Just shy of five years ago, on the day Ed Orgeron was made LSU’s permanent head coach, there was no shortage of people in the college athletics industry predicting his downfall.
Orgeron, the larger-than-life Cajun with a one-of-a-kind voice and Red Bull flowing through his bulging veins, was not exactly an unknown commodity. For all of his cartoonishly endearing qualities, there was another side to Coach O that anyone who had worked around him knew all too well: The temper, the propensity to meddle in areas where he didn’t have expertise, the inability to internalize his stress and put everyone else in the building at ease.
For nearly a decade after his crash-and-burn at Ole Miss, Orgeron worked hard to create a narrative that he had fundamentally changed. But among those who hired coaches, nobody was willing to give him a second chance — that is, until LSU ran out of ideas in November 2016 and figured the job was so good that even Orgeron could make it work.
In a sense, both sides of that debate were right. Orgeron did make it work for a little while, including one magical run that briefly put him on top of the college football world. He also flamed out just as fast as he ascended, drawing the program into dysfunction that was created largely by his own flaws.
But for LSU, which will now hire a new coach for the fourth time since 1999 after agreeing to a separation from Orgeron on Sunday, the proof of concept is already in place. If even Orgeron can win it all there, imagine how good the program could be if athletics director Scott Woodward actually lands someone who knows what they’re doing.
Since 1980, only Miami and LSU have won national titles under three different head coaches. In LSU’s case, two of them — Orgeron and Les Miles — were widely considered inferior tacticians and severely flawed at the organizational aspects of the job. If you were to put Orgeron’s tenure into a time capsule for our descendants, they might wonder how a coach who went 49-17 overall with a College Football Playoff title, including 13-5 against top-10 ranked teams, got fired.
And yet, with a full understanding of the context around Orgeron, it not only makes sense — it was the only reasonable move LSU could make.
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What Orgeron pulled off in 2019 was not a mirage or a fluke. LSU was legitimately one of the great college football teams we’ve ever seen, and Orgeron’s ability to push the right buttons emotionally and with his coaching staff should get as much credit for that title as quarterback Joe Burrow and offensive coordinator Joe Brady.
But it was one moment in time. And ever since, layer after layer on the legend of Coach O has been stripped away, revealing a program that was in desperate need of leadership and stability that he wasn’t equipped to provide.
In retrospect, it perhaps should have been a red flag that Orgeron filed for divorce from his wife of 23 years a little more than a month after winning the national championship.
Though it’s often unfair to connect someone’s personal issues with their professional failures, Orgeron was living an aggressively public life as a single man in 2020, complete with viral photos that most college coaches would prefer never hit the internet. Though no one should begrudge him living his life, coaching is an image business — and Orgeron was not presenting the picture of a man with a relentless focus on keeping pace with Alabama.
Then during the wave of social justice protests that followed the murder of George Floyd, Orgeron reportedly alienated a large portion of his locker room by seeming aloof to his players’ concerns and publicly supporting former president Donald Trump.
Last year, USA TODAY began reporting a series of stories that revealed Orgeron’s mishandling of several allegations of domestic abuse and sexual violence against his players amid a larger investigation into Title IX compliance at LSU.
And then, as Orgeron was faced with re-shaping his coaching staff after Brady went to the NFL and defensive coordinator Dave Aranda took the Baylor job, he whiffed on both sides of the ball in 2020 and had to change coordinators again in 2021. In the case of Bo Pelini — a $4 million mistake — Orgeron admitted that he never even interviewed him face-to-face for the defensive coordinator job.
All of those things played at least some role in Orgeron winning just nine of LSU’s 17 games since the national title and the sense that his tenure was spiraling toward a chaotic conclusion. In a way, LSU letting this cat out of the bag now that Orgeron will be done after he finishes the season saves everyone the trouble of speculating about it for the next six weeks, and ensures nobody in the building has to walk on eggshells around a desperate coach with a track record of making everyone around him miserable in tense times.
Now, Orgeron can enjoy a long and likely pleasant goodbye to his dream job, and Woodward can get on with the business of waving a blank checkbook at some of the biggest names in the business.
Anyone familiar with Woodward’s history as an athletics director at Washington, Texas A&M and LSU knows he is drawn to stars. He’s the one who finally pried Chris Petersen away from Boise State, signed Jimbo Fisher to a 10-year, $75 million contract with the Aggies and lured Kim Mulkey from a Baylor women's basketball program that she had built from nothing into a three-time national champion.
From the opposite end, any coach looking at the LSU job will undoubtedly know that it comes with huge pressure and more than a dose of crazy, but that it might be the friendliest place in all of college football to compete for national titles given its resources, access to talent within a few hours drive and lack of in-state competition.
That means nearly anyone could be in play for this job, from a relatively new coaching star like Michigan State’s Mel Tucker to someone at the James Franklin level of established winner, to coaches with NFL backgrounds.
Given Woodward’s track record, it’s almost certain that Orgeron’s successor won’t elicit the same doubts and snickers from the college football community that he did five years ago. If the next LSU coach can find a way to match the heights of his tenure without the drama and self-destructive impulses, LSU might finally reach its ceiling as a program — and not just once in awhile.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: LSU had to move on from Ed Orgeron's drama, self-destructive impulses