By JIM KLEINPETER | Tiger Rag Featured Columnist
LSU achieved a minor milestone with Saturday’s 33-10 victory against Arkansas. But it’s only minor because most everyone has forgotten the noise created when Joe Alleva hired the team’s defensive line coach, Ed Orgeron as permanent head coach.
In beating the Razorbacks, Orgeron racked up his career-high seventh victory in a season, and continues to cement himself as one of Alleva’s best decisions, albeit from a seemingly small pool. The 6-2 stints as interim coach at LSU last year and at USC in 2013 deserve the asterisk next to them, so this win is significant and revelatory. There is a big difference between sliding over into the driver’s seat mid-season and running your own show from start to finish.
The victory also sets up Orgeron neatly to square his career mark. With two regular season games and a bowl contest, three Tiger victories will put Coach O at 32-32 going into a highly-anticipated 2018 season where the real test of his abilities will begin.
When Orgeron was hired nearly a year ago following LSU’s season finale’, like Tiger fans in general, I was split on the decision. I remarked, facetiously, that anyone could coach LSU to eight victories, meaning with the LSU brand and available resources, the woods are full of coaches who could come in succeed to that standard. The real difficulty would be getting to 10 wins or more, and ultimately beating Alabama.
Orgeron is in good position to nail half of that equation after coming close with the other in a 24-10 loss to Bama. He deserves a lot of credit for righting a foundering ship early in the season after the 30-point loss to Mississippi State and an upset loss to Troy in a three-week span.
But there is some fool’s gold in a coach’s first season. Seven of the last eight LSU coaches started their runs with winning records in their first season. The only exception was Curley Hallman, who missed it by one game at 5-6. The list doesn’t include Paul Dietzel, who went 3-5-2 in 1955, mainly because he fathered the high expectations four years later with the school’s first national championship.
Charles McClendon fed the growing monster in 1962 (9-1-1). Jerry Stovall, stepping in late after Bo Rein’s tragic death, picked up the baton at in 1980 (7-4). Bill Arnsaparger went 8-3-1 in 1984; Mike Archer was 10-1-1 in 1987; Gerry DiNardo 7-6 in 1995; Nick Saban 8-4 in 2000; and Les Miles 11-2 in 2005.
That’s the source of my comment about the program. I’m sure Orgeron will welcome the high expectations growing on the horizon with each victory, but they don’t make the job easier. That is just one of the variables Orgeron will face as his career moves forward. Remember, only two of those coaches, Arnsparger and Saban, left on their own terms.
The most obvious task is recruiting. It doesn’t matter if he’s the best in his profession at everything else he does, Orgeron has got to get multiple upper tier players at every position during the next three seasons or he won’t last. Fortunately for LSU, he built his reputation on recruiting. It’s what he does best. Right now he’s succeeding with Les Miles’ players as LSU coaches before him did with their predecessors in their first seasons.
The last two Alabama games showed that No. 1 of those positions is quarterback. LSU might have upset the Tide two years in a row with better play at that position. Mississippi State came a lot closer than the Tigers Saturday because of Bulldog quarterback Nick Fitzgerald’s dual threat ability, and we all know what Clemson’s DeShaun Watson did to Alabama in consecutive CFP title games.
But recruiting isn’t the only factor. For now, Orgeron has snuffed out the perception that he might be a meddler in offensive coordinator Matt Canada’s game plans, but we don’t know if that issue has been truly resolved. There’s no reason right now to think Canada will leave, but it brings up the question of how will he handle the loss of assistants, who come and go in the college coaching profession. Canada and defensive coordinator Dave Aranda are head coach material and at the age when it’s time to test the waters (Aranda is 41 and Canada 45).
Yet another factor is how he handles the politics of the job. Orgeron lacks the polish and wit of many successful college coaches, and the list of boosters and other VIPs who want a piece of him will grow each year. With the big salary comes the responsibility to promote the program and the school. Les Miles had some kind of goofy knack for bringing LSU positive attention at every turn, including traveling overseas, kissing pigs and other innumerable sorts of charity appearances. This is a necessary evil that grinds on every coach, whether or not they admit it. So far, Orgeron has been less visible, says little and when he does speak he says the right things. But that part of the job is waiting for him every day when he wakes up.
And then there are the players. Orgeron has kept a tight lid on announcing player discipline, academic issues and injury status. He’s been lucky so far, but the longer he stays in the job, the higher the probability something is going to happen.
For all his faults, Miles handled more than his share of adversity, whether it was the Shady’s bar fight or Hurricane Whomever. The head coach is responsible for making myriad decisions in a short period of time during incidents like this, not only for himself but for 85 young adults between the ages of 18 and 23. Anyone who has children this age knows how hard it is to handle just one or two.
LSU fans can enjoy the momentum of this season as the Tiger football fortunes rise while they also acknowledge the ceiling is low and it is a long drop back down to the floor. Orgeron has the program on the upswing and he deserves consideration for 2017 Coach of the Year in the SEC, but as his career moves forward the margin for error shrinks with each passing day.
There won’t be room for losses to Troy and Mississippi State, and what defines a milestone victory will evolve upward.