Ed Orgeron: LSU football coach talks COVID 19, Bayou roots - Sports Illustrated

Q&A: LSU's Ed Orgeron on His Bayou Roots, FaceTime Recruiting and 'This COVID Deal'

Fresh off a dream season, the rest of 2020 hasn't unfolded the way Orgeron—or anyone else—expected.
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To see more from L. Jon Wertheim’s interview with Ed Orgeron, watch this week’s episode of 60 Minutes, airing Sunday, Sept. 20 on CBS.

We all like a good fish-outta-water story, an unlikely and incongruous pairing of a person and place. But the opposite—a logical, comfortable marriage—can also yield gold. And purple.

A proud Cajun, Ed Orgeron grew up a few parishes over from Baton Rouge. He and his family were LSU diehards who framed autumn Saturdays around watching the Tigers play on television. After telling Bear Bryant not to bother with a recruiting visit, Orgeron went to LSU on a football scholarship. It didn’t take. Orgeron dropped out after two weeks, self-quarantining as it were, after coming down with a nasty case of homesickness. But it fueled him with a drive to return to campus one day.

Geaux Your Own Way: LSU's outlandish, outspoken Ed Orgeron

As a college football coach, Orgeron would learn his share of fight songs, bouncing, as he did, from Arkansas to Miami to Nicholls State to Syracuse to USC to Ole Miss to Tennessee and back to USC, where he succeeded as interim head coach only to be passed over for the permanent position. Known mostly for his quicksilver recruiting and insights for defense, “Coach O” finally landed back at LSU in 2015. A year later, when Les Miles was fired, Orgeron was named head coach. It took 35 years and an incalculable detour. But he got back to his ancestral homeland—“the job I belong in,” he says—and damn if he hasn’t made the most of it.

In four seasons, Orgeron has established himself as a college football polestar, his status consecrated last season as LSU went undefeated and won the national title, minted the Heisman Trophy winner (Joe Burrow), the Biletnikoff Award winner (Ja’Marr Chase) and was represented by 14 players in April’s NFL draft, tying a record for one school. He even has a forthcoming book coming out in October. As Orgeron puts it in precisely the kind of homespun plain-speak that makes him so popular among the LSU tribalists: “We all grew up and we heard the proof’s in the pudding? Well, guess what, the puddin's in Baton Rouge right now!”

[Editor's Note: Last month, two former LSU students came forward with sexual assault allegations from 2016 against former Tigers RB Derrius Guice. The boyfriend of one of the students, himself an LSU football recruit and then player, told USA Today that Orgeron brought up the alleged assault a year later and told him he shouldn't be bothered by it. Guice has denied the allegations; Orgeron has disputed the characterization of his conversation with the player, says he complied with all university obligations and denied knowing about any allegations against Guice.]

Here is a man who cuts the figure of a classic football coach, a burly former player who speaks in bromides, dispenses tough love, tells back-in-my-day stories (often revolving around his days working the hull of a shrimp boat) and believes in deeper truths of his sport. And yet here, at the same time, is a man who is completely sui generis, the gravel-voiced Cajun, who punches himself in the face to psyche himself up, spends his lunch hour jogging shirtless around town, pounds energy drinks and goes to a boxing gym for a workout before bed. (Suffice to say: no one ever saw Bear Bryant rip off his shirt and pound the speed bag.)

LSU's Ed Orgeron with the Tigers

Orgeron is back in his corner … that is, his balconied office within the LSU football facility, helming a team trying to defend its national title. Or whatever we’re going to call it, when only four of the five major conferences are planning on staging a season this fall, on different timelines and likely with few fans permitted in the stands. Orgeron is firm on this point: The games must go on, pandemic be damned. Not all his players agree. Several—including Chase—are opting out, declining to play this fall and instead preparing for the NFL draft.

As LSU players returned to campus from this uncertain Summer of COVID, Orgeron cut a familiar figure projecting unfettered optimism as his inimitable (and relentlessly imitated) voice echoed throughout the complex. Before this unusual season was set to kick off, 60 Minutes spent four days in August with Orgeron. The piece that will air Sunday on CBS and on 60minutes.com. Here are some highlights, edited lightly for brevity and clarity:

Jon Wertheim: How much of your day-to-day is devoted to this virus?

Ed Orgeron: You know, here's what we do. We have a protocol here. … I follow it. Whatever it is they tell me to do, I do, and then I coach. And my TV hasn't been on for six weeks now.

JW: Why is that?

EO: Because I want to stay focused on the task at hand with my football team. I know there's a lot of stuff going on out there. And, look, I understand. But for right now, my job is to coach this football team.

JW: And you've been outspoken. You want there to be football this fall.

EO: Yes, yes. I think football is good for everybody. I've seen them practice, and not get sick. I've seen them get sick. Last a couple of days, and come back. You know, they have their 10-day quarantine. But I ask them, "How sick were you?" Said, "Coach, I had a little cough." So I think that the young players, when they do get sick, get over it quick.

[Editor's Note: Doctors, however, remain concerned about potential long-term impacts of COVID-19 on athletes, especially concerning the heart.]

JW: COVID has made for a complicated offseason, even for the defending champs.

EO: Yeah. Been different. It's been different. You know, we were practicing one day; they said that we can't practice. Then all of a sudden, everybody's gone, and I'm by myself in this office for 11 weeks. Not seeing anybody. I don't know what's going' on. We just won the national championship. We’re high as kites. And all of a sudden the whole world stops. But I told my team, "We're not gonna blink. This is what we're dealt with. This is the task at hand. And we're gonna attack it."

JW: How far back does your connection to LSU football go?

EO: You know, I remember they'd replay the games on Sunday morning, and me and my daddy would watch it. My most vivid memory was Ronnie Estay playing Notre Dame, and he must've had 20-something tackles. And I know the whole town of Larose was watchin' that game that. Ronnie was from Larose. And I just remember the pride in Larose and the state and Ronnie Estay. And I just wanted to be like it.

LSU's Ed Orgeron

JW: How did you get into coaching?

EO: Well, here's what happened. We were watching TV and I told my daddy, "I want to be the head coach at LSU."

JW: How old?

EO: Six years old. I just wanted to be a coach. My dad coached me when I was young, and I wanted to be like him.

JW: Remember what he said?

EO: "You can do it, son."

JW: How important was football to your family?

EO: It was our life. You know, I was—I think I was born to be a football coach, and be a football player. And my mother and father loved it. They pushed me in sports. They would not let me hunt or fish, because they knew I'd like it too much.

JW: So you grew up in Southern Louisiana. No hunting, no fishing, but football—

EO: No hunting, no fishing. Yeah. Just sports. Just sports and eat.

JW: What was that all about?

EO: They didn't like the safety. Obviously they was worried about me. My father had some family members that had drowned. They were worried about hunting, the accidents that happened. But they wanted me to be in sports and pushed me to be in sports.

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JW: You came up as a recruiter. This is how you made your name. What do you think your key was?

EO: I think is being honest with them. Being myself. Being personable. And, you know, [after winning the national title] the visibility that we have right now across the nation, when I get on the FaceTime with these young men and you can see their eyes, like, "Wow. There's the LSU Tigers."

JW: When you started out your career as a recruiter, you—you didn't have to worry about FaceTime.

EO: There was no FaceTime. There was no cell phones. I remember in Syracuse, they have me [recruit] the city of New York. The Five Boroughs. I'm from Lafourche Parish. I didn't even have a map. I'm stopping on payphones on the side of the road, calling coaches, lost.

JW: You must know the state [of Louisiana] inside and out.

EO: I know the state and I know everybody in this state.

JW: You got The Boot locked up.

EO: Yeah, we got the boot locked up pretty good. But I will say this to you, it takes work. There's a lot of people that want to come in here and steal our players.

JW: How do you put a moat around the state?

EO: Connections. You know, we do something on Thursday that's pretty unique. On Thursday, at 1:30, we call all the high school coaches and we wish 'em good luck in the game that they're playing. And we have—you know, we have camps. We have clinics. And plus all these guys that are high school coaches are my friends. I mean, I either went to college with 'em or—somehow, some way we're connected.

JW: Is "fairy tale" simplifying this too much?

EO: I guess you could say that. You know, dreams come true. Players come here, recruits come here, parents come here. Say, "This is my dream school." I say, "Well, dreams come true. 'Cause you look at, I'm one."

JW: This is the team you were [dreaming about] as a six-year-old.

EO: Yep. And I'm representing the Cajuns, and the Cajun people. You know, one of my fondest memories of winning a national championship: We were driving home. And we'd take the interstate, everybody's off the interstate cheering us. And we'd take the side road to come to LSU and the cooks and the welders and the people that were working were running out of the place of their work and cheering. And I felt so good that we were able to represent those people. Because that's the way I grew up. And you were proud.

LSU celebrates its 2019 national championship

JW: When you went back to your parish, what was that like?

EO: You know, it was good. They were supposed to have a Coach O Day. But this COVID deal has screwed everything up. And I couldn't wait to go back and see everybody. And they had a Coach O day. You could have thought you was in Hollywood. I was so proud of those people, man. They served us on china. Cajun food on china. The tent was full of people. The band was there, the high school … they had a police escort coming. I told my boys, “It’s such a good feeling of me following the police down the bayou, and them not following me.”

JW: Have you come to grips with the idea that there might not be football this fall?

EO: Yeah, I don't let it enter my mind.

JW: You don't even think about it?

EO: No. But I know it could happen. And if it does, I know at LSU, we've prepared these guys to play, we didn't blink. We're ready. We did everything that we can. Something out of our control happened. What I didn't want to happen is, we go, "Well, we're gonna play," or, "Well, we're not gonna play," and then you start preparing like that. And then all of a sudden the season comes, and I don't have this team ready to play.

JW. I blew the first rule of interviewing you.

EO: What’s that?

JW: Start off by asking you how much you bench.

EO. I’m not doing that as much. More running and boxing.

JW. But I’ll tee you up for the ender—

EO: What’s that?

JW: Come on.

EO: Oh, right. Go Tigers.

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