residents. South Lafourche High recently dropped from Class 5A to 4A because of falling enrollment, says Ken Friedlander, a former teacher and sports radio personality on the bayou.

Property value is plummeting too, Gros says, and the 13-foot levees protecting the bayou towns are not near high enough to withstand a direct hit from a major storm. “It’ll top those levees and everybody will be flooded,” says Triche, the president of the South Lafourche Parish Water District for the last 30 years. “It will be a disaster. It’s going to be lights out.” Many Cajuns are still here with no plans to leave, firmly entrenched in the soggy ground that their ancestors founded nearly 300 years ago. “Everybody is having to do it the hard way,” says Jambon. “Coach O did it the hard way. We all kind of do it that way down here.”

Amid this dark turmoil, there is a bright light: the Tigers. They’re undefeated and have the Heisman Trophy–winning quarterback, the nation’s most potent offense and, of course, a Cajun spirit adopted from a man who is more than a coach to these people. Gros is still finding his way through the awful economy here. It’s bad enough that his son may soon have to find other work. Jesus Calling only helps him so much. At times, he needs to hear the gritty voice of an old friend. “He’ll call,” Gros says of Orgeron. “He’s a motivator. It’s like a shot in the arm when he calls. He pumps you up.”

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Edward Orgeron Sr. was known for sitting on his front-yard swing. He's pictured here with Edward Jr., wife Kelly and their two twin boys, Parker and Cody.

Edward Orgeron Sr. was known for sitting on his front-yard swing. He's pictured here with Edward Jr., wife Kelly and their two twin boys, Parker and Cody.

Ed Orgeron remembers the exact time of the phone call that changed his life and ultimately saved his coaching career. “Twelve noon,” he says.

During a drunken stupor one summer night in 1992, Orgeron headbutted the manager of a bar in Baton Rouge and was arrested. The charges were dropped, but the incident, and perhaps others, resulted in his resignation as the defensive line coach at the University of Miami. He spent the next 18 months out of coaching, returning to the bayou, the “start,” he says, of a treatment for alcoholism that lasted through the 1990s (he’s now been sober for 20 years).

While back home, Orgeron was unemployed and living with his parents, not the place for a 33-year-old who was accelerating up the college football ranks as a guru recruiter and defensive line coach. He struck out on several coaching opportunities, including one at his alma mater, Northwestern State, where former coach Sam Goodwin at first quietly hired him as a part-time assistant. He lasted two weeks before the school president heard who was back on campus.

Back he went to the bayou. There, on a front-yard swing with his father, the two discussed his future. Well, Big Ed told his son, maybe we should try something else other than coaching. And then… “the phone rings,” Orgeron recalls. “We have a loud ringer. You could hear the phone from inside.” On the other line was Rick Rhoades, the coach at Nicholls State, the regional college in Thibodaux, a short drive from Larose. He offered Bébé a job.

A day later, Orgeron was back on the practice field as a volunteer assistant. “He was very candid about what happened at Miami,” says Rhoades, 72, retired now and living in Alabama. “He’d basically lost his career. I like to think we were able to crack the door and get his career back. He’s taken it and run with it.” Rhoades, not from the area, was connected to Orgeron through the Cajun community. One member led the charge: LaFont, the attorney from Larose and an old beer-drinking buddy with the coach. He remembers encouraging Rhoades to hire Orgeron during a meeting in the coach’s office. By the time LaFont made it to Orgeron’s home that day, Rhoades had called with the news. Orgeron swung open the door and wrapped his burly arms about LaFont screaming, “HANK, I GOTTA JOB!” To this day, the coach hasn’t forgotten about it. LaFont hasn’t either. “What if Coach Rhoades hadn’t been in his office that day?” he says. “What if he didn’t want to see me? The cards fell right.”

The Cajuns, in no real surprise, had Orgeron’s back. “They really are remarkable people,” says Rhoades. “They either love you or hate you. There’s not much in between. There was some orchestration that got Ed to us. A lot of people were involved. He’s a local guy that had fallen on hard times. One thing about Cajun people, if one of them has a hard time, they rally. It’s been fun to watch him over the years develop. Don’t let that down-home Cajun banter fool you—he’s smart as a whip.”

Back then, Orgeron possessed the same throaty growl heard today—a slow, rumbling freight train. His voice is even distinctive to the bayou, where most Cajuns speak at a normal pitch with a French-influenced dialect. Combine the two—his raspy timbre and the European influence—and you get a most unique voice, one that many attempt to impersonate, some in a hurtful manner. Orgeron sees this. He hears it. And he does not like it.

In his very first game as LSU’s full-time coach, a season opener against BYU in New Orleans, the three members of the ESPN broadcast crew each imitated the coach’s voice in such a revolting and awkward manner that the network eventually apologized to the school.

“I want to thank those people, because those people give me internal motivation,” Orgeron tells Sports Illustrated in an interview. “All the naysayers, doubters making fun of the way I talk, it just motivates me internally. You’ve been around me. You can understand me. People say they can’t understand me. That’s not true. I lead a meeting with 50 people. I think they understand me every day. I think some of it is exaggerated. I think the truth is starting to come out, which I knew at some point or another it would. Winning helps.”

He’s far from the only Cajun to have his or her voice insulted. They are used to it down here. The impersonations of the coach anger many of them. Some hold the same thought: Would they imitate the accents of other ethnic groups—Mexicans, Asians, Africans? “The way he talks makes us proud,” LaFont says. “It comes with a stereotype, ‘Big, dumb Cajuns.’ It’s not true.”

The Cajuns are known as some of the world’s best sea navigators, so good that their abilities are sought around the globe. It’s not unusual for these people to spend months, if not years, overseas piloting massive ships through dangerous bodies of water. For much of his life, Gros grew up in England while his father navigated ships on the North Sea. “They wanted that Cajun ingenuity behind the wheel,” he says. “We are known to maneuver a boat in tight quarters.”

Orgeron is navigating a far different world. College football is no North Sea, but he’s fought through adversity—the firing at Miami, the flop as coach at Ole Miss, the heartbreak of missing on USC. And here he is, having won more top-25 games (10) this early in a head coach’s tenure than any in LSU history. It all started here in this bayou town with his second chance at little Nicholls State. Rhoades resigned after that season. Orgeron made such a lasting impact in his one year at the school that the Colonels wanted him as their head coach.

“He called me on the drive to Syracuse,” Gros says. “They wanted him to do the head-coaching job at Nicholls. I said, ‘Keep going, coach.’ He said, ‘I am.’”

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Coco Orgeron

Coco Orgeron, Ed's mothers poses for a photo in front of a decades-old swing in her front yard, where her husband Edward Sr. sat in the mornings and afternoons.

Hey Jude, don't make it bad
Take a sad song, and make it better

Coco Orgeron reaches onto the floor to grab her singing cell phone.

Remember, to let her into your heart
Then you can start, to make it better

Cajun or not, good music is good music, and The Beatles, Coco says, are good music. On the other end of the phone is a man Coco only refers to as Rooster. Coco tells the man that she’s busy in an interview. She ends the call with a message. “Rooster,” she says, “I’ll see you in the Dome!” As in the Louisiana Superdome, the site of the national championship game. This is a curious thing for Coco to say. This interview takes place well before the College Football Playoff semifinal against Oklahoma and days ahead of the SEC championship game against Georgia.

If anything, Coco is a confident lady, holding more faith in her oldest son than he might have in himself. Coco thinks Junior is invincible. She thinks he’s a magic man. She thought the same back in 2011 when her husband Edward Sr. fell ill of cancer and was given four months to live. It will be O.K. Junior will fix everything. Four months and 10 days later, the original Bébé passed of stomach cancer. “I trusted Junior to magically make things all better, but that didn’t happen. I always believe he wasn’t going to die,” she says, her eyes welling with tears. “So we don’t talk about that no more.”

Edward Sr. was a strikingly handsome, slender man known for sipping cups of coffee in the mornings or afternoons from the family’s front-yard swing. The swing remains in the same spot to this day, but Coco will not sit on it. That would conjure too many emotional memories. Bébé didn’t get his size from his father, but he did get affability, says Jambon, who spent many days as a child at the Orgeron’s home. That recruiting skill Orgeron possess came from Edward Sr., who spoke to every kid like he or she was his child. “He talks to the recruits like they’re his own sons,” Jambon says.

Edward Sr. held various jobs through the years, depending on the season and the economy. When the oil industry dipped, he turned to tug-boating, and back and forth he went. He retired as a supervisor of the Lafourche Telephone Co. Coco estimates the family earned about $3,000 a year during Bébé’s childhood. “Sometimes we had no money,” she says, “but, baby, we had some good times.” There were bad times, too. Coco got her name from her brother Wiley, who she delivered cocoa to while he lay bedridden, a victim of bone cancer. Coco’s mother lost three children, including twins, and of her husband’s 13 siblings, two drowned and another two burned to death. Life on the bayou could be dangerous. Sports were always an outlet.

Junior was hell-bent on proving everyone wrong. He’d shoot hoops on a dirt court in the yard late into the night, and when Coco would ask why, he’d tell her, “Can’t make the layup, can’t be on the team.” He was obsessed and not just with football and basketball. Junior threw the shot put and discus and played baseball. He didn’t let injury get in the way of practice or play. While in secondary school, he broke his leg while falling off a boat. Days later, he played front-yard football in a full-length leg cast that the doctor re-casted three different times, Coco says. “He never stopped. Never, never,” Coco shakes her head. “Let’s say you’re not the best at something. Well guess what that boy is going to do? Practice, practice and guess what? He will beat you eventually. He just had that heart about him.”

It’s like that time trainers sewed up a gushing facial laceration above Junior’s eye before he jogged back onto the field during high school or when he played in college with a broken hand that swelled so much it nearly burst from the cast. Orgeron was big for his age. When a doctor operated on him for appendicitis around age 8, everyone learned more about his unnatural girth. “That kid,” the doctor told Coco, “has the biggest bones I’ve ever seen.”

Coco’s teenage years were a bit different than her son’s. She used to go muskrat trapping each winter with her father. They’d travel in a pirogue across swampy marshland to an island inhabited by the small semi-aquatic rodents, set traps into their burrows and then later return to collect their killings, maneuvering their hands through sharp bear trap-like devices to free the dead rats before flinging them into an ice-filled backpack. “I could still skin a muskrat,” Coco says.

After muskrat season came shrimp trolling and then crabbing, which eventually led to seafood gumbo. She knows her mother’s recipe by heart: oysters, lump crab, four pounds of shrimp, a cayenne pepper that’s de-seeded and chopped, boiled eggs, sausage, salt and pepper, and parsley and onion chopped. Her favorite was always her mom’s chicken fricassee. Today, her favorite is crab. Coco says she can eat 11 boiled blue crabs in a single sitting. Don’t bother Coco with the potatoes or corn, she says. “Just crab.”

Her son isn’t so different. As a high schooler, she says, Ed Orgeron used to eat a shrimp po'boy—for breakfast. Like his momma, Orgeron can speak Cajun French, but not nearly as well, he confesses. He hopes to one day get reacquainted with the language. “I had a point in my life where I could have a conversation with somebody almost 80% in Cajun French,” he says. “People make fun of the way I talk and stuff. I love it. I’m Cajun. My parents spoke French. My grandparents spoke Cajun French. It’s a heritage that I’m proud of it.”

Unfortunately, it’s dying, locals say: the economy, the culture, the people and the language, slipping like the land into the abyss. Bobby Hebert, a good friend of the coach who works as a sports radio personality in New Orleans, describes Orgeron as “the last hope” to continue Cajun French. On Monday night in his home state, not far from this stricken bayou town, the barrel-chested, gravelly voiced Cajun man can deliver more than just hope—he can win a championship for this place. Coco has confidence that he will, but down on de bayou, it might not matter. Their native son has already done enough.

“Junior has brought the state of Louisiana happiness,” Coco says. “I’m telling you, you don’t know how happy these people are—we did it! They always said, ‘No, he’s not going to do it.’ I always said, ‘Oh yeah he will.’”