NEW ORLEANS — Six football seasons ago, Ed Orgeron was out of work, spending his Friday nights sitting in the stands of Mandeville High School (Louisiana) watching his son Parker play. On Saturday afternoons he’d turn on the television.
“Sitting on the sofa at my house,” Orgeron said. “I remember watching SEC games, going, ‘I know I can compete with these guys given the right place.’ ”
He’d once been head coach at Ole Miss, but he won just three SEC games in three seasons. He’d essentially been retired into Southern football lore as a colorful character who couldn’t coach a lick. He’d clawed his way back to become interim coach at USC, but even after going 6-2, the Trojans deemed the barrel-chested, thick-accented, proud-of-his-Cajun-roots coach a bad fit for Los Angeles.
You can laugh at USC, which hasn’t won much since, but in the fall of 2014, it wasn’t like Orgeron’s phone was buzzing with anyone who saw him as head-coaching material.
“I said, ‘Hey, maybe you’ll be an assistant the rest of your life,’ ” Orgeron said.
This is how life goes, certainly for Orgeron. It’s never been neat and tidy, never been about everything turning to gold along the way, never been about some master plan masterfully followed.
He grew up down in Larose, Louisiana, where the summer heat doesn’t stop but dreams often do. He was rough around the edges.
He went to LSU to play football but quit, too immature to realize the opportunity. He was digging ditches for a phone company when Northwestern State gave him a second chance. He almost got tossed from there for partying too much.
He remained hell on wheels as he transitioned into coaching, and as mistakes piled up his career seemed to hang in the balance. He eventually got sober, got married and got to Ole Miss.
And then failed. And no one was willing to forget it.
“I thought that I had learned from my mistakes at Ole Miss,” Orgeron said. “I thought that I was ready to be a head coach.”
He was saying that while wearing a purple LSU golf shirt and a smile of satisfaction. He’d just stood under a shower of purple, white and gold confetti, and held the national championship aloft.
Fifty-eight years old and college football’s least likely coaching star was on top of a world that has frequently underestimated him, dismissed him, even mocked him. The accent. The grunts. The walk. Yet here he was, still standing. No one’s cartoon character these days.
The powerhouse of a team he assembled, motivated and coached in Baton Rouge over the last four seasons had culminated here, dispatching Clemson and its 29-game win streak, 42-25.
LSU won 15 games this year. It lost none. It beat seven teams ranked in the top 10 at the time of kickoff, and four ranked in the top five. They rolled through the playoff winning by an average of 26.0 points. They did it with a modern, uptempo offense that you wouldn’t think a career defensive line coach would sign off on.
“This team is going to be mentioned as one of the greatest teams in college football history,” Orgeron said.
How in the world this all happened, well, maybe no one knows. It is a testament mostly to a man who never wavered in his belief that he knew what he should be doing, who never listened to those who said otherwise, who never lost his pride no matter the jokes or cackles or cracks from the critics.
In his third or fourth or who knows what number act, Ed Orgeron finally put it altogether and this year there wasn’t a damn thing college football could do to stop him. Not Dabo Swinney. Not Nick Saban. Not Tom Herman or Kirby Smart or Lincoln Riley or any other coach that looks and talks like coaches are supposed to look and talk.
“Man, people are going to talk and all that, but you can't let it affect you,” Orgeron said. “I use that as internal motivation. People, they tease me the way I talk, tease me the way I look. And it's kind of funny. The things that I was doing at Ole Miss I was ridiculed for.
“Now I punch myself in the jaw and everybody at LSU likes it. So it just depends where you're at.”
The marriage of Orgeron and LSU proved perfect, at least the second time around. When he was a player he was homesick and bailed. Now he can’t imagine calling any place else home.
The quirkiness of this state, or this fan base, or these politics, he wades through it with ease. The combination of boastfulness — “We coming! — yet with knowing restraint, speaks to the place.
“I grew up wanting to be the head coach of LSU,” he said. “I’m so proud of the state of Louisiana.”
There was very little “how you like me now” in Orgeron’s voice on Monday, although no one would have blamed him if there were.
Instead he just spoke matter-of-factly. Maybe USC stepping over him was the best thing to happen because it got him to LSU.
Hell, everyone around here seems like they’ve been busted up and knocked down a few times. This is a state built on work. It doesn’t come easy. Ever.
What better than to have a coach who has been through it all — the good, the bad and the self-inflicted mistakes. What better coach for this place to believe in? What better example for people of all ages and all backgrounds and all backstories to follow, that the dream isn’t over as long as you still believe in it.
“It’s perseverance,” Orgeron said.
It’s getting to the head coaching mountaintop (twice) and getting sent back (twice) and knowing everyone in the sport was laughing at you … and still sitting in high school bleachers and a living room couch and never doubting that everything was still possible.
Even the national title.
“Just getting started,” Orgeron said.
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