No. 6: The Incredible, Inevitable Coach O
Past isn’t always prologue
Have you heard Ed Orgeron talk?
You know things about this football coach of Cajun descent known as Coach O. You know that he is undeniably from a place.
He is a well-defined character.
His Wikipedia page reveals new wonders with every scroll. Far from the sanitized, I’ll-have-the-crew-cut backstories of your American Football Men — the Urban Meyers and Tom Hermans, human blank slates who seemingly sprouted from the soil at a summer camp for elite quarterback prospects — the Internet’s unofficial public record on Orgeron reads like a description of the grizzled high school football coach dishing world-weary advice in an after-school special.
The “early years” section impressively foreshadows the absurdity ahead using only his parents’ names — Edward “Bé Bé” Orgeron Sr. and Cornelia “Co Co” Orgeron. And then you dive in to the many things you have either forgotten or never known about Coach O. They would form the montage in that after-school special, a flashback into a helter-skelter past that was at once notable and notably dark.
-A high school teammate of the “Cajun Cannon” Bobby Hebert, Orgeron went to LSU to play football, only to transfer after one year to the much smaller Northwestern State.
-In a matter of four years, he went from a graduate assistant at his small alma mater to the defensive line coach of the famed Miami teams of the late ’80s and early ‘90s.
-His units contributed to two national titles, and included Warren Sapp and Cortez Kennedy. He recruited a young lineman named Dwayne Johnson who would become known as “The Rock.”
-Cracks in Orgeron’s personal life began to show in 1991. A woman filed a restraining order, accusing him of “repeated violence.” And in 1992, he was reported to have head-butted an employee of a Baton Rouge nightclub.
-A leave of absence from Miami slipped into permanence, and Orgeron moved back in with his parents. It was somewhere in this timeframe that something apparently changed, he sorted things out. One basic tenet of the change may have been trading “his addiction to alcohol for an addiction to recruiting.”
-He returned to the scene gradually, coaching at Nicholls State, then Syracuse before being hired by then-USC coach Paul Hackett. Hackett’s firing brought about the first manifestation of what has become Orgeron’s repeated role. While everything else had to go, Orgeron was asked to stay.
-The story goes that Orgeron was retained by the incoming Pete Carroll because their paths had crossed at a high school football game, where they bonded over a shared passion for recruiting.
-That passion, and the results that he derived from it, and the success that came to USC at least partially because of it, eventually landed Orgeron a head coaching gig at Ole Miss.
-The Rebels were bad with Orgeron at the helm. The recruiting wasn’t a problem. The offenses just never performed. He was fired.
All of this is to say that Coach O has a past. Has flaws.
Add it up and you get concrete expectations, the enemy of anyone looking to land a major college football coaching job. He is perceived, unfairly, to be locked on to his plot line like a streetcar, while LSU is out looking for a helicopter, a Tom Herman, a face never before seen accepting defeat on TV.
When Herman and P.J. Fleck and even Larry Fedora are bandied about as young and energetic and promising coaches, it carries an overtone that probably matters just as much, if not more, than their real football-coaching talents.
Their expectations are purely theoretical, their flaws as yet unseen. You and the guy you’re sending to wine and dine your biggest donors? You can project on to them whatever you wish. They have never been on the big stage, and unlike Coach O, they’ve never bombed on the big stage.
You’ve almost certainly seen this Gatorade ad. (It is about sports. It airs during sports, satisfying every sports fan’s wish by interrupting real sports with fake, hyper-dramatized sports set to inspiring music that subliminally says, “You, too, could be good at sports. Buy this and drink it!”)
The cinematic renderings are not important here. Nor are the electrolytes. We’re here for the sing-songy words chanted over top.
You say unbelievable. I say achievable.
You say incredible. I say inevitable.
The message is something to this effect: When we see an unexpected result on the field, we often turn to divine intervention as an explanation before considering that there might have been a prodigious effort that made the result possible.
It is a repudiation of this idea that these games we play (as a delivery vehicle for advertisements like the Gatorade spot) are divined from above. It is a shot across the bow of the perceptions that lock people into their lots in life — their successes attributed only to the grace of a mysterious higher power, their failures pinned squarely on their shoulders.
You’ve almost certainly never watched this Gatorade ad.
Coach O was a glorious blank slate once. Not in the way Herman is. The golden ticket coaching candidate didn’t exist in the same way a decade ago, when Orgeron was the assistant head coach of a dominant national championship team. And besides, he defines himself a little more each time he opens his mouth, which diminishes his chances of becoming everything to everybody.
Still, he got his head coaching chance, and he failed.
Or did he?
The thing that doomed Coach O at Ole Miss was the offense, which was legitimately dismal. But the decision-making doesn’t look nearly as bad as the results. When he headed for Oxford, Orgeron’s first choice for offensive coordinator was a lower-level USC assistant named Lane Kiffin.
Kiffin turned that opportunity down, instead remaining at USC a little while longer before embarking on a winding path that eventually put him in position, as Tennessee’s head coach, to hire Orgeron, take him back to USC in his famed midnight defection, and unwittingly bequeath the Trojans job to him by getting himself fired at an airport.
Flash back to 2005, and Orgeron’s next choice for offensive coordinator at Ole Miss, or at least the person who ended up with the job, was Noel Mazzone.
The offense, as previously mentioned, didn’t pan out. This being college football, where so many decisions are made based on the whims of impatient, irrational boosters, Mazzone wasn’t afforded the time to solve the unit’s problems. He was sent packing after one year. And since then, Mazzone’s performance at Arizona State, UCLA and Texas A&M suggests that Orgeron, in fact, might have made an inspired hire.
It was perhaps never more clear than when a Mazzone-led UCLA offense ran roughshod over USC in November 2013, stomping out, in one night, Coach O’s slow, steady bid for the permanent gig at USC. It remains a remarkably cruel karmic injustice.
Which brings us to Saturday, when Coach O’s first choice, Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, will have a chance to snuff out Coach O’s current bid at a second chance.
If you’ve ever been on a message board devoted to, well, anything, you understand just how little thought is really necessary to reach a conclusion, and you probably also realize that just voicing the conclusion you’ve reached is often enough to confirm the conclusions other people have reached. And before you know it, you have a mob.
That is essentially what happened among LSU boosters last year. The conclusion was that Les Miles had to go. They proceeded with such confidence that word was out before the actual decision-makers had made any actual decisions. And, wouldn’t you know it, the team rallied and put forth an incredible (some might say inevitable) effort to save Miles’ job.
Then it all looked the same this fall and they ushered him out thanks to a new conclusion: That Tom Herman or Jimbo Fisher could be theirs, would be theirs.
Maybe that remains true, although it looks more and more likely that Texas will do whatever it takes to secure Herman’s services. But what the original conclusion failed to consider — unsurprisingly — was whether the biggest, splashiest names on everyone’s lists were in fact the best names for LSU’s list.
There isn’t a right answer here, just a lack of independent thought. College football has developed an annual process that burns through coaching candidates at a breakneck pace (basically the polar opposite of the NFL’s Fisher-Mularkey Recycling Device, patent pending), without really stopping to understand why they succeed or fail.
Right now, Herman is considered “the sure thing.” Probably with good reason. We look for the shiniest apple that falls closest to the tallest tree, and we all race to pick it up. And when that fails for all but the biggest, richest school in the hunt at that moment, we look for the second-shiniest apple.
But before anyone had heard Herman’s name, Ed Orgeron was winning games, and winning over players, as USC’s head coach. Ed Orgeron is once again winning games — having made significant changes to the offense that Les Miles never could — at a blue chip program, while Herman is dropping the occasional head-scratcher to the likes of SMU.
The difference is that the SMU game will fade quickly into the rearview. It doesn’t fit into our limited knowledge of Herman. Orgeron, meanwhile, is staring down an Alabama game that will serve as a referendum on the rest of his career despite his successes in dozens of other games.
I suspect that, either way, LSU would be better off with Coach O.
The Louisiana native could recruit one of the most talented teams in the country, year in and year out, and he seems very capable of building up an intelligent staff.
I also suspect that seeing him lose to Alabama would confirm all the fears that his past planted in our minds, while the other candidates for the job sail on by, eluding expectations and their own reckoning with them until after the big payday.
This might be the UCLA game all over again, a single loss that everyone retroactively says they saw coming. Or it might be the night Coach O upends Alabama and his protégé-turned-boss-turned-predecessor.
Whatever happens, it will seem to have been inevitable. Even though it was nothing of the sort.