When LSU coach Ed Orgeron speaks, it is with a distinct voice welling up from Bayou Lafourche, here where Louisiana’s tricky compromise between land and water makes a last stand before surrendering to the Gulf.
There is no sound in college football like Orgeron on the stump, his Cajun-seasoned delivery filtered through several layers of gravel. But in his hometown of Larose, where everybody listens to slight variations of that same melody all day long, they have a joke: Finally, there’s a coach at LSU who doesn’t have an accent.
“It was ‘bout time they got a Lews-anna coach for a Lews-anna team,” 73-year-old Errol Cheramie said over his midday macrobrew at Gator’s Inn. Orgeron is the first native son leading the flagship since Monroe’s Jerry Stovall in the early 1980s.
“Them boys over there play with heart now. Just like us Cajuns, they stick together.”
There is something special about being of a place as well as for a place. Georgia’s Kirby Smart, Orgeron’s opponent Saturday in the SEC Championship game, is a son of Bainbridge and a former Bulldogs DB. He gets to claim homefield heritage all day long.
And Orgeron would have played at LSU, too, had he not grown homesick after signing with the Tigers in 1979 and retreated to Larose. His father did all he could to discourage that plan. If his boy wasn’t going to play in the trenches, then, by God, he’d be digging them for the phone company. An old high school teammate – former Saints and Falcons quarterback Bobby Hebert – eventually pulled Orgeron out of the ditch by convincing his defensive lineman buddy to come play with him at Northwestern State in Natchitoches, La.
The Orgeron origin story is as relevant to this region as a good dark roux. Here is a Bayou Bengal who can honestly testify to the joys of shoveling shrimp all day in the summers of his youth, a task that in some strange way may have prepared him for all a big-time college football coach must shovel on a regular basis.
His father, Edward, died in 2011. His mother, Coco, still lives in this hamlet of 7,300. Hard to miss her tidy red-brick home. It’s the one with the large sign out front displaying “Coco’s Wish List.” Checked off is the LSU head coaching position. LSU took care of another item last month – a victory over Alabama. Other requests – like world peace and a Heisman Trophy (for Tigers quarterback Joe Burrow, it’s understood) – are pending.
The locals, of course, are all behind their guy, all the more so now that he is unbeaten and favored to win the conference and a ticket to the playoff. The Tigers had been in eclipse since their last trip to Atlanta in 2011, the returns diminishing under Les Miles to the point he was replaced on an interim basis by Orgeron at mid-season in 2016.
The loud man from Larose, whose previous head coaching stint at Ole Miss was largely forgettable (10-25 in three seasons), made a case for himself quickly in Baton Rouge. Orgeron went 6-2 as the interim and when such high-profile possibilities as Jimbo Fisher and Tom Herman got away, LSU stuck with what it had.
Orgeron’s hiring was hardly met by universal applause. Glenn Guilbeau, who has covered the program for 15 years for the USA Today network, wrote at the time that it was “an embarrassment.”
“How far has LSU fallen?” he wondered in print. “To a career journeyman coach, a failed head coach and a somewhat successful two-time short-term head coach.” (Orgeron also served as a stopgap coach at USC for eight games in 2013).
Acceptance of Orgeron evolved as did the team, recalled LSU radio play-by-play man Chris Blair: “I think (initially) there were 60% of people were thrilled because he’s from Louisiana, he’s one of them, he understands the culture. I think there were 40% not against him for head coach so much, but they thought, did we really go look?”
“Now I think he’s close to 100%,” Blair said with a smile. If Orgeron doesn’t have a clear plurality now, when will he ever? That loss he took to Troy in 2017 is but a dust speck on the rearview mirror.
“I remember back a couple years ago we were chanting, ‘Keep Coach O, Keep Coach O.’ It was a big deal,” senior defensive end Rashard Lawrence said. “Obviously, we couldn’t handle what was going to happen at the top with who they were going to hire, we’re just going to play. We wanted to prove people right. And he did, too, because he’s a competitor.”
Significantly, the Orgeron Victory Tour this season has run over the through both Texas’ Herman (45-38) and Texas A&M’s Fisher (50-7), as well as the one former LSU coach who casts the SEC’s largest shadow, Alabama’s Nick Saban (46-41).
Right on time, by Orgeron’s reckoning. “For any coach at LSU, the third year is a big year, we knew that. I didn’t know we were going to the (SEC Championship game), but I knew the third year, you better prove where your program is going,” he said.
Back in Larose, they rejoice.
From behind the bar at Gator’s, Michelle Griffin said, “One thing, down here it’s all about family, all about community and respect. That’s something he brought there. He lit the fire.”
Nearby at lunch stop D&D, Chelsce Pitre, on break from the lumber yard, spoke to how important it has been to see Orgeron, one of their own, make it big. “It feels so authentic with him succeeding at LSU,” she said. “And it’s important for people to see that it’s not all ‘Swamp People’ down here,” she said, referring to the bayou-based reality show.
And what of the doubting newspaper man? These words he penned just this past week:
“LSU is on the verge of being very good for a long time.
“So, I was wrong.”
For the next time he got his chance to be a head coach, Orgeron would make some important changes and concessions. For one, he knew he had to throttle back on the manic approach he adopted at Ole Miss.
“When you get your first job you want everything to be right, everything to be perfect. I couldn’t sleep at Ole Miss, I didn’t want to go home. You can’t do it. There’s no way,” he said this week.
And he did the same with his team, adopting a more measured practice routine in order to save his players for game day.
Known forever as a fine salesman, Orgeron went to work rebuilding the roster and returning the Tigers to the top tier of those all-important recruiting rankings. He unified the base, promising the people he would flip the script and that their boys would play with all their heart – sounding the usual battle cries in a dialect they could appreciate. He beat back the perception that he was, well, something of a blunt object as a coach, most important by approving the transition to the high-octane offense that has fueled LSU’s 12-0 season.
All the while, Orgeron said, he worked off some simple advice that Sean Payton gave him while he worked briefly on the New Orleans Saints staff: “It doesn’t matter how you got here, you’re here. Now make the best of it.”
Only now is the rest of the big wide world on the other side of Bayou Lafourche catching on to what Orgeron’s best can be.
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