ENGSTER: Coach O is no ordinary Joe

By JIM ENGSTER | President, Tiger Rag

LSU’s national search for a head coach ended on its front doorstep with Coach O becoming the eleventh Tiger football leader since 1979. That was the year Edward Jim Orgeron Jr. briefly enrolled at LSU in the final season of Charles McClendon.  At 55, Orgeron is the second oldest man to take the reins of the LSU program, exceeded only by 56-year-old Bill Arnsparger in December of 1983. Clearly, Orgeron is the most resilient leader to guide the Tigers.

LSU is the 12th stop in a rollercoaster tour which has provided Orgeron with an education about his profession in every region of the country. Athletic Director Joe Alleva opted for a candidate with 50 games experience as a head man at three major universities. After Jimbo Fischer and Tom Herman rebuffed him, Alleva had to decide whether to go with Coach O or reopen the process.

LSU has employed a dozen head coaches since Gaynell Tinsley was fired in 1954. Three of them won national championships at LSU; Paul Dietzel, Nick Saban and Les Miles. Six collected SEC titles in Dietzel (2), Saban (2), Miles (2), Charles McClendon (1), Bill Arnsparger (1) and Mike Archer (1).

Collectively, the eleven coaches to precede Orgeron were not big winners at other colleges or in the NFL prior to their ascension to the LSU post. The coach with the worst record upon his hiring at LSU was Arnsparger, who owns an NFL-worst winning percentage for coaches with 35 or more games experience, 20 percent with the New York Giants from 1974-76. Despite his debacle in the Big Apple, Arnsparger had a successful three-year mark of 26-8-2 at LSU from 1984-86.

Here are the head coaching records (professional and college) of the LSU coaches prior to their hiring in Baton Rouge.

[table]Coach,Age When Hired,Year Hired,Previous Record
Paul Dietzel,30,1955,0-0
Charles McClendon,38,1962,0-0
Bo Rein,34,1979,27-18-1
Jerry Stovall,38,1980,0-0
Bill Arnsparger,56,1983,7-28
Mike Archer,33,1986,0-0
Curley Hallman,43,1990,23-11
Gerry DiNardo,42,1994,19-25
Hal Hunter,35,1999,0-0
Nick Saban,48,1999,43-26-1
Les Miles,51,2005,28-21
Ed Orgeron,55,2016,21-29[/table]

The last 12 coaches at LSU had a combined record of 168-158-2 before leading the Bengals.

The most decorated coach hired at LSU was Saban, who came to the Bayou when the program was at its lowest ebb. LSU had weathered eight losing seasons in eleven years prior to Saban being plucked from Michigan State in November of 1999.  He left five years later after making the job a plum in the coaching fraternity. Along came 51-year-old Les Miles, who brought a mark of 28-21 in four years at Oklahoma State.

Orgeron’s nomadic career started at Northwestern State in 1984 as a graduate assistant to Sam Goodwin, who coached the Demons from 1983-99.

Goodwin, who captured five state football titles at Little Rock Parkview High School before becoming head coach of Northwestern in 1983 recalls his introduction to Orgeron on the Natchitoches campus.

“The head of the housing department wanted me to take a look at the dorm room that Orgeron and his buddy Arceneaux lived in. Both of them were from South Lafourche,” recalls Goodwin.

“I went in the room. It was ruined. Glass was broken and all the furniture had been smashed. They had pretty much torn it up,” Goodwin says. “I made up mind I had to get rid of them.”

Goodwin said his first meeting at Northwestern was with Orgeron and his roommate. “They surprised me. They were a couple of clean cut guys, said yes and no sir, were very polite and said all the right things,” Goodwin remembers. “I ended up keeping them and not only were they were good football players, but were very good leaders. “Be’ Be’ (Orgeron) was the best leader we had that year.”

Northwestern was rebuilding and went 4-7 in ’83, but lost all of its games by narrow margins and won its last three, including a season-ending upset of nationally ranked Northeast Louisiana. It was a contest against Louisiana Tech that sparks Goodwin into recounting a vintage story about his colorful defensive lineman.

“We were leading Tech late in the game at the State Fair Game. They had first and goal at the four-yard line. We had stopped them on three plays, and it was fourth down at the one. The defense is crouched over, but Be’ Be’ is standing up, pointing and yelling at the offense, ‘Come to me. Come to me.’

“Sure enough, they run to that side, and he stopped them.” Goodwin notes that a grand ending was spoiled when his quarterback fumbled on the next play. Tech recovered in the end zone and won the game.

A year later, Northwestern captured its conference title and led 1AA football in scoring defense, highlighted by a 22-0 shutout of Southern Miss. Orgeron served as coach of defensive ends with the Demons of 1984. Goodwin credits his pupil with maturing in the year before he turned 23 years old.

“He was very vocal,” Goodwin says of Coach O’s stature on the practice field. “You wouldn’t have thought he was a student assistant.”

If Orgeron had been sent home to Larose as Goodwin first planned 33 years ago, a memorable voyage would have stalled. Orgeron overcame a demolished dorm room and then moved on to McNeese in 1985, Arkansas (1986), Miami of Florida (1988), Nicholls State (1994), Syracuse (1995), USC (1998), Ole Miss (2005), New Orleans Saints (2008), Tennessee (2009), USC (2010) and LSU (2015).

His first game at Tiger Stadium as a defensive line coach was on Nov. 19, 1988 when Miami of Florida bombed an SEC title team from LSU, 44-3, as Hurricanes’ boss Jimmy Johnson never had his hair move in a blinding rainstorm.

Orgeron has been part of four teams to claim NCAA titles at Miami (1989 and 1991) and at USC (2003 and 2004).

Coach O’s past includes an arrest for a bar fight in Baton Rouge in 1992. He departed the Miami program the same year for personal reasons. It was a journeyman named Rick Rhoades at Nicholls State who provided Orgeron with another shot as a volunteer linebackers coach with the Colonels in 1994.

The lowest point for Orgeron was his firing by Ole Miss at the close of the 2007 season. His team went 0-8 in the SEC, including a close 27-24 defeat to Alabama in Saban’s first year at Tuscaloosa. Despite a 10-25 record, O stocked the roster at Oxford well enough for Houston Nutt to produce nine-win seasons in 2008 and 2009.

Coach O was not the first guy on Alleva’s shopping list, but he could be much more than a consolation prize. As the singer and sage Willie Nelson once noted, “Ninety-percent of married couples are not with their first choices.”

The new man in Death Valley is a survivor. After an abundance of peaks of valleys, Orgeron has an opportunity to fight his way to the pinnacle of his profession.

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