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Mulvena: Coach O story is telling of coaching role

| Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Last night ESPN published a feature, written by Alex Scarborough, on coach Ed Orgeron, head coach of the No. 2 LSU Tigers, that I highly encourage every college football fan to read. In interviews with phenom quarterback Joe Burrow and Orgeron himself, Scarborough dives into recent rise of LSU. But more than this, I think Scarborough’s feature, and the story of Orgeron in general, illuminates the unique nature of what makes a college football coach successful and the width of the role that a good college football coach can play.

It’s hard not to like the Tigers this year, and a lot of that has to do with Orgeron, or “Coach O,” as he’s commonly known. He’s a fantastic motivator, so much so that even the uninterested bystander can feel moved by his calls to action. He has a deep cajun rumble to his voice, in the most loveable way possible. He’s tough, straightforward and full of energy. On a surface level, he’s just really easy to like. And people, even outside the LSU football circle, have taken to him. All over Twitter, you can find viral Coach O videos, and even the casual fan seems to rave about the energy he brings to the game.

But beyond the funny Twitter videos in which Coach O rumbles “Go Tigahs,” there is a truly fantastic story of a man whose passion for coaching football, a passion so strong that it has often gotten in the way of his success, has driven a telling football story.

Floating around between programs as an assistant, defensive backs coach and eventually assistant head coach, Orgeron was eventually given a prime opportunity in a big-time program as the interim head coach of USC midway through the 2013 season following the firing of Lane Kiffin. Orgeron would finish the season 6-2, including a win over then-No. 5 Stanford, an accomplishment he thought good enough to retain the head coaching position. But in the end, USC decided not to re-hire Orgeron, and he would be out of college football for a year.

Orgeron describes how he just wasn’t himself that year, a story we’ve heard from many football coaches obsessed with the game. But after that year off, Orgeron was offered the position of defensive backs coach at LSU, and he would eventually take over as interim head coach in 2016 after the firing of Les Miles. And it was at that point when Orgeron turned a new leaf.

The same man who was infamous for needlessly screaming at players during his unsuccessful stint as head coach at Ole Miss, for openly calling out other coaches in practice and just for generally working with reckless abandon and unsuccessful theatrics, began to ease down a bit. Not only that, but Orgeron also called former coaches and colleagues to apologize for his old harmful ways. And he set for himself a goal as head coach of LSU that he had always held in the back of his mind, a goal that would, in large part, be responsible for the resurgence of the program — to bring a modern high-powered offense to LSU.

And after a few years, Coach O did just that. With relentless recruiting efforts, hiring of just the right offensive personnel and a willingness to bring about real, radical change, Coach O has built one of the most impressive offensive units college football has seen in a long time, and in the process he has restored a fanbase’s faith in a program caught in an SEC conference that is as competitive as it has ever been.

But what is important here is that Coach O is not, nor has ever claimed himself to be, some offensive guru or defensive mastermind. He’s not an “X’s and O’s guy,” and he doesn’t have that genius prodigy that we’ve seen other largely unsuccessful “phenom” coaches given in the past.

He’s a fantastic motivator — he has the ability to get 18, 19, and 20-year-old kids to come play for his new offense and leave it all on the field. He has the wherewithal to realize that the personnel below him is what will ultimately be responsible for execution on the field, and he has convinced the higher-ups at LSU to do whatever it takes to retain good coordinators and assistants on staff. And most of all , he’s willing to adapt, instituting a pro-style spread offense, with some run pass option mixed in, in an LSU program that has traditionally relied on the ground game.

His journey to the top tells us that a successful college coach need not be a straight-edge traditional football mind, but might instead be a motivator, a facilitator who knows how to put together a staff and a adaptor to the ever changing landscape of college football. Perhaps these are the most important skills at the college level.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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