Ed Orgeron tells the story of that time he landed the LSU job
BATON ROUGE, La. — "OK, this is great, man. You gonna love this story," Ed Orgeron says.
Alright. Let’s let the LSU head coach tell it.
He’s scrolling through his phone on a hot afternoon in June, waiting for Louisiana governor John Bel Edwards on the tarmac of LSU’s basketball arena, so the pair can tape a flooding-preparation PSA.
Orgeron made it through 2016, his second interim head coaching stint. He survived Ole Miss, his implosion of a debut 12 years ago. He has survived his own oversized character.
And he didn’t lose his dream job when Derrius Guice ran the wrong way on fourth-and-goal against Florida.
"Never thought it was over after Florida. Really didn’t. That’s the truth," Orgeron says.
The 16-10 loss was, as one LSU fan hollered down at the home sideline that November afternoon, "some Les Miles shit right there."
And since, seven weeks prior, this kind of performance had finally killed Miles, national championship winner, surely the interim coach couldn’t withstand the same blow. Not with a 4-2 résumé and a loss to Alabama, the program’s sixth in a row.
"Thought we had a chance, even after. I promise. Always believed," Orgeron says.
LSU lost an important game it had no business trailing in, and Orgeron’s shot was done. Eight days later, he got the job.
Part 1: The Florida loss
"OK. Here’s the thing after the game: I didn’t think of just that play with Derrius. I didn’t. You can’t.
"Right now, I can remember how I prepared the team. I remember all the distractions [the game was relocated from Gainesville amid Hurricane Matthew]. Before the game, we were a little too hyped. We wanted to fight, actually fight. And we end up having one before the game. Then Leonard’s not gonna play; then he is gonna play.
"It just really, really reminded me of Notre Dame vs. Miami in 1988 [Orgeron was a Hurricanes assistant]. We go out, have a fight in the tunnel, same stuff. Now, it’s not the same magnitude of that game, but the same thing happens. We’re all jacked up after a fight and then have 13 penalties.
"And we were a much better team than how we played. We had them outgained in yards, 400-something to 200-something [423-270]. But the turnovers [two fumbles] killed us."
"Next morning, I woke up. Sick. I knew we had a meeting that day. First guy I call on the phone is Derrius. I say, ‘Hey man, we still got a shot. Let’s go.’
"I knew if I was feeling this way, the team was feeling this way. So I had to coach myself up. I had to get a little bit more jacked up than I do on a Sunday. Guys come in, and I’m high-fivin’ them. Guice come in with a hood on, head down. I go up to him in front of everyone. I took that hood off, and I said, ‘I love you. Watch what happens next game.’
"And that kinda motivated me, too. I thought, we’ve still got a chance. We can still get this job."
The June sun is bouncing off the concrete portals of the PMAC arena, cooking Orgeron and Gov. Edwards as a production crew scrambles to squeeze the shoot into the pair’s schedule. Both men have wordy lines about family emergency game plans. Both are experienced public speakers, and despite that legendary accent and those concussive growls, O nails his line on take after take.
The problem is across the street, where a campus construction project’s heavy machinery drills into the pavement.
"Be sure to download the new app for emergency informatio—" WHA BAM, WHA BAM, WHA BAM.
"Well hey, that’s progress in Louisiana, when the governor and the LSU football coach can’t stop all the construction going on!" a staff member jokes.
While the noise is negotiated away, O tells jokes to the security detail. He knows he’s being pilloried as a selfish danger on social media and radio by Hal Mumme, the father of the modern air raid offense.
Orgeron has rallied other Louisiana universities to keep out-of-state coaches from working summer camps with Louisiana high school players. Mumme’s Belhaven College in Mississippi is among the schools that have been told they aren’t welcome.
Closing the borders could raise the fortunes of smaller Louisiana schools, but O’s end game is to stop programs like Texas and Alabama from building relationships with LSU targets.
In short: O doesn’t care about Mumme’s media campaign. But the difference in 2006 "Meat Market" Ed Orgeron and the 2017 LSU head coach is restraint. He elects not to bite on Mumme’s comments that afternoon. He does not scream and is not particularly mad, even in private.
The shirt stays on.
"Look, I went to other schools and said, ‘Hey let’s keep Louisiana in Louisiana,’" Orgeron says. "‘Come to our campus. Bring your own players. Let’s do this all together.’ And the other head coaches loved it. They absolutely loved it."
Such a structure is ideal for LSU, the only Power 5 program in Louisiana. Decades before Edwards, Gov. Huey Long and other politicians did everything they could to position LSU football atop the state university structure. O’s move to shut out Tom Herman and Nick Saban is a new take on old local recipes.
"Now when we do our camp in Louisiana, we have a representation of 10 other colleges in the state. And the camp is affordable, so that every young man in the state of Louisiana can come and get offered scholarships. That’s 250 scholarships to offer right there. There’s a lot of young men who came to our camp with offers from smaller schools that got offers from bigger schools at our camp. So I believe in that process."
"We’ve had a fantastic relationship with Coach O," Tulane head coach Willie Fritz says. "The camps have been great, the coaches they bring have been fantastic. Some of these D-I coaches, occasionally you’ll get guys who come in and act like they’ve been splitting the atom. And LSU can only offer 25 a year. Our situation is more that we’ve got to start fighting off schools who come into New Orleans for elite talent."
Two months later LSU announces it will close practices, prompting another wave of local and national criticism. And as of mid August, 11 players have transferred out, a bit more than usual during a coaching transition.
That wholesale changes are being made by a new head coach at a major program is not unique. That Orgeron is confident to make them without apology or explosion signifies marked change.
Later that evening in June, coaching staffs from TCU and Texas Tech, including TTU head coach Kliff Kingsbury, will arrive across town at Southern University. If LSU has its way, it’s the last time a Big 12 school will camp in the state.
"I’m not worried about them at all. I’m worried about LSU."
Part 2: LSU coaching rumors overshadow the Thanksgiving game LSU is in the middle of playing
"So we gotta go through the Texas A&M week. Short week. Game’s on Thanksgiving. Not gonna practice in pads, none of that. That Monday practice, [then-LSU linebacker] Duke Riley went over to [athletic director] Joe Alleva and said that football practice was the best practice we’ve ever had at LSU. Said we have something special here. We practice Tuesday. Thanksgiving is Thursday, right? Everything’s good. We’re feelin’ good. We get on the plane. Everything’s good. We're jacked up. ‘Let’s kick A&M’s ass!’ We touch down. Get on the bus, we go to this hotel. All of a sudden, I see …"
(Orgeron starts whispering with his hand over his mouth, eyes darting.)
"The little factions. Little factions, whisperin'."
"No. Everyone else. The coaches. Administrators. Now, I told the team, we gonna block out the noise all week. I didn’t get on the internet. I didn’t read anything. We gon’ block out the noise and kick Texas A&M’s behind.
"So we go to the meetings. And I’m still seeing it. The whispers. And now I’m thinkin’, ‘What the frick is going on?’ So I go back to the hotel and take my wife out to dinner. We sit down and she says, ‘You know they offered Jimbo Fisher the job, right?’
"I said, ‘NO WAY. NO WAY,’" he booms with laughter.
"No way Joe Alleva would do that. But it explained it. It explained the whisperin’, because some coaches would be staying, some would be going, I’ve got my coaches out there hiring and firing!
"It’s crazy. Nuts. But it never affects us. Because the kids are great! This whole time, the kids are great! They’re ready, so I’m good. But you see these factions talking. ‘Cept now I know, right? So I’m not gonna react.
"So we go out there. We win the toss. Usually, we play defense. I say, ‘Let’s take the ball.’ I told Steve [Ensminger, then LSU’s interim offensive coordinator] ‘Put it in Derrius’ hands. Give it to him, just like riding a bike. Let’s roll.’ Guy breaks a school record, 285 yards."
Meanwhile, that crawler’s going on ESPN: "Tom Herman offered LSU head coaching job."
Did it get into the locker room at the half? Did people start talking about it? When did you hear—
"Wait, wait! I’ll get there."
"Hey! We’re beatin’ A&M! We whoopin’ em! But … there’s something going on the sideline. There’s something different going on, and it’s not the players talking. It’s people talking. Again. ‘Pip-pip-pip, pip-pip-pip.’ All around. People who never come on the sideline, they’re out there. We shook hands with people before the game. It was just different. You could feel it.
"So anyway, we beat A&M. Man, we played so good. Felt good. And we walk in, and now everybody’s treatin’ me … different. So me and Kelly [Orgeron, his wife] are sitting there on the plane ride back. We’re happy. Derek [Ponamsky, special assistant to the head coach] is sitting there. He ain’t told me nothin’. He’s got his head down. Plane ride home, he’s just spent. I could tell something was wrong. I still didn’t know. He didn’t tell me [about Herman].
"Joe told Derek, ‘Be ready for the morning.’ And we’ve got complete confidence in Joe. We’ve might have heard all this stuff, but we don’t think Joe would go hire a coach, like that."
The LSU job was Fisher’s if he wanted it, until it was Herman’s, depending on when and where you read the news.
As ESPN showed LSU thumping A&M, 54-39, ESPN reported LSU had offered the job to Houston head coach Herman. The game became a subplot to its own Bottom Line graphic.
ESPN reporter Laura Rutledge attempted to interview Alleva on air.
Privately, LSU officials were furious at Herman’s camp for using LSU’s interest as a bartering tactic with Texas, which had yet to fire Charlie Strong. Alleva denies any offer was made to Herman on Thanksgiving, especially before Orgeron could finish out the regular season.
"I think it’s important that someone really, really wants the job," Alleva says. "Whether you’re working in a bank or a factory or in football. And it was obvious that Ed really wanted the job."
As names swirled, the AD had become impressed with his interim.
"He was an unbelievably pleasant surprise to me, in what he did to our culture. I think it was the way the players reacted to him, the way everyone in the building reacted to him. He totally energized the whole building. You can’t play football without emotion and passion. He brought that back to the building.
"I think everyone had realized his ability to recruit, and we saw he’d learned so much from his previous jobs on how to be a head coach.
"I talked to some people before Ed ever came here. I got some opinions of people before he was ever on our staff. I had some impressions from them, but most of the impressions were very favorable in most categories. The exception was that he was a little headstrong and a little bit too hard on kids sometimes, but these are lessons he’s learned."
Orgeron knew none of this at the time.
Part 3: Black Friday, job interview day
"Me, Derek, and Austin [Thomas, LSU’s player personnel director], we thought we were gonna get offered the job that day. We had our plan, we go in, we sat at that table, and we’re ready to go. We walk in there, and ... within a minute, we knew we were in second place. We just knew it.
"I could just tell, from the room. I asked Derek and Austin to leave, so Joe and I could have a talk. He says, ‘Look, I have not made a hire, and we have not offered anyone the job.’ I told Joe, ‘You’ve always told me the truth.’ And he says, ‘But I am going to see Tom Herman tonight or tomorrow morning. I have not offered him the job yet, and you are a strong candidate. He may be first. You’re probably second.’
"My life’s flashing before my eyes. [Orgeron’s snapping his fingers.] And you know, it slipped out on me before, on that Monday morning at USC [where he was also an interim]. And after that meeting, I thought, no way, no way ... It happened again! It’s happened again! What am I going to do?
"All my eggs were in this basket, man. All I ever thought about was being the head coach of LSU. I don’t think there wasn’t a day we didn’t believe we were going to get it.
"We walked out the door. We were white as ghosts, man. So you know what we did? Started competing! [He snaps his fingers again, loudly.) Kept on competing. Got calls going into Joe. Pete [Carrol] called him, Lane [Kiffin] called him, bang bang bang."
So you start recruiting your own AD?
"Oh ho, yeah baby. We got it rolling. Joe had been a friend of ours. But he had a job to do. We understood. But for eight weeks, I hadn’t been home. I told my wife when I got the job, ‘You want to see me, come here.’ But I start getting my stuff together. I’m done. I think. It’s over. I’m done.
"Then on the way home, Joe calls me. Starts asking some questions. ‘What about this? What about that?’ Asking about things [from Orgeron’s presentation]. OK … alright … so, maybe? Maybe, right?
"So I go home. We had Thanksgiving dinner. I didn’t want to have Thanksgiving. It was the day after, you know? My family’s not there; my boys have their girlfriends and all that. I’m sitting at the table … pfff …
"Long story short. I say my prayers. Go to bed. Early, I go to bed. I remember Houston gets beat by Memphis.
"I say my prayer: ‘God, if it’s your will, I’m gonna get it.’ My wife says to me, ‘Why do you look so sad?’ I said, ‘You kidding me? Are you watching the TV? They giving the job to Tom Herman!’
"She said, ‘Oh no, they’re not.’ She says, ‘You’re gonna wake up tomorrow and be the head coach of LSU.’ Can you believe it? I said ‘Yeah right!’ and rolled over. I go to sleep.
"My phone goes off. Text message at 1:30. It’s Lane Kiffin: ‘Herman leaving to coach Texas.’
"I looked at it, and you know what? I went right back to sleep, man."
Kiffin was definitely coming to LSU from Alabama to be the Tigers’ offensive coordinator, per multiple, multiple sources. And per Orgeron, who’d included Kiffin’s name as OC on a projected coaching staff during his interview.
"I know probably — and I can’t blame them — I know that Alabama probably didn’t want him to come here," Orgeron says. "I’m assuming they did everything they could to get him a head job. But he was honest with us. He said, ‘Coach, I’m coming to LSU unless I get a head job, and I want a head job.’
"We thought he had the Houston job. He woulda been dynamite there. Dynamite. Then we hear about Florida Atlantic, and we didn’t think he’d take that. But he calls and says, ‘Hey man, I’m coming. I’ve got one more meeting, and I’m just going to listen to them.’ Ended up, he took the job."
The staff retrenched, preparing for a battle to land Matt Canada, the offseason’s hottest coordinator candidate. With defensive coordinator Dave Aranda locked into a $1.8 million annual deal, Orgeron, with Alleva’s blessing, wanted an equally notable — and compensated — OC.
"The day we got him here, we knew Notre Dame, UCLA, Tennessee was all after him. That’s not all of them. These schools were just dying to get him. So we had to move. And the guy was wanted, so we had to make the right offer," Orgeron says.
Canada signed a $1.5 million annual deal, putting LSU at $3.3 million in coordinator pay. The moves fortify the Tigers with arguably the best coordinator duo in the game, a statement to those critical of O’s acumen as a CEO. If either gets a head coaching or NFL gig, bring on the next bidding war.
"I don’t look at any of those things as costs," Alleva says. "Those are investments. You make investments to improve. I look at the dollars that we spend on those guys as investments to be better."
It’s a popular theory that the buzz around poaching Kiffin — both as a pure playcaller and as a spoil of war from hated Tuscaloosa — provided Orgeron an extra boost during the crucial phase of his audition process. Not so, according to the man who removed his interim tag.
"The thing [Orgeron] had to convince me of was how he’d be different than he was at Ole Miss, to be quite frank," Alleva says.
"And he just laid out that. He said he’d learned a lot. He delegates to people who are experts at what they do, and he realizes he’s not an expert at everything, just like any of us. We have to hire people that are good at things we’re not good at."
Orgeron suspects it’s a major factor that kept him from getting the USC job.
"I just look back at those times at Ole Miss ... I was going as hard as I could. And there’s no manual to being a head coach. And all those times, after, I’d think what it would be like if I could do things different," Orgeron says.
But there’s a point at which he’s begun to stop apologizing. Yes, he was too inexperienced, but what defensive line coach would turn down an SEC head coaching job?
"That was a bad marriage to begin with, from day one. I knew about the second week we were there, they didn’t want us. I went in there with an open mind. I was excited to get that job! I wanted to like it. And I wanted those people to like me. It just didn’t happen. I never thought I’d face the things I faced in Oxford. The things me and my family went through.
"But we went through it for a reason. We’re home now."
Part 4: The boss gets bear-hugged in front of a tiger
"I planned on sleepin’ ‘til about 7, then get up and go work out. But then my phone rings at 5:30. I missed it. It’s Joe Alleva! I call back, ‘JOE, WHAT’S UP?’ He asked how my morning was, and I say ‘GREAT, I’M HEARIN’ YOUR VOICE!’ He said, ‘Can you meet with me at 8:30?’ I said ‘HELL YEAH, I’M COMING, BABY.’ My wife looks up and says, ‘I told you so.’
"Joe wants to meet. I get my clothes on and I’m running. But I’m home in Mandeville [75 miles east of Baton Rouge]. I was done! I was goin’! Goin’! It was done! Had no idea what I was gon’ do!
"He wants to meet at 8:30. I’m in the car, it’s about 6, 6:15. Sheeeew weee, I’m comin'. He calls back, ‘Let’s meet at your office at 7:30.’ I said ‘Joe, I’m in Mandeville, man, but I’m gonna be there!’ Man, I start going. I’m listening to CCR, I’m rollin’ down the highway, I’m excited, I’m yellin’, I’m READY ..."
He claps his hands together.
"And then I call my wife real quick. I ask her, ‘You don’t think he’d meet with me to tell me I don’t have the job, right?’"
"So I pull up, man, and Joe’s standing there, right in front of the Tiger, man [the football facility’s tiger statue]. I’ll never forget it. I get out, and he says ‘Well, you want the job or what?’ I grab him! I’m bear-huggin’ his ass! I’m bear-huggin’ him, screaming, ‘YES, YES, YES!’ He says ‘Alright then, put me down! Put me down!’
"So then we come meet in the office. He never said anything about Tom Herman. I don’t think he ever went to meet with him. I don’t think it ever got to that point. Obviously Herman was going to Texas, we know that. But Joe said ‘I knew in my heart you were the man for the job. I just knew in my heart, in my stomach, I knew.’ I said ‘Thank you. Now let’s go!’
"How bout that story? Huh? How about that? Huh? Even after Florida, we still believed we had a chance."