Ed Orgeron, the son of Louisiana, has a date with his boyhood dreams
At every opportunity in this incredible journey, LSU head coach Ed Orgeron tried to emphasize that Monday night’s CFP National Championship game with Clemson is not about him.
To be sure, there are a number of great story lines that will be embraced as the college football world prepares to crown a champion in New Orleans:
**--Clemson will be playing for its third national title in four seasons and could then could rightfully lay claim to the title of college football’s best program.
**--LSU will be playing 80 miles from its campus where the Tigers won the 2003 and 2007 national championships. The scene on Monday night will be electric.
**--Clemson will be going for its 30th straight win and its second straight 15-0 season. No team has ever done that. In fact, no team has put together two straight undefeated national championship seasons since Nebraska did it in 1994 and 1995.
**--And, of course, there is the story of LSU quarterback Joe Burrow, the Heisman Trophy winner, who left his native Ohio in order to chase his dream of becoming a championship quarterback. A win against Clemson would the perfect ending to the perfect story.
But no story is more compelling than that of Orgeron, the native son of Larose, La., who worked the shrimp boats of Lafourche Parish and grew up dreaming of Saturday nights at Tiger Stadium. In Orgeron’s Louisiana boyhood, there could be nothing finer than watching Coach Charlie McClendon and the Tigers taking on Bear Bryant and the giants of the SEC.
And now he walks in the steps of “Cholly Mac.” Orgeron, like McClendon, is beloved in Baton Rouge.
“Growing up I always wanted to be the head coach of LSU,” Orgeron said. “It is special. No question. It is special. But you’ve got to put those things aside. Am proud to be part of that? Yes. But as you know it’s always going to be about the team and the players.”
But when it comes to Orgeron, the story is not the destination. The journey is the thing because a whole lot of people—perhaps the vast majority if they were being honest—gave Ed Orgeron no shot--absolutely NO shot-- of ever being here.
He didn’t fit the stereotypical image of what a head coach of a blue blood college football program is supposed to be. In terms of style he’s not Nick Saban or Urban Meyer or Pete Carroll. Throughout his career he has been type cast as a great defensive line coach and a helluva recruiter. Because that’s what he is. But he is authentic. He's never pretended to be anything else.
This stereotype of what Orgeron could and could not be only grew more entrenched after three disastrous years as the head coach at Ole Miss (2005-2007). His ability as a salesman/recruiter and his unbridled enthusiasm convinced Chancellor Robert Khayat and others that the defensive line coach at Southern Cal was the right man to replace David Cutcliffe, who had taken the Rebels to five winning seasons in six years.
His ability as a recruiter got him the job. But it didn’t help him DO the job.
Orgeron told ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi that before he took the Ole Miss job his boss at USC, Pete Carroll, told him that “your words as a head coach are stronger than as an assistant.”
In other words, Carroll told Orgeron that he needed tone down his act.
Rinaldi asked Orgeron how he followed Carroll’s advice.
“Zero percent,” he said.
“I made every mistake you could possibly make when I was at Ole Miss,” Orgeron told me when I sat in his office last year. “I wouldn’t listen to anybody. I wanted to do everything.”
Orgeron was let go with a 3-21 record in SEC play.
“I promised myself that if I ever got another chance to be a head coach I would do things differently,” he said. “I would hire the right people and let them do their jobs.”
Orgeron was at Tennessee with Lane Kiffin in 2009 and went with him back to Southern Cal in 2010. When Kiffin was unceremoniously let go after a 62-41 loss to Arizona State in the fifth game of the 2013 season. Orgeron took over as interim head coach and led the Trojans to a 6-2 record.
The USC players made it clear that they wanted Orgeron to be the permanent head coach. Orgeron felt he deserved the job. He was devastated when Washington coach Steve Sarkisian was named the USC head coach. Orgeron resigned and did not coach in the Trojans’ bowl game.
“I told my wife that other than the day my father died, that it was the worst day of my life,” Orgeron said. “She told me not to worry because God had another plan.
“I told her it had better be a good one.”
Turns out that it was a very good plan.”
Orgeron went to LSU as the defensive line coach under Les Miles and became interim head coach when Miles was let go after the fourth game of the 2016 season. Orgeron again went 6-2 as an interim and waited nervously to see if Fate would smile on him this time.
On Thanksgiving weekend, when Tom Herman turned down LSU for Texas, Orgeron got the job he had been wanting since he was a little boy.
Orgeron went 9-4 in 2017, 10-3 in 2018, and had the courage to make a radical change in his offense in 2019 that led to the current 14-0 season.
The LSU players are certainly sold.
“He trusted me with his program, gave me the keys, and I’m forever grateful to him,” Burrow said after winning the Heisman Trophy.
What matters now is that Monday night in New Orleans, Ed Orgeron gets a chance to take the LSU Tigers to a place “Cholly Mac” never could. He can take them a 15-0 season and the school’s fourth national championship.
The ultimate lesson we learn from the story of Ed Orgeron is that in football, as in life, there is more than one way to win. Coach O’s path to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome was certainly not a straight one but it was HIS path and nobody else's.
“It will be a very proud day for the state of Louisiana,” he said of Monday night’s game. “But they’ll only be proud of us we win, and we know that.
"All we want to do is to play up to LSU’s standard. We don't want to make it bigger than it is."
Then he paused
"But it is pretty big."