Earlier this week, LSU head coach Ed Orgeron spoke to ESPN’s Chris Low about facing Ole Miss this weekend. The Rebels are Orgeron’s former team, and Saturday is the first time O will go to Oxford as an opposing head coach.
LSU’s Ed Orgeron told me the Ole Miss game is just another game “because the truth is the whole time I was there I was wishing I were here.”— Chris Low (@ClowESPN) October 16, 2017
That caused a level of outrage among some Ole Miss fans. The quote was touted as a fantastic piece of shade from one SEC program to another direct from a head coach.
What’s weird is, Orgeron said basically the same thing last year before LSU hosted the Rebels. But no one seemed to react like they have this week.
Ole Miss — currently eyebrows-deep in an NCAA investigation loaded with Level I allegations and 3-3 with an interim head coach because Hugh Freeze was caught contacting sex workers on his university issued phone — is using Orgeron’s comments as a rallying cry. Because hey, they could use something to rally about.
See you Saturday in Oxford, Ed https://t.co/JLj3l7zhPQ— Ole Miss Football (@OleMissFB) October 16, 2017
My first full-time job after graduating from Ole Miss was covering Orgeron’s Year 1, in 2005. It was awful. I’ve written about who Orgeron was in 2005, and how he almost shuffled me loose of the mortal coil during a dispute about reporting player injuries.
What I haven’t written about, and what probably needs to be mentioned when critics or angry LSU fans point at his 10-25 record in Oxford, is what a terrible Ole Miss situation he inherited.
When David Cutcliffe was fired after a four-win 2004 (his first losing campaign since arriving in 1999), what was already considered a fragile program become toxic in the coaching community. Former chancellor Robert Khayat and former AD Pete Boone were nationally reviled for firing Cut, and no one was lining up outside a place that had failed to keep pace with the juggernauts of the SEC West.
Searching for Cut’s replacement, Ole Miss got burned. Rick Neuheisel, Tyrone Willingham, and Dennis Erickson were considered retreads, but were just some of the names that passed on the job. Orgeron, then a 43-year-old defensive line coach at USC, had less than zero experience running a staff, a program, or an entire locker room, let alone interfacing with a snakepit of SEC boosters.
But he could recruit, and that was the one area where Cutcliffe had failed Ole Miss.
And Orgeron did almost everything wrong except for that area.
When he lost the 2007 Egg Bowl after a disastrous fourth down attempt and was fired by Khayat, Orgeron left a roster stacked with NFL talent for Houston Nutt: Michael Oher, Greg Hardy, Dexter McCluster, Kendrick Lewis, Brandon Bolden, Peria and John Jerry, and more.
But while Orgeron was recruiting and not winning, a majority of Ole Miss boosters were working against him. Orgeron’s Cajun bravado never jibed with the Ole Miss mystique of bow ties and Antebellum majesty and all that crap.
Orgeron was never supported at Ole Miss. Not the way Cutcliffe or Nutt or Tommy Tuberville or Hugh Freeze were. He could recruit players away from LSU, but he couldn’t recruit the upper crust of his own fan base, who poisoned him by refusing to invest money. That empowered Boone and the athletic department to stymie Orgeron’s requests for increased budgets, resources, and staffing.
Ole Miss’ outdated, Good Old Boy 2005 athletic department didn’t believe Orgeron’s pleas about falling behind power programs like LSU, Auburn, and Alabama in the year-round recruiting cycle. They refused to help him overhaul the image of the Rebel brand, increasingly problematic in living rooms across the South.
I spoke with Orgeron in June about his new job, the state of LSU, and Louisiana. At the end of the interview, we discussed Ole Miss.
Do you care at all about the perception of you from your time at Ole Miss?
No, not at all. My daddy always said, ‘Son you gotta do everything twice.’ And he was right. I just look back at that time ... I was going as hard as I could all the time. I was giving an honest effort to do the best I could. But I needed to learn. There’s no manual to being a head coach. I’ve said before, if I could it again it would be different. And now it is.
I know this: in order to achieve what we have to achieve at LSU, we’re going to go through some adversity. I know it. I understand the fans here. I understand what everyone wants. But I know we’re up to the task.
Plus this is a different environment than Oxford back then. Or Oxford now, I guess.
No question. I’m home.
And a very different athletic director and department.
No question. Joe [Alleva] is very supportive. Look, [Ole Miss] was a bad marriage from the beginning. From day one. From day one, you know that. That was … it was just very different.
You were a position coach, and you got a head coaching offer in the SEC. You had to take that job, right?
You kidding me? No way [could I turn that down]. I went in there with an open mind. Because I was excited, I was so excited to get that job. I wanted to like it. I really wanted those people to like me, to support what we were doing. It just didn’t happen.
Do you feel like that’s because there’s always a judgement of you as this … character? The Louisiana guy? The accent?
Yeah, I guess so. But at USC, they loved me. At USC, there was respect. At Miami, there was respect. I mean, they respected my talent. They respected my ability to recruit. I could speak in front of a crowd in Beverly Hills and get a standing ovation and then go to Compton and do the same. I could be friends with people in those communities …
I never thought I’d face the things I faced when I came to Oxford. Not in my wildest dreams, never. The things that me and my family went through. But we went through that for a reason. And now, I’m just glad I’m not there.
Then you had to feel like you'd made a mistake at some point.
I leaned on Pete Carroll a lot. I leaned on mentors a lot. I knew the second week we were there, they didn’t want me there. I told my wife immediately, ‘Hey, we’re gonna save our money, and I’m gonna work this as hard as I can.’ I knew it was uphill. The whole thing. We decided to make the best of it as a family.
We went from $250,000 to $900,000, which was a lot of money for us. We lived modestly, saved, did good. I wasn’t going to do anything that would get me out of my contract. I knew that the day would come when they could say they didn’t want me there. It was a bad fit.
After the fact, when Houston Nutt takes off with the talent you recruited, did you feel justified? Did you feel like it brought you good PR in the coaching world?
We got beat up pretty good. And I thought, maybe I am a position coach? But then I watched that talent I recruited come together. That’s why I got out of the NFL and went back to college. I watched those guys go to back-to-back Cotton Bowls. Guys like Greg Hardy, Dexter McCluster, Mike Wallace. Jevan Snead I never got to coach, but we got him there. I saw that … I said I’m going back to college because I can do this. I can do it again.
I need to make some adjustments, I know that, but I need to find the right fit. This is the right fit. I’m home.
As someone who lived through the Ole Miss Coach O era, I can see why people think his latest quote is a bigger deal than people who were around back then.
That’s because, yeah, Orgeron was a bad coach. But Ole Miss was a bad, bad job.
Orgeron’s sin was inexperience. Ole Miss’ sin was self-delusion.
Ten years later, I know the former has learned from his mistake. The latter, doubtful.