ATLANTA – Fifty-five minutes before kickoff of No. 1 LSU’s College Football Playoff semifinal against No. 4 Oklahoma in the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl, Steve Ensminger jogged on the field like he had done for the last 38 years of his life.
For the 61-year old Tigers’ offensive coordinator, it was a football Saturday, a game to coach, plays for him to call with a clear head for a Heisman Trophy winning quarterback.
And everyone in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, who had already heard that Ensminger’s daughter-in-law had been killed in a plane crash in Lafayette earlier in the day, stared with compassion and wonder at a man wiping away tears and instinctively clapping as a coach does.
Why is he even here? How can he function not so much as a coach, but more so as a human being?
“I told him what happened,” LSU coach Ed Orgeron said of breaking the terrible news to Ensminger, “and here’s what he said: `Coach, we’re going to get through this.’”
All Ensminger did was go out and call the game of his life in a 63-28 Tigers’ rout for an offense that posted the most points ever in a CFP game and the second most total offense yards (692) in school history.
“I can’t imagine anyone else other than Coach Ensminger being able to do that,” LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda said in the midst of the Tigers’ postgame on-field celebration and trophy presentation. “Coach O told me what happened, that he had just talked to Coach E and how Coach E handled it. I was almost floored. I’ve always had so much respect for him.
“He has such a great heart, there’s a bit of John Wayne in Steve Ensminger, it’s the way he handles himself. Everyone loves him because he cares about everybody. He won’t show it, but he’ll pull you in close and tell you. He looks after you.
“So, everyone wanted to do their best for him.”
Once he was in the press box coaching booth with passing game coordinator Joe Brady, it was total focus and business as usual.
“I can’t even begin to think of what he was able to do today with the circumstances,” Brady said.
But he did it. And afterwards in a tearful dressing room presentation, Oregron awarded Ensminger the game ball. It was the first game ball Orgeron gave this year.
“Coach Ensminger called a great game and we played a great game,” LSU tight end Thaddeus Moss said.
One of the secrets of the 14-0 Tigers magical march to a Jan. 13 national championship game in New Orleans vs. third-ranked defending national champion Clemson and its 29-game winning streak is an absence of off-the-field drama.
Other than some in-house suspensions for alleged failed drug tests, no players have been arrested this season. There hasn’t been one hint of dissension or out-of-control ego on a team full of major award winners and future NFL first-round draft choices.
LSU’s week here preparing for its biggest game since the 2011 BCS national championship game had been more of the same.
Until Saturday morning when the private plane carrying 30-year-old Carley McCord, a freelance TV broadcaster and wife of Steve Ensminger Jr., crashed moments after taking off at 9:20 a.m from the Lafayette airport bound for Atlanta and the playoff game. McCord and four others on-board were killed.
“We had finished walk-through at 11:30, so I was trying to write down things, the game plan we were going to discuss,” Orgeron said. “I looked at (Orgeron personal assistant) Derek (Pomansky), and I said `Derek, you know what? Thank God we’ve gone through the whole week without any incidents.’ Usually, you go to a bowl, something happens. None of our guys were tested or suspended for anything. Nobody missed curfew. Almost a perfect week.
“Then he (Pomansky) got the text (about the crash). And I had to go find Steve, and I told him about 12:30.”
Orgeron chose not to inform his team until after the game, though a few players like offensive tackle Austin Deculus, long snapper Blake Ferguson and backup quarterback Myles Brennan sought out Ensminger in pregame warmups to give him hugs. So did several Oklahoma assistants.
“It was tough, I didn’t want the team to know,” Orgeron said. “I didn’t want it to affect the team, the mindset of the football team, the energy of the football team. Neither did Steve. We tried to keep it from them.”
LSU quarterback Joe Burrow who threw for seven TDs and wide receiver Justin Jefferson who caught four of those scoring strikes were so focused on the task at hand that they didn’t learn the heartbreaking news until after the game.
“Just the fact that he still stuck with the game and still called a great game, that just means a lot for the players,” Jefferson said of Ensminger. “I feel bad for him. I’m sorry for his loss. But, I mean, we’re all with him.”
They were all with him, which is why Ensminger, a Baton Rouge native and former LSU starting QB in the late 1970s, went ahead and coached. He was in his safe space with his football family surrounding him with love.
“When I heard about it, it was heartbreaking,” nose tackle Tyler Shelvin said. “A family member of us lost a family member. We won it for him.”
Sunday morning, LSU will board its team flight home to Baton Rouge. The Tigers will begin to heal their bumps and bruises and a hamstring in the case of running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire who played sparingly on Saturday.
Edwards-Helaire knows Ensminger has to heal something much greater.
“Coach E and his family are strong and I know they are going to get through it,” Edwards-Helaire said. “Right now in my mind, I want to do everything I possibly can in order to bring happiness in Coach E’s life.”