When LSU athletic director Joe Alleva made the decision to fire Les Miles as LSU’s head coach and place the Tigers’ defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator Ed Orgeron into the position for the remaining eight games of the 2016 regular season, he made no bones about it: Orgeron would have a chance to audition for the job beyond this season.
Now, as we sit at the end of the regular season, following last night’s dominant win over Texas A&M will wrap up a 5-2 record in seven games, that only missed the sixth win due to the moving of the Florida game and the cancelling of South Alabama. Orgeron will meet with Alleva today to discuss his job prospects, a meeting that has been on the books long before last night’s reports with Tom Herman surfaced.
So let’s break it all down.
A native of Larose, Louisiana, Ed Orgeron signed with LSU as a defensive tackle out of South Lafourche High School. After a very short time he left the program due, and eventually transferred to Northwestern State, where he finished.
He promptly went into coaching, and after assorted graduate assistant and odd jobs at multiple programs, moved to the University of Miami, where he coached defensive line from 1988-1992 under Jimmy Johnson and Dennis Erickson. In his time there, he developed a reputation for teaching his position, and helped developed superstars like Cortez Kennedy, Russell Maryland and Warren Sapp (he also worked with a guy named Dwayne Johnson who went on to do a few other different things).
He also developed a reputation for raising hell, and an arrest for bar fighting eventually led to his departure from The U. From there, he bounced around at a couple of places before landing at the University of Southern California under Paul Hackett in 1998. He would be retained by Pete Carroll in 2001, and it was at USC that Orgeron’s reputation exploded as one of the most intense recruiters out there. That reputation would help him land the head coaching job at Ole Miss in 2004.
But his time at Ole Miss would be a catastrophic failure. In his three years there, he made a number of mistakes, and more than a few enemies in the media and administration. He would be fired following the 2007 season with a record of 10-25 and just 3-12 in conference play.
From there, he spent a year on Sean Payton’s New Orleans staff, but found that pro coaching (especially the part where he couldn’t pick his own players) distasteful, and decided to get back into college. Orgeron sought out a position on LSU’s staff then, but was eventually courted away to Tennessee by Lane Kiffin. After a year, he followed Kiffin back to USC in 2010.
In 2013, he would find himself with another chance to run a program, when Kiffin was fired after just four games. Orgeron was promoted to the head coach in the interim, and helped rally the Trogans to a 6-2 record, including a win over a highly ranked Stanford team. A late season loss to UCLA would lead to Athletic Director Pat Haden offering the job to then-Washington head coach Steve Sarkisian.
Orgeron left Los Angeles and returned to Louisiana, where his wife and children had stayed since moving to Mandeville in 2008. Following the 2014 season, he joined Les Miles’ staff at LSU as defensive line coach. Following the 2015 season, he would be promoted to recruiting coordinator, and he was a natural choice by Alleva to again serve as the interim head coach when Miles was dismissed in September of this year. Since then, Orgeron has compiled a 5-2 record, with the wins coming in convincing fashion, as we will continue to detail.
This is probably the largest variable for Orgeron. Given that he’s never fully worked as an in-game coordinator, Orgeron’s preferences are largely unknown. On defense, he has typically worked with 4-3 units, but has adjusted well to working with Dave Aranda’s 3-4 scheme. Per a source close to things, the two have become very close and have a lot of mutual respect. Baring Aranda getting a head job, he would almost certainly stay at LSU under Coach O.
On offense, most believe that hiring a top-shelf offensive coordinator would be a significant part of Orgeron’s interview process. He made the decision to let Cam Cameron go as LSU’s OC this season and promoted tight ends coach Steve Ensminger to OC/quarterbacks coach, but that’s generally believed to be a stop-gap measure for the 2016 regular season.
Moving forward, most believe that Orgeron would likely stay within the pro-style offensive tree, something close to more of the West Coast style employed by Carroll at USC. Dan has discussed Carroll’s influence on Orgeron in the past.
His relationships with Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin and offensive analyst Steve Sarkisian are both well known, which has fueled some speculation that one of those two could be a possible target. Some also think that a coach more rooted in the spread offensive style could get consideration as well.
While Orgeron does not have an offensive background, a large part of his coaching philosophy since taking over as interim head coach has revolved around accepting input from his assistants and providing them with autonomy to run their units as they see fit. That stands to reason that a future offensive coordinator would have similar freedom.
Orgeron also has shown a keen awareness to public perception and what people have wanted to see out of the LSU offense. He almost certainly knows that a successful offensive coordinator hire would win him a lot of goodwill with both fans and administrators. Through multiple sources, I can confirm that there have already been discussions with both Kiffin and Sarkisian regarding the job. Kiffin’s contract with Alabama will expire in December.
Now, if there’s one concern nobody would have with Orgeron, this is it. Recruiting is how Coach O built his reputation. He has been named the national recruiter of the year twice by multiple media outlets, and ranked as the second-best recruiter of the decade by Rivals.com after the first 10 years of their team rankings (from 2002-2011).
His exploits in the war room and the recruiting trail as the head coach of Ole Miss were chronicled in Bruce Feldman’s best-selling book “Meat Market: Inside the Smash-Mouth World of College Football Recruiting.” There, he recruited future NFL talents like Michael Oher, Peria Jerry, Dexter McCluster, Greg Hardy and Mike Wallace, and left behind a core group that would play in back-to-back Cotton Bowls under Orgeron’s successor, Houston Nutt.
Orgeron built his reputation at USC, where he was retained by Carroll upon his hire and helped deliver top talents to the Trojans for three consecutive top-five classes. He would later help deliver three more top-five classes in Troy as a member of Lane Kiffin’s staff.
Here at LSU, the two classes Orgeron has contributed to have finished sixth and third in the 247 Sports Composite Rankings, and he is credited with helping to land blue chip prospects like Arden Key, Rashard Lawrence, Edwin Alexander, Willie Allen, Glen Logan and Donavaughn Campbell. Since Les Miles’ departure he has helped to hold the 2017 class together with just one defection, wide receiver Jhamon Ausbon – no easy task for an interim coach. He is also currently the primary recruiter on two of LSU’s top targets: defensive tackles Tyler Shelvin and Marvin Wilson. And he’s also made significant headway with two in-state prospects many thought were unattainable: linebacker Dylan Moses and wide receiver Devonta Smith.
What’s more, Orgeron has a knack for finding other key members of recruiting staffs – he helped give LSU General Manager Austin Thomas his start at Tennessee, then brought him to Southern Cal, where he eventually found his way here. He also gave Frank Wilson his first major college job as well.
There is absolutely no doubt, that even if Orgeron were to fail as head coach here, he would leave behind a very talented roster for his successor.
There is no question that Orgeron has earned some consideration for this job over the past two months.
Over the seven game stretch – again, sans an eighth game against a cupcake – LSU has seen a tremendous uptick in quality of play. Scoring jumped from 21 points per game to 32 over the final seven games of the season. Total offensive yards per game jumped from 339.5 to 475 and from 5.7 to 7.3 on a per play basis. The Tigers set new records for total yardage and yards per play, and two separate individual rushing records.
Upon accepting the position, Orgeron fired LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and promoted tight ends coach Steve Ensminger to his position (and shuffled him to quarterbacks coach). In addition to that move, he completely revamped LSU’s practice structure and coaching staff: bringing in defensive line super-guru Pete Jenkins to work with the position, creating more freedom among the coaching staff to set position groupings and contribute to game plans, and scaling back practices from long, drawn-out affairs to shorter, more intense on-field work with a greater emphasis on classroom work. A philosophy that is more in line with how NFL teams work, and modeled after Carroll’s practices at USC:
In game preparation, he reverted the Trojans to Pete Carroll's "compete every day" philosophy, with an internal focus. The results were a 6-2 run that led many to think he might get the job fulltime.
"Each game is a new challenge -- it ain't about them. It's about us."
Maybe it took simulating the aforementioned chainsaw noise, a common sound in Oregon State's Reser Stadium. Ignoring cold conditions in Colorado. Or maybe just refusing to listen to "trap game" talk for a trip to Cal.
"Trap game...bullshit! It ain't about them!"
Assistant coaches were given autonomy over their substitutions and personnel groupings. Players were given a say in catering for some meals outside of the team cafeteria.
"Not only did the team come together, not only did the coaching staff come together," said Orgeron. "The whole Trojan family came together."
Through all of the transition and noise, Orgeron has kept a constant mantra of “One Team, One Heartbeat.” And the proof has been in the pudding:
This chart demonstrates LSU’s offensive percentile performance over the course of the season (not counting last night’s A&M game), adjusted for opponent. In the five of the six games charted – Alabama, obviously was a notable exception – the LSU offense performed like one in the top 30th percentile of the country. In other words, like the top 30 percent of college football offenses. In the four games prior, LSU had only played above the 60 percent mark once. By any objective standard, LSU’s offense executed dramatically better under Orgeron. And ultimately, LSU outscored its final seven opponents by a margin of 227 to 113. The Tigers’ third-down conversion rate improved by five percent. Penalty yardage dropped from a 49.5-average to 35.1, and touchdown percentage in the redzone improved from 46.1 percent to 70.1 percent.
The new leaf that he’s turned over regarding program management is dramatic, and obvious; both in comparison to Orgeron’s Ole Miss tenure, and to his predecessor here at LSU. He opened practices up to media, made more in-season recruiting trips and made a concerted effort to reach out to former players and make them feel welcome around the program. While it has been great public relations for Orgeron himself, there’s no doubt it’s added to a sense of togetherness for this football team.
His work here at LSU ties very closely to his interim work at USC, and both stand in very stark contrast to Orgeron’s time at Ole Miss. And that’s by design, because the first thing Orgeron did after losing his job in Oxford, was keep a journal of mistakes he made there, things he wouldn’t do again if given another opportunity. And he’s detailed that list to multiple media outlets since, both locally and nationally.
In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that I have a close friendship with Orgeron’s chief of staff, former Baton Rouge radio personality Derek Ponamsky. But lest anybody question my own impartiality on the issue, I consulted a few national writers on the subject:
“I think he’s more than proven that he’s done a complete 180 from how he did things at Ole Miss,” said Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples in a brief interview. “The way he did things there made him miserable, and he made other people miserable. I don’t think he’s going to do those things again.”
“He is clearly a very different coach than he was at Ole Miss, and also different even from the guy who led USC out of the muck three years ago,” said Fox Sports’ Bruce Feldman. “I think he’s learned well from that situation as well. More than that, I just think he fits very well at LSU and we do see players the responding to him.”
Feldman, being a West Coast guy, also had the following insights to say regarding Orgeron’s time in Troy.
“Orgeron had some support at USC early,” said Feldman. “But I believe Pat Haden, the AD never saw him as a head coach of USC. And there were some others who felt similar. In part because of his only coaching experience was that rough three-year run at Ole Miss, and also because they weren’t totally comfortable with him because he was different to them. He wasn’t a Haden guy. Still, if Orgeron had won out (in 2013), they’d have had no choice other than to keep him even if it was just to a short-term contract. Then when USC lost to UCLA the last weekend and when Washington rallied to beat WSU, it gave Haden an out to go hire Sarkisian, a So Cal native, and not Orgeron.
Sarkisian had a very high-profile firing in 2015, struggling with substance issues. But in his brief time there, he was generally considered an on-field disappointment that never really captured the hearts of his players, something that Feldman, and other writers close to the program have noted.
“It was very messy,” said Feldman. “Most of the players wanted Orgeron.”
SB Nation College Football Editor Jason Kirk also weighed in on Orgeron’s chances:
“Coach O ascending to the biggest throne in his native state, the job God put him on earth to strive for, would be an amazing culmination of like six different long-running college football memes all at once. Would he be the best hire? Well, looking at how his team, Fisher's team, and [Tom] Herman's team have performed relative to expectations over the last two months, plus his recruiting power in the state, it's hard to argue there's an undoubtedly better option. Would he be the hire that would make impartial observers feel the best about LSU? There's no doubt. It's not my job to make sure LSU wins games (if it were, I could still make a case for him), so this is entirely selfish, but I hope he lands it.”
Staples also had this to say regarding other options for LSU, particularly Fisher.
“I think both coaches would do great jobs, but would one do better than the other? I think that’s a big question. Is either guy going to vault you over Alabama? I don’t know, but I also don’t know that there is a hire that is clearly going to do that.”
Orgeron’s time at Ole Miss is considered the largest black mark on his resume, but his evolution from that job may be his greatest strength. It’s rarer than you think to see coaches make dramatic shifts or changes in their philosophy. Even the great ones often repeat mistakes.
Look at Urban Meyer: his tenure at Florida began to unravel after Dan Mullen’s departure following 2008. He promoted offensive line coach Steve Addazzio to the position, and the Gator offense quickly declined. At Ohio State, he replaced Tom Herman, again, with offensive line coach Ed Warinner (alongside Tim Beck), and while the drop off hasn’t been as dramatic, offense has cost the Buckeyes in several games in recent years.
Even Nick Saban has shown that willingness to adapt to more spread and up-tempo looks – to the point that he didn’t hire Kiffin just to run Kiffin’s offense, but to adapt it to that specific template.
Fisher, on the other hand, seems a little slower to adapt – as we detailed in our profile.
“I think there’s a misconception that a head coach is perhaps responsible for more day to day scheme stuff than he actually is (and it obviously varies), but the guys who seems to have the most consistent success hire great assistants (and don’t overly interfere) who can realize a specific vision on offense, defense, and special teams, and I think that’s where Coach O is strong,” said Dan Rubenstein, SB Nation Video Correspondent and co-host of The Solid Verbal podcast.
“Without knowing [Orgeron] personally, I like that he’s failed and learned, I like that he’s local, I like that he’s a tireless recruiter and will 100-percent surround himself with like-minded coaches, and I like that everywhere he’s been, his players love him and want to fight for him.” Rubenstein added. “If the resounding criticism of Les Miles is that he’s stubborn, I think there’s enough clear evidence that Coach O is open and willing to try anything to succeed and put his team in a position to win.”
Should he get the head job, Orgeron will work immediately to revamp LSU’s offensive staff, particularly at the offensive coordinator position. We have discussed the potential of a Kiffin move already, and I can confirm through a source that Sarkisian has reached out as well. Obviously, there would be moving parts to both men, but the overall gist is that Orgeron understands the importance of the position, along with other members of the coaching staff. And if Kiffin or Sarkisian were not available, it stands to reason that Orgeron would have no trouble finding a similarly strong hire; he’s very well-connected and well-respected in the coaching community, and potential candidates would be well aware that LSU is an offense stacked with talent and a university that pays assistant coaches well. Keeping Dave Aranda on hand would be a given, as the two men have become very close over the last year.
For some, the idea of a head coach that “needs” coordinators is seen as a negative, but that’s a ridiculous notion. Even coaches seen as experts on one side of the ball seek out smart coordinators to work with. Surrounding oneself with top advisors and implementers of policy is a hallmark of strong leadership in any organization. There’s a reason Nick Saban replaces a trusted defensive coordinator like Kirby Smart with somebody like Jeremy Pruitt, and it’s certainly not Pruitt’s charming personality. If anything, a failure to recognize this is a far bigger negative quality for a potential head coach. An inverted example could be LSU’s opponent last night, Texas A&M, where Kevin Sumlin, a very successful offensive coach himself, has struggled with two coordinators on offense since losing Kliff Kingsbury.
And speaking of assistants, there’s also the specter of losing some valuable ones like Aranda and Orgeron himself, should he not get the head job. A transition could be a mess, particularly for a recruiting class that currently sits fifth in the 247 Sports composite rankings. And while a coaching staff is more important than any one recruiting class, one that could finish in the top five is a factor that can’t be dismissed. Nor is the idea that if Orgeron isn’t recruiting those players for LSU, he could be recruiting them for one of LSU’s opponents.
Why Not Orgeron?
10-25 and 3-21. Orgeron’s overall record and conference record in his three seasons at Ole Miss. That is about as low as it gets, and it’s not a stain that just goes away with two successful interim stints.
In those interim runs at USC and LSU Orgeron inherited very talented squads – the high expectations are part of why the previous head coaches were let go in the first place. And steering a well-built ship for two-thirds of a regular season requires a very specific skillset. Orgeron clearly has that, but it’s not the same as building a program and guiding it towards long-term success.
Yes, Orgeron has shown some of the skills to do that, in terms of bringing in talented players, but it takes more. It takes the ability to manage a coaching staff, both in terms of hiring smart, young coaches, but also getting rid of them when they underperform. Managing the egos of boosters, politicians, former players and other stakeholders in a program. Being the face of an entire university, for all intents and purposes. Is Orgeron ready for that? It is a genuine question, and one that had a very negative answer in his last stop.
There is also some concern that Orgeron's record as interim head coach is somewhat inflated by poor teams, plus good teams like Florida and Texas A&M that were gutted by injury. And that with two weeks of lead time, Orgeron's Tigers were still shut out by Alabama, at home. It is a valid point, although it is worth pointing out that the previously mentioned advanced numbers from Bill C are opponent-adjusted. LSU has, by objective measure, played better.
What’s more, is how that resume stacks up to other potential options linked to this job, namely Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher, and Houston’s Tom Herman. Fisher has won a national championship as a head coach, and both he and Herman have helped win one as offensive coordinators. Choosing Orgeron over one of those two, or even other young coaches like Justin Fuente, Larry Fedora, PJ Fleck or Jeff Brohm, might cost LSU a future chance at one of them. That is an opportunity cost that Alleva will have to weigh.
The idea of promoting Orgeron to the head job full-time has been a divisive one among LSU fans since it was first referenced.
Orgeron has been dismissed for his resume alone – something that we’ve discussed here and will continue to. Hiring him has been called an “emotional” decision, generally in an intensely derisive tone.
But there is an emotional element to this: LSU has a chance to give a native son his dream job. There’s no question that’s a cool thing. There’s also no question that by itself, it’s not a reason to hire a football coach.
I do, however, find it funny when some member of that particular crowd jump to their own hyperbole with talk of Orgeron “embarrassing” LSU or “setting the program back 20 years.”
Orgeron probably offers the highest “floor” of any coaching candidate, due to his recruiting ability and low price tag. Even if he were to immediately revert to what we saw at Ole Miss, he would leave behind a talented roster for a successor, and likely offer an easy way out in terms of finances. Big contracts for Fisher or Tom Herman would leave LSU far more locked in for a certain amount of time due to buyout provisions. That would tie the university’s hands for a time if the program was under-performing, and possibly even limit options in finding a successor.
But the chances that Orgeron would fail on that massive of a scale seem remote to me. I think we’ve seen his plan in action over the last two months, and with more time and resources to implement it fully, it’s a plan that will succeed. And I’m not alone in that thought.
“I think you’ve seen the job he’s done in two months and there’s a lot to like,” said Staples. “Can’t you see him doing it all the time? I don’t see any reason why not.”
I’ve seen it written at a number of places that, were Orgeron to leave LSU, no other major program would consider him for their head coaching position. And it’s true, he wouldn’t fit in anywhere else. But he would here. And he might just be the best choice.