He’s the guy who got the LSU job in November 2016 and did what just about any of us might do and then told reporters about it: He sang out the open window on the driver’s side while driving Interstate 12 the 67 miles from his house in Mandeville to Baton Rouge. (As to which songs, Brady McCollough of the Los Angeles Times pegged one in November: the John Fogerty composition “Born On The Bayou,” the B side of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s 1969 hit “Proud Mary.”)
Most everyone who has ever driven an American highway while giving the pipes a workout could identify with that, just as many an adult might empathize with an unemployed Orgeron spending fall 2014 at 53 watching football in idleness and uncertainty, even though he wasn’t hurting for money. And just about everyone could spot the hope in Orgeron, sitting as a fresh national champion early Tuesday while relating that quieter part of the story arc.
“I remember sitting on the sofa at my house,” he said after his LSU Tigers blasted past Clemson, 42-25, to win the national championship on Monday night. “I had a year to reflect. I remember watching SEC games, going, ‘I know I can compete with these guys given the right place.’ I mean, you’ve got to be at a place like LSU and have great coaches and great players to win it. I don’t think I could have been somewhere else and had the success that we had so fast. So I think it’s a combination of being at the right place at the right time.
“I think it’s perseverance, too. Man, people are going to talk and all that, but you can’t let it affect you. I used that as internal motivation. People, they tease me the way I talk, tease me the way I look, and it’s kind of funny — the things that I was doing at Ole Miss I was ridiculed for, and now I punch myself in the jaw and everybody at LSU likes it, so it just depends on where you’re at.”
He did not come to this point via Toledo, Bill Belichick’s staff at Cleveland, Michigan State, LSU, the Miami Dolphins, Alabama and a lifelong campaign against human complacency. (That would be Nick Saban.) He did not arrive by filling rooms with natural aura and soaring rapidly from Bowling Green to Utah to Florida and to Ohio State. (That would be Urban Meyer.) If anything, portions of Orgeron’s arc might resemble that time Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney spent two years selling commercial real estate. (And selling it absurdly well, of course.)
Can we picture Tom Osborne, Barry Switzer, Woody Hayes, John McKay or Bear Bryant belting tunes out the open window upon getting promoted from interim coach to full-on? (Okay, maybe Switzer.)
No, Orgeron coached Mississippi to a 10-25 overall record from 2005 to 2007, and Southern Cal to 6-2 as an interim in 2013, after Athletic Director Pat Haden notched an achievement in the annals of firing and fired, on an airport tarmac, Lane Kiffin, who recently signed on to coach — good grief — Mississippi.
Orgeron might have succeeded Kiffin at USC on a more permanent basis had not UCLA come to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and had itself a 35-14 bacchanal in the regular season finale. Orgeron went from there to the sofa, and to watching his sons in high school games in Mandeville, and then, in 2015, to Les Miles’s staff as a defensive line coach at LSU.
“I’m thankful for Coach Miles giving me a chance,” Orgeron said. “He hired me at LSU. It’s where I wanted to go. I knew I was going to coach. I didn’t think this was going to happen. When I didn’t get the job at USC, I said, ‘Hey, maybe you’ll be an assistant the rest of your life.’ I just loved coaching.”
Somehow, a blur of time later, he oversaw LSU’s aurora borealis of an offense: the 726 points, the 418 first downs, the 7.89 yards per play, the 8,526 yards, the 15-0 record. He did this partly with another relatable turn: his willing and humble import last offseason of Joe Brady, a then-29-year-old passing coordinator from the X-and-O hallways and geeky film rooms of the New Orleans Saints.
Of such humility for which enough credit can’t quite be managed, Orgeron said at midseason: “I think it is [crucial], because the game is changing. It changes on a daily basis, especially on offense, spread offense, new ideas. Obviously, I’m 58, been coaching college football for a long time [for nine colleges and one NFL franchise]. Now, there’s some young and up-and-coming coaches like we have on our staff, and I have no problem listening to them, especially in an area where I’m not in expertise. My expertise is motivation, recruiting, defensive line play, and I work as hard as I can on those subjects and let the other guys I hired, people who are experts at their position, let ’em go.”
Soon, he’s standing in Tuscaloosa, Ala., in a cramped postgame interview room after an astounding 46-41 win, telling listeners he’s excited to go to 7-Eleven for his Red Bull or his Monster energy drink without having LSU fans ask him when he’ll beat Alabama. Soon, he’s sitting in New York in a suit, watching Joe Burrow accept the Heisman Trophy and hearing possibly the most touching Heisman speech to date, a speech that upheld every inkling about Orgeron’s relatability.
“Coach O,” Burrow began at one point before emotion forced a halt. Then he said, “You have no idea what you mean to my family.” He wiped his eyes and, in the audience, Orgeron sat with his shoulders draped with an arm from the next seat, that of Burrow’s father, Jimmy, himself a 37-season coaching assistant. Joe Burrow spoke on, and concluded that part with, “I sure hope they give him a lifetime contract” — and now they just might.
As the rest of the country sets to familiarize itself with the coach from down the bayou in Larose, it’s not just that Orgeron is listenable, and that there’s nobody in the world you’d rather hear say of Clyde Edwards-Helaire, the admirable LSU running back, “He’s got a great trunk.” It’s not just that there’s nobody you’d rather hear tell how Burrow’s leadership sprouted in part because he “kept his mouth shut” early on. It’s that the latest national championship coach is a guy who doesn’t mind relating the value of a nadir, the kind of guy who has been to the sofa and back, the kind of guy you might throw your arm around while you’re listening to a speech.