By JAMES MORAN | Tiger Rag Associate Editor
Editor’s note: This story appears in the latest edition of Tiger Rag Extra, “The Money Issue,” out on newsstands in Baton Rouge now and available for purchase online here. You can also subscribe to Tiger Rag here.
Even after a 9-3 inaugural campaign, the promotion of Ed Orgeron to full-time LSU head coach remains a point of contention in and around Baton Rouge.
For some it’ll always remain an over-reactionary hire; an emotional decision by Joe Alleva after being played by Tom Herman’s representation team; an ill-conceived effort to save face as quickly as possible by giving the job to the popular guy with a Cajun accent — and a career losing record, as critics are quick to point out — instead of restarting the search from square one.
From Alleva’s perspective, it was a breaking of the mold. It was about “fit,” but also about buying into an innovative new way of constructing a staff. Yes, it was hiring the popular local guy who’d always dreamed of getting the job, but he insisted it was also about a plan to restore the program to elite status.
Surely you’ve all heard the plan spelled out by now: In an age of skyrocketing Southeastern Conference coaching salaries, Orgeron took less money — $3.5 million in annual salary plus incentives over a five-year deal, which at the time made his the fourth-lowest paid coach in the league.
My Top Sportsbooks’ Word
My Top Sportsbooks reviews the odds listed at sports books online and follows the spread each week for NCAA games. Their preliminary thoughts on the Citrus Bowl:
“With three consecutive wins over SEC rivals Arkansas, Tennessee, Texas A&M, the LSU Tigers enter the Citrus Bowl on a hot streak. Notre Dame’s power running game was dominant for a stretch, opening the season 8-1, but since Brandon Wimbush’s injury the Fighting Irish have fallen off a bit, losing two of their last three games. If LSU’s defense can pressure Wimbush into mistakes like Stanford did, the Tigers will have a great chance to win.”
Taking $800,000 less than outgoing coach Les Miles allowed LSU to spend a nation-leading $3.3 million on coordinators Dave Aranda ($1.8 million) and Matt Canada ($1.5 million) in 2017, the twin pillars of Orgeron’s CEO approach to program building. Orgeron would recruit, motivate and oversee. The two coordinators would have domain over their respective sides of the ball.
The jury is still out on whether this method can produce sustained success at the highest level, but football is a copycat sport, and amid a wild offseason heavy on openings and light on qualified candidates, LSU’s model already appears to be catching on at at least one other school — one that just so happens to be awfully familiar with Orgeron.
Meanwhile, LSU recently got an up-close-and-personal look at the money it would’ve cost had Alleva and the administration chose to go in a more high-priced direction, re-igniting the local debate about Orgeron all over again.
Will LSU be come to seen as visionary for going with Orgeron’s plan or cheap for not being the team to spend $75 million to bring Jimbo Fisher to the SEC West? Only time will tell on both fronts.
OLE MISS IS probably the last program anybody would expect to follow Orgeron’s lead, but stop me if you’ve heard this before:
The Rebels had a hometown interim coach in Matt Luke who gained popularity as the year went on, closing his regular season strong with an emotional win against a hated rival. Players and (some) fans made overwhelming shows of support. Then, just as a long search process was about to begin, the administration suddenly pulled the interim tag and named Luke full-time coach.
Of course Ole Miss isn’t the attractive job LSU is in terms of prestige, resources or facilities, particularly with the program staring down the barrel of NCAA sanctions as the coaching carousel started to whirl.
Ole Miss athletic director Ross Bjork also faced the daunting prospects of attracting a coach in the same offseason that Florida, Texas A&M, Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi State were also hiring. Impending scholarship reduction and another year added to the postseason bowl ban would’ve made for an increasingly tougher sell.
Obviously that’s not how Bjork framed the removal of Luke’s interim tag. He spoke of instituting a blue collar culture within the program under a former offensive line coach. Luke spoke of landing a job that meant the world to him as a native son of Mississippi.
“Ole Miss is a destination job,” Luke said during his introductory press conference. “It’s not just my dream job, it’s a destination job. And I am truly honored to be the head coach at the University of Mississippi.”
He continued: “I wanted to be hired here because I was the right man for the job. I’ve been playing and coaching at this level for 20 years. I’ve been under some of the best head coaches in the country and I fully understand what a championship program looks like.”
Luke received a four-year contract that’ll pay him $3 million in 2018 with an annual raise of $100,000 going forward.
According to Bjork, that leaves Ole Miss with a salary pool of $5.135 million for assistants, which ranks fourth nationally behind LSU, Clemson and Alabama. That’s up from $4,261,700 in 2016. The program has also allotted $2.1 million for support staff and other personnel.
Sounds awfully familiar, right?
A few weeks later LSU got a glimpse of how much it may have cost to shop on Park Avenue instead of the bargain bin. Jimbo Fisher, the former LSU coordinator that the school nearly hired in 2015, landed at Texas A&M on a fully-guaranteed 10-year, $75 million deal.
It’s unlikely LSU would’ve ever shelled out this kind of money, particularly in light of the state’s budget crisis and comments from Alleva and F. King Alexander about the out-of-control nature of coaching salaries.
But should they have paid such a steep price to keep another national championship-winning coach from setting up shop along their western flank? Fans tend to care a lot more about wins and losses than how much money a program spent along the way.
THE SILLY SEASON doesn’t only affect those head coaches who’re actively looking for a new gig.
After LSU routed Texas A&M 45-21 in the regular-season finale, Orgeron said he expected Canada to pursue a head coaching job and “hopes” LSU’s first-year assistant gets one the coaching carousel kicks into gear.
“Everybody wants to be a head coach,” Orgeron said. “I hope he gets the opportunity to get it.”
It’s fairly well known around that program that Canada would like to be a head coach. He interviewed for the vacancy at East Carolina back in December of 2015 before Duke offensive coordinator Scottie Montgomery eventually got the job.
Canada is in the first year of a three-year contract that pays him $1.5 million annually. Generally speaking, he would have to land a Power 5 Conference head coaching job to match that salary or likely accept a pay cut if he wanted to take a job at the mid-major level.
If Canada does leave, the pertinent question shifts to the future of the shift-base offense he’s installed this season — an attack that had just hung 45 points and 601 yards of total offense on Texas A&M.
Orgeron answered that one directly, too: “It all depends. I have in mind what we want on offense, also/ I’ve been at some pretty good schools; pretty good offenses. So if he would leave, we’ve got guys like (tight ends coach) Steve Ensminger, who I’d highly consider. Done a great job for us last year. But those things got to happen in the near future.”
It’s worth noting that relationship between Orgeron and Canada isn’t clear at this point. The two had something of a disconnect leading up to the Troy loss, as Orgeron admitted afterward to meddling in Canada’s offense and ordering him to stop running his trademark shifts and motions.
Alleva held a meeting with Orgeron, Canada and Aranda in the aftermath of that loss for the purpose of getting “all on the same page,” according to Orgeron.
The results from that point on have been ostensibly positive, though. LSU won six of its final seven games — the lone defeat coming against Alabama, a game in which LSU outgained the Tide on the night — while averaging 28.9 points per game during that stretch.
“He’s done a good job,” Orgeron said. “I think the whole offensive staff has done a good job.”
As of press time, things have been relatively quiet on the Canada front since Orgeron’s comments raised eyebrows around Baton Rouge.
Canada reportedly had interest in the Rice job, which eventually went to Stanford offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren. He was also linked to the vacancy at UL-Lafayette after the school unexpectedly fired Mark Hudspeth.
Plenty of twists and turns are still to come in this silly season, but Canada’s departure doesn’t seem as imminent as it did after Orgeron spoke after the Texas A&M game. The coordinator has been on the trail for LSU recruiting quarterbacks in the weeks since. That doesn’t mean he won’t leave, of course.
One rumor around town has presupposed Canada’s departure and proposed a high-profile, albeit controversial replacement: Hugh Freeze. Speculation began once Freeze received a relative slap on the wrist from the NCAA while Ole Miss got hammered for lack of institutional control.
The disgraced former Ole Miss head coach started his career in Oxford under Orgeron and owns two career victories over Nick Saban and Alabama. However, a source inside the program said the two haven’t actually remained friendly and shot down the idea of Orgeron hiring Freeze.
It’s anybody’s guess when and if Canada will move on to another job. Whenever that day comes, Orgeron’s ability to hire an up-and-coming successor will go a long way toward the ultimate sustainability of this CEO model.
YOU WON’T EVER hear anybody in LSU colors express hope that Aranda gets a job elsewhere.
Whether from Orgeron, players or fans, LSU’s resident defensive guru has had praise heaped upon him since his first day in Baton Rouge. The gameplan he devised to shut down Heisman winner Lamar Jackson in last year’s Citrus Bowl is the stuff of legend.
Aranda coordinated a dominant, veteran-laden defense in his first season at LSU. There were some early hiccups this season, but his unit has steadily trended upward as the front seven got healthier and younger depth emerged down the stretch.
The lynchpin of this year’s defense is sophomore linebacker Devin White, who led the SEC with 127 tackles during the regular season. Only nine Tigers have ever recorded 120+ in a single season. He earned SEC Defensive Player of the Week honors a league-record four times in 13 weeks of football.
White credits his breakout season to preparedness gained through constant and diligent film study. He credits Aranda for being the man who showed him the light.
“I talked to some pro guys, but the main guy that showed me was Coach Aranda,” White said. “He broke down the importance of playing fast, so I’m just thankful for Coach Aranda. He’s like a blessing sent from God to me, for me personally. It’s like he’s at this school for me for some reason.
“I know he’s here to coach our other linebackers too, but he’s had a huge impact on the way I’ve played.”
That sentiment is more norm than exception among the players who’ve worked under Aranda. Whether it’s Aranda’s gameplans or assistance in the film room, everyone in the program from the tippy top on down rave about Aranda’s impact. Orgeron often references the long nights Aranda spends in the office breaking down each opponent.
It’s unlikely that Aranda spends his entire career at LSU, but Orgeron and Co. will keep him well compensated for his services for as long as possible. People around the program believe he’d be more likely to jump for an NFL coordinator job than a college head coaching gig, by the way.
But whenever he does leave for greener pastures, the onus will be on Orgeron — assuming he’s still the CEO of LSU football — to pick the right successor from what should be a long list of qualified candidates. That assessment will prove more critical to the program than any one player LSU scouts out on the trail.