LSU coach Ed Orgeron is most compelling figure in SEC this season and its most desperate

·6-min read

HOOVER, Ala. — The career arc of LSU head coach Ed Orgeron has been filled with myriad distinct career pivots and re-inventions.

He got run out of coaching early in his career because of off-field issues at Miami, only to return and establish himself as the indispensable wingman of Pete Carrol’s gilded run at USC. He failed famously at Ole Miss as a head coach, stormed out of USC as the interim when it wouldn’t name him the full-time coach and then famously led LSU to the national title in the 2019 season after earning the job as an interim.

There has been nothing linear about Orgeron’s rise, which only padded the lore when LSU broke through with its historic and undefeated season. He even wrote a book, "Flip the Script," to chronicle overcoming adversity.

In one nightmarish year on and off the field in 2020, the script quickly flipped back on Orgeron. That leaves Orgeron entering the 2021 season as the most compelling character in the SEC, as his reputation has backslid toward the overmatched coach who struggled with staff, fumbled with offensive identity and is teetering toward the conversations beginning of whether he should be run out of town.

After going 5-5 in 2020, getting named in a Title IX lawsuit about allegedly mishandling a rape allegation and experiencing LSU getting institutionally excoriated for its failings in matters of sexual misconduct, the national championship glow has been fully extinguished in Baton Rouge. Orgeron has also gotten divorced in the wake of the title, which was unrelated to the other issues, and everything that could have gone wrong on and off the field pretty much did.

Nov 21, 2020; Fayetteville, Arkansas, USA;  LSU Tigers head coach Ed Orgeron talks to an official during the second quarter against the Arkansas Razorbacks at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports
LSU head coach Ed Orgeron and the Tigers finished 5-5 last season. (Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports)

Orgeron declined to answer a lone media day question about he and the school’s looming sexual misconduct allegations. That includes an amended lawsuit in June that names Orgeron and his LLC as defendants and says Orgeron failed to report a rape allegation to the school’s Title IX office or any other authority.

“That's something I'm not going to comment on,” Orgeron said. “It's an ongoing investigation, and I'm not going to comment on any of that.”

Orgeron then added in a tone that would make one think someone poured sour milk in his gumbo: “Thanks for asking, though.”

Media days are an opportunity for coaches to portray any type of reality they want. So it was interesting to hear Orgeron’s spin about the momentum from LSU winning its final two games and pulling in the country’s No. 4 recruiting class. “We ended up being an ascending program,” Orgeron said.

It became clear early on that Orgeron entered media day with a simple gameplan: Make clear that LSU is attempting to channel the Joe Brady/Joe Burrow magic from 2019.

That gameplan could be a cause for skepticism or optimism, depending on your perspective. LSU hired Jake Peetz as offensive coordinator and DJ Mangas as pass game coordinator, which Orgeron explicitly said was to “run Joe Brady’s offense of 2019.” He pointed out that it was one of “the most prolific offenses in the history of football” while failing to point out that it was run by a No. 1 draft pick throwing to two first-round picks and a second-round pick.

He failed to point out that Peetz and Mangas, who were vital parts of Brady’s operation, are taking giant leaps. Peetz is in his first year as a coordinator at any level and Mangas has experience as William & Mary’s offensive coordinator. Brady arrived with a bright mind and light resume after basically being emergency quarterback J.T. Barrett’s coach with the New Orleans Saints, but it’s naïve to assume Brady’s proteges can conjure similar results with inferior talent.

“The type of offense we're going to run, the style of offense of 2019, the type of checks that we had, the type of protections, that's the stuff I'm talking about now,” Oregon said. He added: “I want to see the same type of plays, I want to see the same type of adjustments that were so successful for us.”

While LSU returns 17 starters, it still has questions at quarterback, a precipitous drop in receiver talent and a starting left tackle, Dare Rosenthal, who bailed a few weeks ago for Kentucky. Offensive line coach James Cregg was bizarrely fired in June. (Orgeron said both Rosenthal and departed tight end Arik Gilbert of Georgia are future first-round picks, which has to sting LSU fans.)

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Orgeron is a hands-off X's-and-O's coach, which showed last season when Bo Pelini’s defense imploded and LSU lacked answers. Pelini may go down as the worst high-profile assistant coach hire in SEC history after LSU finished No. 127 in total defense, and Orgeron admitted at media day he didn’t do enough vetting. Pelini got paid $4 million to stop coaching LSU, which is second to Kevin Steele’s Auburn buyout for assistant coach buyouts. (The difference, of course, is Steele was a solid coordinator who got run out in a coaching change. Pelini was just bad.)

Orgeron whiffed on hiring Marcus Freeman as defensive coordinator, and he sputtered through a search that ended with a well-regarded NFL assistant named Daronte Jones, whose only prior coordinating experience came at Bowie State and in high school. Jones was a star on the Vikings' staff, but there will be some adjustments to calling the college game in the SEC.

LSU has the talent to again be competitive in the conference, as Orgeron has kept recruiting momentum through the school’s ugly headlines and the team’s underperformance.

But after the highs of the 2019 title, the 2020 season reminded everyone that the spectrum of Orgeron’s LSU career includes getting beaten at home by Troy in 2017.

Was LSU’s undefeated immortality an anomaly? The 2021 season will go a long way in answering that. Orgeron is 45-14 as LSU’s coach with 13 wins over top-10 teams. He still needs to win the LSU opener at UCLA, or he’ll spend this fall wondering if athletic director Scott Woodward is batting his eyes at Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher, a decades-long friend who he hired in College Station.

Fisher, of course, has no buyout in his deal to leave Texas A&M. And to quell that speculation, Orgeron needs another precipitous script flip both on and off the field.

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