Last week, during Ed Orgeron’s weekly call-in radio show, a fan buzzed the line asking the coach to wish his younger sister a happy birthday. The caller claimed that the young woman was in attendance at the radio show, held each Wednesday in the fall at a Baton Rouge restaurant. The caller seemed serious and authentic. Orgeron scanned the room for the woman.
And then, abruptly, the man on the line revealed himself as a prankster. Using more blunt words, he told Orgeron not to pursue his sister romantically. Orgeron’s face hardened, and, despite the show’s host attempting to move on quickly, the coach stretched back in his chair, smirked and said, “You know, down the bayou, we got a nice little fishing hole for people like that.”
Two years ago, while LSU marched undefeated to its national championship, Orgeron’s reply might have been brushed off as a humorous retort, a facetious response from a man known for such quips.
This year, with his team struggling and issues mounting within the program, Orgeron’s comment was received as another public embarrassment for the university—a veiled death threat even—that created more friction between the coach and the school’s frustrated administration.
Roughly a week after that call-in show, the school and its coach—such a happy marriage that produced the ultimate success—began negotiations to split, days before LSU’s surprising 49–42 win over Florida on Saturday. By the end of the week, the two sides agreed to a settlement, sources tell Sports Illustrated: He will not return in 2022 but will coach the remainder of the ’21 season (LSU announced the news later Sunday).
It is a historic and unprecedented move: a school ushering out a coach with a 74% winning percentage who is a mere 21 months removed from winning a national championship. It is a stunning fall from grace—a bayou-born man who rose from previous failures, claimed the sport’s greatest prize and signed one of the richest contracts in the sport fewer than two years ago.
Orgeron, the second-highest paid coach in the country at more than $8 million a year with a buyout of $17 million, saw his program begin crumbling under the weight of myriad issues. A strained relationship between the coach and administration warped into an untenable situation in Baton Rouge, producing rampant distrust and outbursts.
For example, in the locker room following LSU’s season-opening loss against UCLA at the Rose Bowl and with athletic director Scott Woodward in earshot, Orgeron angrily suggested that school officials could fire him if they wanted, a loud and stirring recognition of his own troublesome job security just one game into the season.
Three people privy to the incident spoke to SI, with one source saying: “He said that to the team: ‘They can fire my ass! I’m a grown man. They can come try to get me!’ ”
Closed-door eruptions—which included at least one chair-throwing incident—are only part of explaining one of the quickest collapses of a football program in the history of the game, from assembling one of the sport’s greatest teams to spiraling toward the basement of the SEC. How did LSU get here?
More than a dozen people in and around the university spoke to SI, under condition of anonymity, to share stories that help answer that question. They paint a picture of a program that began tilting toward disaster last summer during a mishandling of a player-led social injustice march. Others cite Orgeron’s eccentric behavior, both private and public, that remind many of his tenure as Ole Miss’s coach, which ended in 2007.
The answer for some is much more simple. The foundation of Orgeron’s early-career success in Baton Rouge left him. That includes key assistants, defensive coordinator Dave Aranda and pass-game coordinator Joe Brady, and one of the best quarterbacks to ever play in the college game, Joe Burrow—the three anchors of the 2019, 15–0 national championship squad.
Combine the departures with failed coordinator hires, a rash of significant injuries this year, lingering NCAA and Title IX investigations and a brand-new school president, and LSU finds itself looking for a new leader.
“You get on top and you start to live differently. And that’s when the fall happens,” says one source close to the football program. “Here’s a coach who finally, after decades in the game, achieves the maximum goal. But when you achieve it, it’s ‘My problems are done!’ No. Success sometimes isn’t an end to a problem. It’s the beginning of more.”
After taking over as interim for the fired Les Miles four games into the 2016 season, Orgeron led the Tigers to a 6–2 record, excited a fan base with a more high-flying offense and endeared himself to athletic director Joe Alleva and a group of decision-makers with a job pitch. He’d hire strong coordinators, stay out of their way and serve as the face of LSU football—a recruiting whiz and motivational force. When Tom Herman chose to coach Texas and not LSU, Orgeron, originally from about 100 miles south of Baton Rouge, landed his dream job.
Outside of some hiccups in his first year—he sparred with offensive coordinator Matt Canada and the Tigers lost to Troy—LSU steadily improved on the field. Orgeron’s Year 1 finished at 9–4, and he landed Ohio State transfer Burrow during that offseason. A 10–3 season followed in 2018.
And then Orgeron went bold. He plucked a little known, low-level offensive assistant from the New Orleans Saints staff to overhaul LSU’s offense into a pass-heavy spread scheme. The combination of Brady and Burrow plus the defensive mastery of Aranda, along with a plethora of talented receivers and a dozen other NFL-caliber players, created one of the best teams in college football history.
And then everyone left.
Burrow, the 2019 Heisman Trophy winner, was selected with the first pick in the NFL draft. Brady left to be the Carolina Panthers’ offensive coordinator, and Aranda was hired to be Baylor’s head coach. A record-tying 14 LSU players were selected in the draft, five of them in the first round.
Since the completion of that season, LSU has gone 9–8, and the program’s two long-standing pillars—a strong, feisty defense and a lethal rushing attack—have cratered. The 5–5 record last year ended one of the nation’s longest stretches of winning seasons, dating back to 2000.
During the offseason, Woodward expressed his frustration both publicly and privately about the team’s .500 mark. “We don’t do 5–5 at LSU,” he told boosters and alumni. “It’s unacceptable.”
But the losses on the field are a direct result of the off-the-field problems, sources claim. The 5–5 season came only after a turbulent summer in Baton Rouge, where players, as they did at many other programs after a police officer murdered a Black Minneapolis man named George Floyd, staged a march across campus to protest social injustice and support the Black Lives Matter movement. At LSU, it took a different turn.
Two weeks before the march, Orgeron appeared on a Fox News segment where the host asked him repeated questions about the post-championship trip to the White House and his thoughts on then-President Donald Trump. He said he “loved” Trump and that “he’s doing a fantastic job.” Amid the pandemic and in an election year, it was a startling comment for the leader of a largely Black football team during one of the most divisive times in the country’s history.
Word about the television comments reached the team. One former player even weighed in on Twitter. Orgeron is a “great man,” but he is “blind to everything else,” defensive end K’Lavon Chaisson tweeted.
A childhood friend of Orgeron and a longtime LSU booster defends the coach.
“They asked him if Trump treated him good and he said yeah, Trump treated him good,” the man says. “I mean, what are you supposed to say?” The friend acknowledges that “it all went downhill from there.”
A couple of weeks later, LSU players staged their march. A former player’s parent described the march as more of a player “revolt” as anger within the team swelled over the coach’s comments and inaction. JaCoby Stevens, then a senior safety, told players inside the locker room that they would not play football for Orgeron until “we get this fixed,” a source recalls.
Without their coach, the players then marched to the school president’s office, where Orgeron later arrived, emerging from a Black SUV with Woodward and then holding a team meeting at the site. Despite the glowing public portrayal of the meeting, those who attended describe it differently. One source says it was Woodward’s first piece of real “evidence” that “the job is too big for [Orgeron].”
Nearly every person who spoke to SI described that day—Aug. 28, 2020—as the date in which the coach “lost” his football team. “They really f----- up all the social justice stuff last year,” says one former player. “There’s no getting the team back after that.”
“The players believed in their heart that this president [Trump] is causing harm to them and their culture,” says another source. “Whether you believe it or not, you can’t go on there.”
The hiring of Bo Pelini in January 2020 was supposed to return LSU to what Orgeron wanted—a four-man defensive front as opposed to the 3–4 unit that Aranda operated. In Baton Rouge, Pelini’s hire was heralded by many who recall his days of leading LSU to the ’07 national title as the coordinator for Miles. The hire came with a steep price tag—a guaranteed three-year $7 million deal.
Ultimately, the decision resulted in an unmitigated disaster. Orgeron and Pelini rarely talked, those who worked around them say. Pelini refused to follow orders, even missing meetings or arriving late. On the field, LSU gave up 429 yards a game, better than only three other FBS teams in 2020. From a statistical standpoint, it was the worst defensive year in LSU football history. And the Tigers cut Pelini a $4 million check to go away—the third such costly early exit of a coordinator under Orgeron. Among Pelini, Canada and 2020 pass game coordinator Scott Linehan, the program paid nearly $7 million in buyout money to fire them after their first seasons.
“O is an amazing recruiter and motivator, but he failed at a head coach’s most important job: recruiting the finest coordinators and assistant coaches possible,” says one person who helped hire Orgeron as LSU’s full time coach. “We utterly failed at that.”
In 2021, Orgeron sought to return LSU to the offensive philosophy that Brady and Burrow executed in ’19. So he hired Jake Peetz, a 38-year-old Carolina Panthers assistant who had studied the system in one season with Brady in the NFL. Peetz had never been a coordinator.
The effort to rebrand Brady’s offense has failed. LSU ranks 72nd in total offense, and the struggles have resulted in private eruptions from the coach targeted at his offensive coordinator. One source describes the hiring of Peetz as “chasing the ghost of Joe Brady.” Without Burrow and his legion of receivers, the success hasn’t arrived. “It’s like they put Dale Earnhardt behind the wheel of a Corolla and were like, ‘Come on, make it go fast!’ ” says one person who used to work on staff.
Defensively, Pelini’s replacement, Daronte Jones, another first-time coordinator, has dealt with a rash of injuries. In fact, LSU played Florida without five defensive starters, including three who are out of the season and another who has been deemed the nation’s best cornerback, Derek Stingley Jr.
The team is also without its best offensive player, receiver Kayshon Boutte, and highly touted running back John Emery, who is academically ineligible. Quarterback Myles Brennan, a fifth-year player groomed to take over last year for Burrow, suffered a season-ending injury midway through last season and then reinjured himself while fishing in July days before preseason camp.
While injuries bugged LSU this year, roster-management problems, exacerbated by COVID-19 issues, resulted in a lack of depth last year. In the final 2020 regular-season game, against Florida, the Tigers were down to 54 scholarship players, more than 30 below the NCAA-allowed 85.
How did it get to such a point?
There was the wave of departures from the 2019 team, including nine players who left early for the NFL draft, and then five transfers during the ’20 offseason, including elite linebacker Marcel Brooks. Seven players opted out of last season, including receivers Ja’Marr Chase and Terrace Marshall Jr. and tight end Arik Gilbert. Three more players transferred during the fall.
Some attribute the exodus to a culture within the program stemming from the summer of 2020. Others point to Orgeron’s ramp-up of physically grinding practices, something he had reversed after taking over for Miles. Lastly, sources point to the team’s strict drug-testing policy, which resulted in the dismissal of the team’s best offensive lineman, Dare Rosenthal, now a starter at Kentucky.
“Two things make players quit,” says one source, “all the hitting and the drug-testing.”
While walking into the Rose Bowl in September, Orgeron glanced above him at a heckling UCLA fan.
Television cameras caught the coach playfully calling the fan a “sissy” and proposing the fan enter the stadium to find himself a fight. “Bring your ass on [in here] in your little sissy blue shirt,” Orgeron said.
The video went viral. It spread so quickly that after UCLA beat the Tigers, 38–27, the Bruins poked at the coach by selling T-shirts monogrammed with the words “Sissy Blue.”
It was a fitting response, as Orgeron’s team was the one knocked around on the field, stunningly unable to stop the run or run the football against a Pac-12 team that, now, has lost two games. The Tigers’ offensive line struggled mightily, of which some attribute to the school’s firing of line coach James Cregg in June. Already under investigation by the NCAA for an assortment of violations, the school split with Cregg over his providing improper benefits to a recruit during the NCAA dead period, sources tell SI.
“The offensive line basically had a midseason coaching change,” one person describes it. “They’ve got to get used to you, get used to the new guy.”
The trip to Los Angeles, while exposing the line issues, provided more reason for school officials to think that their coach wasn’t fit to lead, given both the postgame locker room outbursts, his “sissy blue” comment and the team’s overall performance. Nationally, LSU was branded as soft and lacking effort.
Kirk Herbstreit, ESPN’s lead college football analyst, derided the program on national television. Before one game, he questioned whether the team “cares about playing football anymore.” Ahead of another game, he quipped, “LSU does not play hard. That’s the new LSU.”
Meanwhile, within LSU’s football operations building, the atmosphere has been described by three people as extraordinarily “volatile” and “hellish.” Orgeron has grown distant from many staff members and eruptions are commonplace. One Friday night in the team hotel, before the loss at Kentucky, multiple sources describe an incident in which the coach threw a chair and blasted some support-staff members for an issue over the team’s hype video.
“He’s felt the pressure,” says one source. “It’s the pressure. ‘We gotta win.’ ”
Some believe Orgeron feels betrayed. He got divorced a month after the team won the national title, and his dating life has become fodder for fans, with even a photo surfacing in the middle of last season of him and a woman in bed together.
Plus, the two people to which he answers, Woodward and school president William Tate IV, did not hire him. Woodward, like Orgeron a Louisiana native, arrived in the spring of 2019. Tate, hired from South Carolina, arrived this past summer.
Tate has a history of being an influential voice in athletics and, early on, has been involved in the situation around Orgeron, sources tell SI. In fact, the president and Woodward met Saturday after the win over Florida near the Tigers’ locker room, while LSU players and coaches celebrated a stunning victory as near two-touchdown underdogs.
It was an awkward postgame atmosphere, made even more unique when Orgeron earlier had brushed off congratulatory messages from the new president and high-level administrators—a clear sign that the two sides had hashed out this deal days ago.
Orgeron’s LSU legacy, in many ways, will be similar to that of his predecessor. Miles, like Orgeron, claimed a championship, but the Tigers’ fan base never seemed to embrace a stubborn man with an old-fashioned offense. “Some fans say that every good thing that ever happened, O had nothing to do with, but every bad thing is on him,” says one source. “I don’t agree with that.”
Now, attention turns to a coaching search that is expected to include those at the top of college football. The LSU job is one of the country’s most attractive. It is the only flagship college institution in the state, is dropped in a fertile recruiting area and has bountiful resources and flashy facilities.
In fact, the school’s last three coaches have each won a national title, a run that began with Nick Saban’s awakening this sleeping giant. And now, here it is, roaring onward.
“No coach is bigger than the brand at LSU,” says one source. “That’s what Scott Woodward can’t let happen.”
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