BATON ROUGE, La. — Eleven years removed from his first head coaching job, “Ed Orgeron, LSU head coach,” is as improbable a title as the new version of the man holding it.
“I’m not the defensive line coach coaching the team,” he tells me. “Now I give each coach on the staff accountability. Let them manage their group. Give them a say so. Let ’em coach.”
That’s uh ... just a little different than back when you started.
“Just a little different.”
Orgeron doesn’t scream anymore. He yells, a lot — his enthusiasm is more present than ever — but he isn’t screaming. There is a difference.
For example: When he took his first head coaching job at Ole Miss in 2005, he announced that the remnants of David Cutcliffe’s offense would marry a zone-blocking scheme with USC’s two-back system, on top of then-coordinator Noel Mazzone’s NC State passing offense that made Philip Rivers a star.
The result was an over-managed disaster. Orgeron screamed. Often. At anyone, player or coach, and anywhere, too.
“Now if I need to correct something with a coach, don’t do it on the field. Go back to the office and have a discussion. ‘What can we do here?’ Instead of the way I did it at Ole Miss.”
Saturday, Orgeron’s LSU set a school record for yards in a conference game, 634, in a 42-7 rout of Missouri. The offense, denigrated by fans while under the control of former head coach Les Miles and former OC Cam Cameron, ignited under Orgeron and new coordinator Steve Ensminger, previously the tight ends coach.
All that native talent found its potential, at least for a game. The Tigers passed to set up the run. It worked. The Tigers passed deep to stretch Missouri’s defense away from overloading the run. It worked.
“I like that idea of stretching the field, and I really like sending that message to a defense,” Orgeron says. “I think you need to have shots down the field. That’s a Sean Payton deal. Learned that from Sean. Take shots even when they all won’t work. Back the defense up and make them fear the speed. Because we have speed.”
The 2005 Orgeron had never coached in the NFL. The 2016 Coach O — sorry, “Coach Eaux,” per the new T-shirts in Baton Rouge — spent 2008 on Payton’s Saints staff, where he audited offensive philosophy and practice scheduling from the Super Bowl champion coach.
Against Missouri, some play calls were still from Cameron’s offense. Some of the actual plays, too. That was mandated by time. Against Florida this Saturday, Orgeron thinks LSU can creep further away from its former identity.
“You can’t change much in a few days, but you can change attitude, and you can change style.”
Here’s how Orgeron game planned on six day’s notice: he fit the plan to the talent. And 2016 LSU might have more talent than any other roster he’s been in charge of, even in his 6-2 stint as 2013 USC interim head coach.
“We talked. Ensminger, myself, and some of the other coaches came together and we all said, ‘Here’s some of the things we’ve done in other places that have been successful. What are they similar to here?’ Because we can’t change the language right now, obviously. So we tried to run some of the same stuff out of different formations and packages.”
“I let them call the game. I didn’t say a word. I told them what I wanted things to look like. They came up with a plan, and they did it.”
The new practice schedule for LSU will lean heavily toward the NFL’s. During prep for Missouri, the first and second offensive and defensive units rotated in and out by the play as fast as possible, an idea from defensive coordinator Dave Aranda.
LSU will practice differently, but not less. Few plays at times, but faster pace. Practices will have themes, like Turnover Wednesday and No-Repeat Thursday (as in, get it right the first time), to differentiate the weekly grind and re-engage teenage attention spans.
"Just to get that …,” O starts tapping on the table, “get them focused, back engaged! Yeah! Today’s Competition Tuesday! It’s Competition Tuesday.
"They’re the most important people that walk into this building. And if you treat them like your own sons, they’ll do anything for you. First thing a player needs is to know you love and care for them."
OK. Something has happened here, something more dramatic than an evolved game-planning philosophy.
It was no secret that the Orgeron built team bonds at Ole Miss by uniting players in spite of his aggression. He did remove his shirt during a team meeting and challenge players to a fight, and he did want to fight a reporter (me) for reporting on a player’s injury.
Cut to 2013 USC, where players were moved enough after eight games with Orgeron in charge to pay public tribute after his departure.
To that wave of elite talent, Orgeron was the guy who rewarded his players with In-N-Out.
O asks when I’m running the story and then tips his next fast food play.
"I think tomorrow we’re gonna surprise ’em with Malt Monday. They love those malts from FatCow.
“Then I’m waiting … I’m waiting for a huge win. I’m waiting for, like, Oregon State. [In 2013, he led the Trojans to their first win in Corvallis since 2004.] Pete [Carroll] had lost there and all that, so when we won there, I wanted to reward ’em for that.
“Not to say Missouri wasn’t huge, but when we beat somebody big, we’re gonna do … something big, like the best hamburgers …"
OK, OK. I cut him off. When did all this happen? I mean, I’m not saying you didn’t focus on your players before, but this is ...
“I didn’t. I didn’t,” he says.
“Before, I didn’t let them know I cared. I was the D-line coach. You can’t coach a receiver like a D-lineman. I just realized, here are some of the things I’ve got to change. I started writing, and I came to a realization: If I treat these boys like I treat my sons, I think we’re gonna be fine. How do you treat your kids? When my boys come home, I cook ’em a steak.
“That’s my motto now: Treat ’em like you would your sons. And hey, I’m Cajun. We eat a lot."
This would not have been the template in the late ’80s and early ’90s at Miami, where Orgeron coached players like Warren Sapp and got into at least one bar brawl.
Compared to the standard aggro-philsophies of football coaching, this is new-age heresy from a man who says he’s been sober for 17 years.
Yet the man who was once the archetype of an old-school strength coach now adjusts player communication techniques to compensate for digital-age distractions and, in his eyes, an extra need for affirmation.
“Let ’em have their cell phones and headsets. Let ’em dress the way they want! Let ’em be who they are, as long as it’s respectful. Don’t put shackles on them. And I know it works. I know it works. I had kids at USC hugging me, crying, when I left. Begging me, ‘Don’t leave.’"
This is the greatest eight-game audition a college football coach has ever had, with four of the remaining seven regular season opponents ranked in the S&P+ top 10 (Alabama, Texas A&M, Florida, and Ole Miss).
And it was Orgeron who had the previous greatest eight-game audition ever.
“I know!” he says, laughing.
“I do know. I get it. But I do believe this: Things are going to happen the way they’re supposed to. I think that powers that be are very interested in us. I believe that if we do our due diligence, meaning that the team performs at its best, I think things will turn out very positive for us.
“But you know, you’re at LSU. You gotta win. No matter who the coach is. If we win, we’ll have a fair shot. But I have a good feeling. I know those guys are giving us a fair shot.”
Nothing has been fair in Baton Rouge in 2016.
Shootings, protests, and state and university budget cuts, and that was before the city flooded in August. It’s a horrific year when Mike the Tiger’s terminal diagnosis of cancer might be the fourth- or fifth-saddest news item in months.
This is when Orgeron, in case you’d forgotten that Cajun growl from South Lafourche, wants to own everything about Louisiana.
“Without actually going out into the community and helping rebuild a house right now, my job is to get the Tigers to play. My job is to get the Tigers to win in Tiger Stadium. My job is to give the community a place and a time when they can put on the TV and feel good.
"They want something to hang on to. They want it to be the Tigers. And let me tell you, Saturday night was a whole lot of feel good, ho ho, I’m telling ya.”
O laughs deeply and loudly.