Ed Orgeron's LSU tenure should serve as a lesson of what to do and what not do in a big-time job
When we look back on the tenure of Ed Orgeron at LSU, it’ll always be complicated.
We applauded the man who engineered arguably the best season ever. Did he catch lightning in a bottle? Perhaps, but Orgeron went right into the eye of a storm and, well, he caught lightning for the home state program he always dreamed of coaching. Nobody can ever take that away from him.
And whenever Orgeron’s legacy is brought up, the downfall will be part of that conversation. The post-2019 title demise on and off the field will always be a cloud that Orgeron cannot escape. From being named a defendant in a Title IX lawsuit against the university to being at the center of what could end up as LSU’s 2 worst seasons of the 21st century, Orgeron’s fall from grace was as swift as his rise to become the sport’s national darling.
We often want to define coaches in black and white terms. It’s a scoreboard business; did a coach win or lose? In some cases, it is that simple. With Orgeron, it’s not. It’s more of a cautionary tale of what can happen when success isn’t managed properly.
If you want a pro-Orgeron argument, you don’t have to look very far. Beyond the national title, you can point to a 13-5 record against AP Top 10 teams. You can break down how even at his worse, he still beat Florida 3 times to close his tenure. He took down Nick Saban en route to a national championship. With Orgeron out — at least at season’s end — Jimbo Fisher is now the only active SEC head coach who has a win against the G.O.A.T.
Let’s also not forget the other pro-Orgeron argument. He revolutionized the LSU offense after Les Miles refused to modernize it. Even during the Tigers’ 2020-21 struggles, nobody can deny that. And nobody can deny that he was more successful at LSU than Tom Herman was at Texas, which has to count for something given how public Herman’s post-2016 rejection of LSU was.
Some would look at all of those things and say, “man, typical SEC. Guy loses 3 games and he’s fired a year and a half losing a national title? It just means more, I guess.”
To that, I’d say you’re leaving out a few things.
You’re leaving out the mass exodus that followed 2019, and the fact that the Tigers were a thrown shoe and some Pop Warner-level Ole Miss tackling from being a 3-win team in 2020. The pro-Orgeron argument lacks the fact that he admitted he didn’t interview Bo Pelini in person to replace the highly regarded Dave Aranda, and after declaring LSU’s defense would be “much” better after the 2019 title team, it proceeded to deliver the worst defensive season in program history.
It didn’t help that Orgeron’s post-divorce bachelor persona was well-documented. It’s never good when players come out and say that him bringing women around the facility was “a distraction.” When you sign an extension worth $42 million over 6 years, you make a commitment to live up to your end of the bargain. The fact that anyone within the program would question said commitment is troubling.
But this was never about Orgeron’s love life. It was always more complicated than that.
Scott Woodward gave Orgeron that extension after LSU’s magical 2019 season, but Orgeron was never his guy. Woodward is the same person who gave Jimbo Fisher a $75 million contract at Texas A&M, which was after he swung for the fences to poach the ever-loyal Chris Petersen from Boise State to take over at Washington.
Fair or not, that’s part of the intrigue for LSU now. You have an athletic director who just willingly agreed to pay a coach around $17 million to not work roughly 21 months removed from celebrating a national championship alongside him. This isn’t going to be a search in which Woodward takes a discount. This is the hire that’ll define his LSU tenure.
Whether it’s Joe Brady, Lane Kiffin, Mel Tucker, James Franklin or somebody else, Woodward isn’t taking the cheap route to hire his next football coach.
Messy ending aside, Orgeron’s tenure should, however, serve as a reminder that splashy hires don’t mean squat in today’s college football era. Herman and Scott Frost are living proof of that. Orgeron couldn’t have been any less splashy, and yet, go ask fans of Texas or Nebraska what they’d do for a year like 2019. Unspeakable things.
LSU isn’t trying to win a press conference. The program doesn’t need buzz or optimism. It needs someone who knows how to get and sustain success.
Orgeron showed exactly why a head coach’s fate isn’t locked in when he’s hired. There are countless decisions made after that which will determine that. Had Orgeron lacked the vision for modernizing LSU’s offense in hiring Joe Brady, his tenure would’ve played out in a totally different way. Remember when Orgeron’s original plan was hiring Kiffin as his offensive coordinator? That could’ve taken LSU on a different path than the one it followed once Brady came on board in 2019.
This profession is all about decisions. As in, decisions that are made after being hired. Orgeron made some great ones, and he also made some poor ones.
We’re going to be tempted to immediately declare whether his successor can get LSU back to 2019 levels, but really, that year shouldn’t be the standard. It should be the outlier. Orgeron couldn’t live up to that standard. I’d doubt his predecessor will, either.
LSU’s path back to the top of the college football mountain cannot be an effort to recreate 2019. If Woodward insists on that, LSU could wind up chasing glory years like Nebraska or Tennessee. Maybe LSU’s floor will always be above those programs because of the in-state recruiting ground, though USC and Texas are prime examples of why that doesn’t guarantee anything.
Woodward’s hire could shape the next 20 years of a program that had a higher floor than anyone in the first 20 years of the 21st century. Certainly, he knows that. Certainly, by now, we should know that Orgeron’s tenure shouldn’t be deemed a total failure, nor should it be deemed a total success.
It was as complicated as they come.