Nine years ago, Ed Orgeron wanted to fight me. Three men and eight feet stood between us, and Orgeron, a former Division I defensive lineman who even today is considered the toughest coach in college football, wanted to close that distance in a hot second.
I was 24 years old, eight months into my first full-time job, wearing a Dillard’s sport coat two sizes too big and extending a business card at a man who was calling me a "motherfucker" and being escorted away in anger.
(I have no idea what the business card would’ve accomplished. It felt like the right move at the time.)
The staff’s new athletic director for football external affairs, a former high school coach named Hugh Freeze, tried to calm Orgeron.
"Uh Coach, this is the reporter that …" Freeze started.
"FUCK THAT MOTHERFUCKER."
"Coach, I’m …" were the only words I managed. Orgeron walked down a hallway and through a staff-only entrance to the football offices.
Freeze made one last attempt. Orgeron swung and faced me.
"FUCK! WE ARE NOT GONNA LET THIS PROGRAM BE SABOTAGED!"
Years later, an Orgeron colleague from their University of Miami days told me that he once had to pick up "Bebe" (Orgeron's nickname) from police custody after a night out. He said he was told by law enforcement officials seasoned in evaluating violence that Orgeron's bar fight opponent looked dead.
"The cops thought Bebe had killed the other guy. That was Bebe. He was wild."
That Orgeron was the first-year head coach of a 3-5 Ole Miss. He was not the Orgeron hired in 2015 to coach the defensive line at LSU or the Orgeron who took USC on a 6-2 run in 2013. He wasn’t the Orgeron meme, the man who ordered In-N-Out Burger for his entire team, or the man whose players told me at Pac-12 Media Days was "a real father figure."
Words can't explain how I'm feeling right now....just lost a father. Way more than a coach #coachO— Leonard Williams (@LWtrojan94) December 2, 2013
In 2005, Orgeron’s players absolutely hated him, and for good reason. Upon his hire in December 2004, Orgeron tested his new players’ physicality by challenging them to a fight.
The story took a life of its own, but the confirmed version is that O summoned his team late one evening in the winter, removed his shirt, and told "any motherfucking one of you that thinks he can" to fight him. To the chagrin of countless plaintiffs' attorneys, no one did.
"It was the strangest thing I’ve ever seen in my life," a former player told me. "I mean, we had plenty of guys on that team from some really bad places. Any other situation and some guy like that taking his shirt off and talking shit to those players, he would’ve been jumped or shot or both. I still can’t figure out if he knew that, that no one would try and fight their new head coach. He was such an asshole."
For months that story was told quietly. No one wanted to besmirch the man who was willing to take the reclamation project of updating Ole Miss’ talent to an SEC level after years of anemic recruiting by David Cutcliffe.
When he started "breaking down" crowds at toity alumni functions, asking octogenarian fans to get out of their seats to go through pregame warmups, his overexuberance was thought of as candor.
As two of his new assistants were arrested and fired for alcohol-related charges (including one who passed out in a Subway and would later be suspended by the Detroit Lions after appearing naked in a Wendy's drive-through), all before Orgeron had coached his first spring game, the Rebel community demanded fealty.
When he announced the offense would become an imitation of title-winning USC by grafting new offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone’s NC State passing game with NFL-style zone blocking and a "Reggie Bush Back" position filled by former Florida defensive back Larry Kendrick, no one thought to question such a Frankensteinian scheme.
Even when Orgeron demanded that everyone -- everyone -- had to run at full sprint between practice stations. This was part of a conditioning philosophy that saw punters in the bull ring, a head-on tackling drill normally reserved for people involved in tackles. Offensive line coach George DeLeone, then a 56-year-old man and a 30-year veteran, would shuffle into post-practice interviews with ice packs around both knees.
The only people Orgeron couldn’t force to sprint were reporters. Initially, Ed was a gracious interview, except on injuries. Orgeron tried to stifle injury reports at all costs, past the point of rational observation.
Patrick Willis (Matthew Sharpe, Getty)
During a Wednesday evening practice in Arkansas week, the Rebels were in full pads, per usual. A pile formed around a fumble during a live ball drill. That moment claimed Patrick Willis, the most important player on the roster.
The former two-star afterthought would be a consensus first-team All-American despite playing the majority of the year with a right hand cast into a club. The 2006 media guide reads:
In his nine complete games of play, Willis averaged 13.7 tackles and totaled 9.5 TFLs ... Played with a broken middle finger on his right hand, a sprained left knee, a right mid-foot sprain and a partial AC joint separation of his right shoulder ...
The pile caught his right foot. Willis screamed so loud it carried across the field. That night, I got a call from a student assistant who worked with the trainers.
"They don’t see any major breaks, but they think he’s out for the rest of the season. It’s so swollen right now, they can’t tell how extensive the damage is."
The next morning, I was already scheduled to appear on a sports radio program in Jackson. Ever the ladder-climbing newspaperman, I reported what my source told me. About this time, according to a friend on campus, Willis limped into his first class in a walking boot.
Forty-five minutes later, the sports information director called. I, along with every other regular media member, was summoned to the facility. We were ordered into an auditorium, the room split by one of those corrugated dividers. On the other side was Orgeron and the defense in what we were told was a film review.
On our side was a dry erase board and a guy in a windbreaker who introduced himself as Coach Freeze. Through the divider, Orgeron’s voice was unmistakable.
"MEN!" he screamed. The players roared back.
Freeze looked as confused to be standing in front of us as we were to be sitting there. He started like a guidance counselor.
"Guys, we just want to start by saying how much we appreciate the job you do, and if there’s ever any questions …"
"Why are we here?" asked Mike Wallace, the beat writer for the Jackson Clarion-Ledger.
"HELLLLLL YEAAAAAHHHHH!!!!" It was Orgeron’s voice through the divider, followed by another cheer. Orgeron was pounding something, a desk maybe.
"Well Mike, well, Coach O has some concerns about information coming out of practices. There’s been some issues …"
Wallace, now covering the NBA for ESPN, was the best reporter on the beat. I tried to report like he did. He was unflinching but never impolite. He never sought the spotlight but always asked the best questions. I was the reason the class had been called to detention. I was scared. Wallace was angry.
Freeze began to draw plays on the whiteboard, identifying what the staff didn’t want public. Orgeron’s screams built.
"WHAT A FUCKIN' HIT, MEN!"
For 25 minutes, as Orgeron screamed through a wall, Freeze debated the intricacies of describing play formations, personnel groupings, and down to an arbitrary line, detailed what we couldn’t report on. Several stated the obvious: if Orgeron was so paranoid, why not close practice? Mike Shula did at Alabama. So did Tommy Tuberville at Auburn.
"Please, please close practice to the media. Not having to stand out there would make my life," one reporter said.
"Well, you know … actually. I tell you guys what, hang on a second," Freeze said.
We could hear next door the sound of muffled voices like the adults in a Peanuts cartoon. First him, then Orgeron.
"OK guys, I guess that wraps things up. We really do appreciate all you do for the program."
"So is practice closed?" a reporter asked.
"Not now, no. It’s not. I don’t think," Freeze said, looking at the divider.
I approached Freeze and handed him a business card covered in palm sweat.
"Coach, I’m really sorry if there’s a problem. I just don’t know what I did wrong by the policy. I was the one on the radio this morning and I’d like to talk to Coach O and go over things."
"Well thanks for your honesty, son," Freeze said. "Let’s see if Coach wants to talk."
Coach did not want to talk.
Willis played with a heavily taped right foot. The Rebels lost to Arkansas, 28-17. Ole Miss lost its last two games as well. I left for a job at a larger paper in Hattiesburg.
The following season, practice was closed, and I received emails from Rebel fans angry for "what I'd done to hurt the program."
Despite a series of recruiting coups that would give successor Houston Nutt one of the most talented rosters in school history, Orgeron never achieved serenity. During a weather delay in a 2006 home game vs. Wake Forest, Orgeron ordered his team to spend that time in a full-pads, 80-play practice before the game resumed. Ole Miss lost to Wake, 27-3.
Here’s Orgeron in 2013 after taking over for Lane Kiffin and lifting Kiffin’s ban on media at practice. Watch as he cheerily gives an injury report, compliments his staff’s work ethic and thanks the reporters.
A year after the incident, I asked a friend on the support staff if Orgeron had finally fought anyone. I was told the coach had calmed down some but was convinced the administration was out to get him fired.
Returning home from 2006 SEC Media Days, a staffer mentioned the name of his SEC alma mater to Orgeron while attempting casual conversation. Orgeron replied in front of his players and the pilots, "If you say [SEC school] one more time, I’m gonna open that door and throw you outta this fucking plane."
It’s fun to see mellowed media darling Ed Orgeron.
If I have a bias toward him, it’s grown over the years. First a negative, as this was the time I was cured of any alma mater homerism. With a stronger understanding of the impossible mental resolve required to function as both a head football coach and a human being, it's now a positive one.
And nine years later, I’ve never had another staff source tell me about the head coach running out of Red Bull at 5 a.m. and using coffee grounds like a plug of snuff.
Orgeron will not be long for a position job, because enough of the right people know he deserves to be a head coach again. The man's growth has been the rarest in coaching: total immolation in your first head coaching job, a decade of overhaul, and then the wisdom to know when to keep your shirt on.