COMMENTARY | Given the interim head coaching title just hours after the wee-morning whacking of Lane Kiffin in an LAX parking lot, Ed Orgeron has been viewed as a fairly acute longshot for the permanent USC football head coaching position.
In fact, with Las Vegas-based online oddsmaker Bovada putting Orgeron's chances at 20-1 the day after Kiffin's Sept. 29 firing, he isn't even viewed as the most likely member of the current Trojans coaching staff to get the gig (defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast was listed at 7-1).
But with the Trojans set to play their first game of the post-Kiffin era on Thursday, Oct. 10, the 52-year-old Orgeron, a gravely voiced Larose, La. native, seems to have positioned himself as at least a viable dark-horse candidate.
That started on his first day in charge of the program, with the interim coach walking back many of Kiffin's more unpopular policies. Orgeron immediately reopened practice to alienated beat writers, while also making them once again privy to information about player injuries.
A lighter, looser mood was encouraged at Trojans practices, with Orgeron making a number subtle changes that seemed to add up to a lot in terms of player morale. Banned by Kiffin, for example, cookies were brought back to the training table. And the yellow jerseys that differentiated USC quarterbacks from the rest of the team at practices were put on the shelf -- a meaningful egalitarian policy for Trojans position players who quietly grew tired of Kiffin's fawning over the quarterbacks.
Orgeron also told the media that USC coaches would no longer attribute any of the team's on-field performance to severe scholarship sanctions placed on the program in 2010 by the NCAA. This pleased local media, who had come to view Kiffin's frequent references to the sanctions as a hallow excuse to help him keep his job.
"We put 11 out on the field and we fight," Orgeron told reporters.
Recruiting has picked up under Orgeron, with the team getting its first commitment in the post-Kiffin era, three-star linebacker Uchenna Nwosu, and blue-chippers in general reportedly showing interest in the program again.
Meanwhile, with Kiffin often accused of being too embroiled in play calling and various other tasks typically assigned to offensive assistants, and ignoring the broader leadership responsibilities of being a head coach, Orgeron hired an assistant, longtime SEC coach Pete Jenkins, to handle what had previously been his core responsibility, the defensive line.
With the Trojans off the Saturday after the fateful Sept. 28 defeat at Arizona State that did Kiffin in, Orgeron hasn't even coached a game yet. But his moves to date prompted L.A. Daily News beat writer Scott Wolf, a noted Kiffin critic, to write that it's "the right time for Orgeron to lead USC."
More than anything, among USC beat writers, alumni, players and fans, Orgeron's spirit and management style seems to be rekindling memories of the long-lost and wildly successful Pete Carroll era, something Kiffin, another former Carroll assistant, could not conjure.
In fact, remarking to beat writers on the loose, fast-paced atmosphere of USC practices under Orgeron, Trojans safety Dion Bailey noted, "This is as close as I've been to playing for Pete Carroll."
Certainly, Orgeron has Trojans bona-fides.
His tenure at USC actually extends past his 2001-2004 run as a top defensive assistant and recruiting coordinator under Carroll. He also served as defensive line coach under Paul Hackett from 1998-2000.
And dating back to his defensive line work in the early 1990s at the University of Miami, he's long been considered one of college football's best, and highest paid, assistants, as well as one of its most adept talent recruiters.
Translating that profile into a head coaching career has been challenging, however. Orgeron's Miami tenure was cut short in 1992 by a series of personal matters -- he was arrested after a Baton Rouge, La. bar fight, for example, and he was accused by a Dade County woman of multiple incidents of violence.
Serving as a top assistant to Carroll during USC's 13-0 national championship run in 2004, Orgeron overcame that past and got his big shot in 2005 at the University of Mississippi. His record in three seasons at Ole Miss, however, was a disappointing 10-25, with the recruiting upgrade he was able to establish not translating into touchdowns until after he was fired.
It's notable that the 2008 Ole Miss Rebels, under coach Houston Nutt, finished 9-4 in the perennially murderous Southeastern Conference and upset eventual champion Florida on the road.
If the Trojans were to, say, beat Arizona, then upset arch rival Notre Dame on the road the following weekend, would Orgeron suddenly become the favorite and get a second shot at a head coaching career? Well, yes and now.
Most beat writers and fans in the know seem to believe the best he can do is impress another program and get hired there after the season.
To Orgeron, who says he's mellowed and changed in the six years since he left the Ole Miss gig, it doesn't seem to matter.
"This is my shot," he told beat writers.
Daniel Frankel is the founder and editor-in-chief of TitleTownNews.org, the voice of Southern California sports
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