HOOVER, Ala. – The anticipation for Ed Orgeron’s appearance here at Southeastern Conference media days Monday was like most everything else about the coach of the LSU Tigers – overblown.
Orgeron is (or was) a Character, and SEC football thrives on Characters. Bear Bryant ranks among the greatest coaches of all-time, but his aura expanded his legend – the houndstooth hat, the slouch against the goal post, the growling voice. Steve Spurrier was brilliant, but also both loved and hated to the extreme because of the needling, smartass wit and visor-tugging sideline theatrics. Les Miles, Orgeron’s predecessor, chewed grass and talked strangely and built a persona beyond wins and losses. Lane Kiffin became an SEC fascination more because he was a Character than because of anything he accomplished as a coach.
So a lot of people sized up “Coach O” as the league’s next Character: An unvarnished Cajun with a rocks-in-his-mouth grumble and a history of tearing off his shirt in team meetings to inspire his players. Now put that guy in the natural cauldron of crazy that is LSU, an elite job with absurd fan expectations.
What, everyone wanted to know, would this wild man do at the podium on the first day of the most grandiose college football media days of them all?
He would read the depth chart, that’s what.
Orgeron deflated the main ballroom with the sheer monotony of his opening address, mumbling through an appraisal of every LSU position and all the LSU coaching changes. It was not by accident – the more a coach rambles at the podium, the shorter the time window for media to ask questions. Being boring was clearly part of the gameplan.
A decade after he last stood in that same ballroom, heading into his third and final year as the head coach at Mississippi, Orgeron’s comeback performance was a departure from his Character persona. Basically, the one-time wild man was presenting himself as an adult – someone mature enough to do the job in which he failed at Ole Miss.
“I’m calmer now,” Orgeron said, describing the difference between the guy who went 10-25 at Ole Miss from 2005-07 with the guy now coaching the Tigers. “I don’t take my shirt [off] and that stuff.
“I don’t yell and scream on the field like I used to. I don’t coach like a defensive line coach. I coach like a head coach.”
The question is whether he can coach like a good head coach, justifying LSU’s promoting him from interim coach after very publicly losing the Tom Herman Sweepstakes to Texas last November.
It stands to reason that LSU could have a highly qualified man in charge, a guy with a flush résumé. Instead it has Orgeron, the guy the school turned to when Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher and Herman both said no. It has a man whose record is now 22-29 overall when you factor in his interim stints at USC in 2013 and in Baton Rouge last year.
Panic hire? Comfort hire? Win-the-press-conference hire?
Perhaps all of the above. Now we’ll see whether it can become the right hire.
Orgeron emphasized his interim record at two powerhouses, going 6-2 at both USC and LSU, a winning percentage of .750. That’s nice, but consider this: Miles was fired last year with an LSU winning percentage of .770.
In Baton Rouge, the expectation isn’t to win three out of every four games. It’s to win 11 out of 12, or 12 out of 13, or whatever it would take to dethrone nemesis Alabama, win the SEC and play in the College Football Playoff.
Why did they fire Miles? There were several reasons, but high on the list was a six-game losing streak against former LSU coach Nick Saban and Alabama.
Now athletic director Joe Alleva is betting his dwindling reputation that Ed Orgeron – 0-4 against the Crimson Tide as a head coach – can take down ‘Bama. Good luck with that one.
“[The Crimson Tide] are the benchmark, and the head coach at LSU must beat Alabama,” Orgeron acknowledged. “I think the way to beat Alabama is to recruit on their level. They are recruiting at a high level now, and they do a great job of evaluation. And coach, coach your team very well, and get ready to play. … Last year, we weren’t that far off.”
Last year, No. 15 LSU lost 10-0 to No. 1 Alabama in Baton Rouge. The previous two times they met in Tiger Stadium, the home team lost by seven in overtime and by four after a last-minute Crimson Tide touchdown. So you could say LSU was closer to ‘Bama in 2012 and ’14 than in ’16.
Still, there are those who know LSU well and believe Orgeron is right: The difference between the two programs is far short of a chasm. They believe it can be closed in the near future.
“I don’t think the gap is huge, because it’s the same type of athletes,” said LSU alum and SEC Network analyst Marcus Spears. “LSU has been generic, to say the least, offensively, and played straight into Alabama’s hands. But when you look at the talent, maybe one or two positions it’s a difference. But it’s not like eight of their 11 starters are better than yours.”
Orgeron is known as a powerhouse recruiter, and Louisiana is a perennial talent gold mine. So he should give himself a fighting chance in that vital area. But then coaching comes into play, and that’s where Saban vs. Coach O starts to look like a mismatch.
The key, according to Spears and Orgeron himself, is for the head coach to back away and let his big-bucks staff earn their money. Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda is a star, and new offensive coordinator Matt Canada comes in with an accomplished résumé.
“I think him understanding the delegation of power is one of the most important things,” Spears said. “… At Ole Miss, he tried to have his hand in everything. You have to give your assistants not only input, but freedom. That’s why assistants are being paid so much money – the influence and impact.”
If Ed Orgeron keeps his shirt on – literally and figuratively – and steps back into a CEO role, the results could be in his favor. It might make him less of an SEC Character, but it might also prove that he was more than just the panic/comfort/win-the-press-conference hire he appears to be.