You might feel a certain, for lack of a better word, gumbo.
The voice of the beloved LSU football coach embodies the region from which he hails, a tightknit part of the country not much of the country ever visits, a region that bloats southward from New Orleans, even if most visitors to New Orleans don’t drive down to see it because most visitors to New Orleans shouldn’t drive anywhere. It’s marshland and bayous and towns and census-designated places with names such as Cut Off, Golden Meadow and Larose (Orgeron’s hometown), settled largely by Acadians whom the British expelled from eastern Canada and northern Maine in the mid-1700s, and who ricocheted from France and resettled.
“A lot of people don’t know that there is a south of New Orleans,” said Robin White, an associate professor of English and French at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, La., about 35 miles northwest of Larose, which is about 62 miles south-southwest of New Orleans. “It’s quickly, because of sea-level rise, it’s kind of washing away, and it’s a very interesting part of the United States. … If you go down there, A, it’s a beautiful part of Louisiana, and B, everybody talks like that down there.”
She said of the Acadians, “They come from New England snow and lobster and were faced with alligators and mosquitoes, and they make it.” So in Orgeron’s voice, she said, “There’s a little bit of French in his pronunciation of things, and there’s a little bit of Southern.” And, she said, “It’s locally called, ‘He talks flat.’”
Without question, Orgeron’s voice has lent further vividness to the kaleidoscopic college football landscape, especially as his current team has blasted to 13-0, to No. 1 in the land and to LSU’s first College Football Playoff semifinal, coming Saturday in Atlanta against Oklahoma. Go into a cramped Tuscaloosa interview room after a win at Alabama and hear him almost warble about being able to go to the 7-Eleven for his Red Bull without having to hear fans ask anymore when he’ll beat Alabama, and you might think you’re in some sort of Southern football dreamscape.
Listen with precision, though, and you might grasp echoes of a broader history. “His ’T’ is a little bit French,” for one thing, White said. “The French have a very different ‘T.’ It’s a very [dental] ‘T.’ Our ‘T,’ the tongue doesn’t go between the teeth. But the [dental], it’s just barely between the teeth. It’s one of all those things that make him sound like, Where’s he from?”
Further: “Listen to his ‘r’s’ when he speaks … turned a little bit into a ‘w’ … it’s not the English ‘r.’ It’s a little softer. Our [English] ‘r’ is very particular.” Lafourche Parish, from which Orgeron hails, “is pronounced ‘Lafooosh,’” White later wrote in an email.
English, she said, tends to be “a little bit more sing-songy. Accents go up and down in English, and not so much in French. The intonation is a little bit flatter, and you go up only at the end,” with “fewer ups and downs.”
“I would not be surprised if his parents were French speakers,” White said, and bingo, his mother’s French fluency has appeared in multiple reports across Orgeron’s five seasons at LSU (three as non-interim head coach). “Orgeron,” White said, is a French name, not an Acadian (Cajun) one, which she notes as part of her overall “mission” to combat the imprecision people often employ when overusing the word “Cajun.” Typically, “Orgeron” would have a silent “n” at the end, but she can’t imagine how “the rest of the people in the United States slaughter it.”
(Note: We do.)
The motto at Orgeron’s high school, South Lafourche, White emailed, remains “Tant que je peux,” meaning, “All that I can.” Football fanatics long since might have spotted the Frenchness in the pronunciation of the surname of Orgeron’s high school teammate, the former New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons quarterback Bobby Hebert, who hails from Cut Off.
Add the Southernness, and you get the “y’alls” here and there. “They speak more slowly than a standard French speaker,” White said. “The pace isn’t quite as fast.”
Orgeron, after all, comes from “down the bayou.”
“He is just the embodiment of what ‘Down The Bayou’ means,” said Ian McNulty, the food writer for the Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate, and the author of a book, “Louisiana Rambles: Exploring America’s Cajun and Creole Heartland.” “‘Down The Bayou’ is not a place. It’s not a sense of direction. It’s not something to which you give people driving directions. It’s sense of place and a sense of bearing. … Somebody’s character is ‘Down The Bayou.’ It means deeply rooted, way out there, deep in Louisiana. It’s not a vector point. It’s a mind-set. It’s a framework for identity. ‘Down The Bayou’ is who somebody is, or what something is.”
In Orgeron’s voice, McNulty said, a listener might detect “incredible warmth, but you also feel this power behind it, this strength.” He likens it to a bear both cuddly and physically capable of dislodging your limbs. He said: “In that voice you can hear a defiance against the wind. You can hear a voice that shouts against the wind, that’s going to do things his way. It’s a big voice, but it’s not a scary voice. Firm, but it’s not harsh. It’s weathered. Callused, but not without tenderness. You know he could lift up a 55-gallon oil drum on the derrick if he had to. He also could brush back a newborn baby’s hair.”
It’s “very manly,” McNulty said. “Getting it done. Fixing your own car by holding up the hood. ‘I got this. I got this. Hold my beer.’”
It sprouts from a region meshing Europe, the American South, the Caribbean, the one-time ownership by Spain (1763-1801), the blend, all with trucks going by oil-tool parts on their flatbeds and people with both names and nicknames. Orgeron’s parents, Cornelia and the late Edward, go and went by “Co Co” and “Ba Ba.” For Orgeron himself, it’s “Bébé.”
“Everyone lives along the Bayou,” McNulty said of Bayou Lafourche. “There’s one town after the next, kind of along that same main street.” Down there, “You’re taking the one road. You’re crossing the one drawbridge. Maybe you’re on the one side of the Bayou or the other, but you can see each other across the Bayou.” It’s a “land of reunion for people identified as people of Acadia. The Acadians. The Cajuns. ‘We were wronged. We were scattered,’ to a region with, as McNulty put it, “loads of swamp, reptiles and insects the size of hummingbirds,” the redfish jumping, the gators, the people chasing the gators.
“The hide of the gator, that’s sort of the texture of that voice,” McNulty said.
It’s a voice that made former Tigers defensive end Michael Robichaux, a Raceland ear, nose and throat physician, dispense a legend-worthy line to Associated Press sportswriter Brett Martel in 2017: “LSU finally has a coach without an accent.”
And it’s a voice of which said Michele Theriot, associate professor of English at Nicholls State, “If good Louisiana gumbo could talk, it would sound exactly like Coach O.”