By CODY WORSHAM | Tiger Rag Editor
As I drove the 20 minutes from Tiger Stadium to my home on Saturday night, one thought echoed in my mind, like a song stuck on repeat:
“The fish rots from the head.”
Perhaps it was the food poisoning I recently picked up from bad fish tacos, which turned my arms and face a terrifying shade of red and sent my stomach into three days of existential crisis. Maybe it was the fried fish served Saturday in the press box, which was delicious and, thankfully, left my skin color unchanged.
Or maybe it was the performance on the field by the Tigers, who collectively looked like a fish out of water in a 24-21 loss against Troy and, in the program’s first home non-conference defeat in 50 games, put on a performance as rotten as any in the program’s recent memory.
Whatever its catalyst, the thought stayed in my mind, and it’s yet to escape.
Right now, LSU football is rotten. And it starts at the head.
No, I’m not talking about Ed Orgeron – though he is far from blameless in LSU’s 3-2 start, which features, after a dominant week one win over BYU: 1) unimpressive home wins over unimpressive non-conference foes Chattanooga and Syracuse; 2) a historic loss to Mississippi State – which has since lost two straight SEC games by a combined score of 80-13 to Auburn and Georgia; and 3) one of the worst defeats an LSU team has suffered in my lifetime, to a team it was favored by 20.5 points to beat.
Orgeron’s worst offense so far, however, may be his post-game press conferences from Troy and Mississippi State. In both, he admitted he didn’t know why a running back was or wasn’t in the game. Against the Bulldogs, Orgeron said he wasn’t sure why star Derrius Guice was on the sidelines in the fourth quarter. Against Troy, Orgeron said he didn’t know why, in the absence of the injured Guice, Nick Brossette got the game’s first carry – which he fumbled to set up Troy’s first touchdown – instead of Darrel Williams.
“Wish we could’ve had that first play back,” Orgeron said Saturday. “I wanted Darrel to get the ball. Instead, our third-string back got the ball. I should have done a better job game planning that. I was not aware that we were going to do that.
“I make all the calls. Everything goes through me. I should’ve checked it, and I didn’t. No pointing the fingers at anybody. If I could’ve had that call back, Darrel would’ve got the ball back.”
In between his mea culpas, Orgeron – intentionally or not – threw Brossette under the bus for his fumble, and also implied that offensive coordinator Matt Canada (or one of his offensive staffers) made the wrong call to give Brossette the ball.
Two Tigers, one bus. I appreciate the transparency. Some things are best left unsaid, though. The rumblings that Orgeron and Canada are bumping heads won’t dissipate soon.
But Orgeron isn’t the head who came to this writer’s mind on Saturday night.
This loss, the one that preceded it, and every one that follows is at the feet of athletic director Joe Alleva.
The wins are too, to be fair – if they come. It is a long season. Teams improve. Writers and fans jump to conclusions, only to return weeks later for a healthy serving of crow.
But just as Brossette probably shouldn’t have been the one toting the opening carry against Troy, Orgeron – by his record alone – probably shouldn’t have been the one leading the Tigers out of the tunnel to start the season. His career record in SEC games as a full-time head coach is 3-22. Bump it up to 7-24 if you include his stint as LSU’s interim last season, when he took over the Tigers at 1-1 in the SEC and won four of six down the stretch.
Yes, man is capable of redemption. Orgeron, in theory, could have learned from his mistakes at Ole Miss and could use that knowledge to lead LSU back to the pinnacle of college football. Lord knows more than one Tiger fan out there is rooting for exactly that to happen, and I’m on record as saying that I thought the risk on Orgeron was worth taking. I still think he can turn things around, but it clearly will take a recruiting cycle or two, and I’m not sure if fans have the patience.
It’s not the end for Orgeron, but it’s a rough start.
Meanwhile, the man who gave him that start is under the most scrutiny he’s ever been in since taking the LSU athletic director job in 2008. Alleva is a quiet figure, who rarely ventures from his office to do media appearances. When he has, it’s not gone well.
In 2015, he tried and failed to fire Les Miles, a move curtailed at the last second by F. King Alexander, the school president who was hesitant about the political costs associated with the optics of paying Miles a massive, multi-million dollar buyout while the university itself was strapped for cash.
After that failed attempt, Alleva told the press – following a bizarre 2015 LSU win over Texas A&M, when Miles’ players carried him off the field – his policy was to wait until the end of the season to evaluate coaches.
Four games into the 12-game 2016 season, he fired Miles. Apparently, the end of season policy was a flexible one.
After appointing Orgeron as interim head coach, Alleva pursued Houston coach Tom Herman, who ended up using LSU as leverage to land the Texas job. Perturbed by Herman’s shun, Alleva almost immediately removed the interim tag from Orgeron and made him LSU’s 33rd head coach, the culmination of a search in which Alleva said from the outset he wanted to find “the best fit” for LSU.
Months later, he fired basketball coach Johnny Jones, saying, ‘The word “fit” is a joke.'”
All that – plus a PR defeat in the wake of Hurricane Matthew against Florida, who outflanked Alleva from a weaker position into consecutive home games in 2017 and 2018, while winning in Baton Rouge in 2016 – put Alleva behind the eight ball with a large contingent of LSU fans, despite all the good he’s done for the athletics department.
And he has done plenty of good. LSU Athletics has never been more profitable. It makes so much money, it actually cuts checks back to the university – which does, incidentally, tend to appease the Board of Supervisors who control Alleva’s fate.
Its facilities are fantastic. The gymnastics practice facility has been called “one of the greatest in the world” by gold medalist Bart Conner. Tennis and baseball have world class homes, too. The hire of basketball coach Will Wade will buy Alleva goodwill among those fans who prioritize Tiger hoops. Golf is good. The programs stay out of NCAA trouble, for the most part.
But LSU’s athletics directors are ultimately judged by the football coaches they hire, not the budgets they balance or compliance they maintain. Alleva’s fate is married to Orgeron’s, and five games into their official marriage, things are rocky.
There’s no way out, either. Alleva could’ve hired Orgeron, who had no other major suitors, and given him a contract favorable to the university – low salary, no buyout, heavily incentivized. Alleva had all the leverage and could’ve probably afforded a one or two year risk on Orgeron while the coaching market improved.
Instead, Alleva included a $12 million buyout in year one that drops to just $8.5 million in year two. He’s still paying Les Miles and Johnny Jones to watch from home, too.
What that means is Orgeron isn’t going anywhere. He has plenty of time to turn things around, and if he does, he and Alleva will be able to shove this column in my face and watch me eat it, bite by papery bite.
It also means, though, that if things go continue to go badly for Orgeron, they also go badly for Alleva. And when it comes time to cut bait, it may just be the head of the fish that goes first.