On Sept. 30, 2006 — almost exactly 10 years ago today — Ed Orgeron and the Ole Miss Rebels were warming up to play the unbeaten Georgia Bulldogs. But there was a problem. Lightning was spotted in the area. As a precaution, the game’s start time was delayed.
Four games into his second season as the head coach at Ole Miss, Orgeron already had garnered a reputation for knowing how to hype up his players before a game. But half-an-hour into the rain delay, he could sense that his players were losing energy. So Orgeron did what any sensible 45-year-old man trying to energize a group of college students would do. He challenged one of his fully-padded players to hit him.
“Coach was so hyped, he was so ready to play, that he got in the circle and he lined up in a bull-in-the-ring and he took on somebody,” former Ole Miss defensive lineman Kentrell Lockett remembered. “We really had a bull in the ring and he started it off. He would be the hog sometimes. That was him. He done that many a times. That’s the hog reincarnated up in here.”
Ten years ago, Orgeron was the hog reincarnate. Today, he’s the head coach reincarnate. Nine years removed from his last full-time head coaching gig and three years after his last stint as an interim coach, Orgeron is two days away from his first game as Les Miles’ replacement as the head football coach of the LSU Tigers.
And if Orgeron’s tenure at LSU is anything like his tenure at Ole Miss was, there’s one thing you can guarantee: excitement.
“Man, there was never a dull moment,” Lockett said. “From the faces to the words to the encouragement to just the things to get you hype. We had to really match his intensity throughout the game. That was so contagious. All the coaches around him would have to come to that level where he actually was. The coaches would actually join us in the cold tub, our intensity would be that high.”
That experience won’t be confined to just game days either. Orgeron’s former players are insistent that Coach O’s intensity has no off-switch. As former Ole Miss quarterback and running back Micheal Spurlock explained, Orgeron started screaming and hollering as soon as 5 a.m. workouts began. And as soon as his growly, raspy, Cajun-accented voice began echoing through the indoor practice facility, that meant it was time for business. Because you don’t want to be on the wrong end of an Ed Orgeron rant.
But Orgeron is no tyrant; he just has a precise way of teaching. That precision comes from his knowledge. Current LSU defensive linemen refer to Orgeron as a “guru.” Lockett said that talking Xs and Os with Orgeron is comparable to speaking with Monte Kiffin or any of football’s other great defensive innovators. And nowhere is this more evident than in the film room.
George Helow was a walk-on who played predominantly on special teams for Orgeron in 2006 and 2007. Now a coach himself, Helow has worked as a graduate assistant at Alabama under Nick Saban, Florida State under Jimbo Fisher, Georgia under Mark Richt and now Colorado State under Mike Bobo. When reflecting on how Orgeron was as a teacher, Helow couldn’t help but compare his former coach to one of his previous bosses.
“Any time Ed had a meeting with the guys, everybody was sitting up in their chair,” Helow said. “Big chest, big eyes. They knew that it was business. In my years at Alabama, it was real similar to when Nick Saban walked into the room. Everybody is big chest, big eyes and everybody is silent. Ed demanded that presence. He demanded [it] from the coaches and he demanded that with the players.”
But Saban wasn’t the only coach Helow compared Orgeron to. He also said that Orgeron’s intensity is reminiscent of famed Alabama strength and conditioning coach Scott Cochran, a man who admitted to applying Icy Hot to his armpits to pump up his players and said he broke three different FitBits from being too active, and said Orgeron’s recruiting style is similar to former LSU assistant Frank Wilson, who has been crowned National Recruiter of the Year by three different publications.
Those are the three sides of Ed Orgeron. He commands the same type of respect as the best coach in college football, he’s as intense as the SEC’s unofficial hype man and he has the recruiting instinct of a man who played a role in leading LSU to six top-10 recruiting seasons in seven years.
This makes Orgeron sound like the perfect cocktail of a football coach. But history shows that isn’t exactly true. In fact, his three-year tenure in Oxford, Miss., was far less than ideal.
Over the span of three underachieving seasons, Orgeron led the Rebels to a 10-25 record, including just three wins in SEC play. In his last season at Ole Miss, Orgeron’s team finished in last place in the SEC West with an 0-8 record, a mark that led to Ole Miss parting ways with Orgeron in favor of recently-resigned Arkansas coach Houston Nutt.
But Orgeron’s story didn’t end there. He left Oxford to dip his toes in NFL waters for a year, coaching defensive linemen for the New Orleans Saints, before joining his former co-worker Lane Kiffin at Tennessee and later USC as a defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator.
In 2013, when Kiffin was fired in the middle of his disappointing fourth season, Orgeron was named USC’s interim coach with eight games remaining in the regular season, the exact situation he is in now. Orgeron doubled his conference win total from three years of coaching Ole Miss in just three months, going 6-2 over that span including a huge upset victory over then-No. 5 Stanford.
During his introductory press conference on Monday, Orgeron explained that the main flaw he corrected between his stints at Ole Miss and USC was that he spread himself too thin, trying to coach every position group his way, even if he didn’t have an expertise in that area. Spurlock agreed with that assessment, saying that’s what he hopes Orgeron learned in the last decade.
“Your hands are in so much,” Spurlock said. “That’s why you hire coordinators and people that you trust. That’s what you want. You want good people around. You don’t want to be the smartest one in the room. You want to be able to get some great ideas from other people that make you look smart.”
That’s exactly the attitude that Orgeron has given off in his first week in the captain’s chair in Baton Rouge. He lit up Monday when he had the opportunity to pass off the defensive line to Pete Jenkins, his coaching mentor, and he’s already set up a brain trust of offensive thinkers including new coordinator Steve Ensminger, offensive consultant Steve Kragthorpe and the rest of his offensive assistants to scope out a game plan that best benefits the team.
Only time will tell if LSU’s players and coaches buy into the philosophy of a loud, energetic, good ol’ boy from Bayou Lafourche who, as Lockett put it, has a smile worthy of being trademarked, makes faces that belong on t-shirts and turned ripping three-button shirts straight off of people’s chests into a habit. To Lockett and Helow, there’s no doubt this will happen. Helow added some certainty, saying he knows some of the coaches on LSU’s staff and has heard that the players are rallying behind Orgeron.
“It’s hard not to like Ed when you get to know him,” Helow said. “I think they’ll play their butts off because that’s Ed’s personality and that’s what he’ll demand.”
Spurlock added an addendum to that belief. He said that for Orgeron, just being himself should win over any players who still might be loyal to Les Miles. But the currency in football is and always will be winning games. If he can do that, the players, coaches, boosters and fans will be in his corner in no time.
Lockett doesn’t doubt those wins will come. And he knows that when those wins come, so too will come a job offer.
“I really think he’s put in the time, he’s put in the work, and I think he’s deserving of this actual head-coaching position,” Lockett said. “With LSU, you can’t go wrong with it. He’s a hometown guy. He’s a hell of a recruiter. He’s not going to let the talent get out of the state. So why would you not want that to be a part of the program? He has me in his corner. I’m a die-hard Rebel until the end, but I’m a Coach Orgeron fan as well.”