What would winning a national title in New Orleans mean for Ed Orgeron, LSU and Louisiana? Only everything
“I know how much it means to them, so it puts a little internal motivation in myself to win it for the people of Louisiana.”
NEW ORLEANS – It’s game day.
It’s not just any game day for LSU.
It’s not just any championship game day for No. 1 LSU as it prepares to face No. 3 Clemson in the College Football Championship Game on Monday night in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
It’s a day unlike any other in Louisiana football history.
LSU has won national championships before – 3 times in fact.
It has won national championships in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome before – twice in fact.
But the context of this game and the stories of the lead actors make this unique.
LSU won its first national championship in 1958. It was voted national champion after a 10-0 regular season, even before it won the Sugar Bowl, beating Clemson of all teams (7-0).
It was a heck of a season, one that will always be special in LSU history, but this is different. This LSU team already has won 14 games, beaten 6 top 10 teams – and it still has to beat a Clemson team with a 29-game winning streak in order to get a trophy.
After that 1st championship, LSU waited a long, long time to win another.
Paul Dietzel coached the Tigers to that championship and remained head coach for 3 more seasons before leaving to become head coach at Army.
Charlie McClendon replaced him and was really successful – won 2 Cotton Bowls and 2 Sugar Bowls on his way to becoming the winningest coach in LSU history. But he never won a national championship.
After McClendon’s successor, Bo Rein, died in a plane crash before he ever coached a game, Jerry Stovall did a credible job for 4 years, taking LSU to the Orange Bowl. But no national championship.
Bill Arnsparger took over and took LSU to 2 Sugar Bowls. But no national championship.
Then Mike Archer got 4 seasons, Curley Hallman got 4 and Gerry DiNardo got 5. No national championships. In fact, by the end of the 1990s, LSU had become, at best, an average SEC program.
Then came Nick Saban.
Basically a couple of generations of LSU fans had grown up without first-hand knowledge that their team could play for a national championship.
In Saban’s 4th season, LSU won a national championship.
That was special.
That championship drought ended after 45 years. After McClendon played second fiddle to Bear Bryant and Alabama, after spinning its wheels, then going off the rails, LSU was a national champion.
That team went 13-1 and Saban had elevated the program to a level where it wasn’t going to take anything close to 45 years to win another title.
But fewer than 2 years after winning that title, Saban felt he had to scratch his long-felt NFL itch and he left LSU to take over the Miami Dolphins.
Les Miles replaced Saban and LSU won another championship in 2007 – even after losing twice in the regular season.
Meanwhile, things didn’t work out for Saban and the Dolphins and Saban started looking for a return to college football. Alabama, which had slipped a bit like LSU had a decade earlier, scooped him up.
The second coach to spurn LSU after winning a national championship was now coaching one of LSU’s biggest rivals. The fact that he never chose Alabama over LSU proved to be a distinction without a difference for many LSU fans.
Once Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa in 2007, to paraphrase Ed Orgeron, the Tide were comin’.
He has hovered over the rest of the SEC like a dark cloud ever since, though the skies – at least over Baton Rouge – started to clear this season.
LSU and Miles and Bama and Saban were on a collision course. The collision came in 2011.
That regular season had so many similarities to this regular season. After what happened in 2003 and 2007 it seemed LSU was fated to win a national championship every time New Orleans’ turn to host the championship came up.
That season, like this one, featured unprecedented regular-season dominance by an LSU team. But there was no championship at the end of that season.
The lead-up to this championship game is different than the lead-up to that one. In 2011, LSU and Alabama had met in the regular season. LSU prevailed 9-6 in overtime in Tuscaloosa. The teams were a cut above the rest of college football.
They were dead-even as evidenced by the closeness of the regular-season meeting. Like Apollo Creed whispering “Ain’t gonna be no rematch” to Rocky Balboa at the final bell in “Rocky,” most LSU fans didn’t want to have to try and beat Alabama a second time.
The law of averages alone favored Alabama in the rematch. Additionally, rematches between evenly matched teams tend to favor the loser of the first game because they naturally are motivated to fix what cost them while their opponent is reluctant to fix what wasn’t broke.
Saban fixed stuff. Miles didn’t. The Tide rolled, 21-0, and LSU hasn’t had a shot at a national championship since.
Until now. Until Orgeron and Joe Burrow and Joe Brady.
LSU wants to give New Orleans biggest reason to party
This isn’t a rematch. No one has beaten LSU this season. LSU went into that last championship game with severe limitations in the passing game. This passing game seems to be limitless with Burrow having arguably the greatest season ever by an LSU player – if not any college football player.
LSU fans were cautiously optimistic, but nervous, 8 years ago. They’re confident and relaxed this time – even while appreciating just how good Clemson is.
New Orleans believes it throws a party better than any other place – and there’s ample evidence to support that.
This game is New Orleans’ chance to host the celebration for the climax to LSU’s greatest season. That game 8 years ago was supposed to be the same thing and it was the dud to end all duds.
But this time will be different. Orgeron will see to that. Brady and Burrow will make sure it gets done. At least that seems to be the prevailing feeling.
Burrow is LSU’s 2nd Heisman Trophy winner. No LSU team has ever gone 15-0. This isn’t just a championship game, it’s a victory lap – celebrating Orgeron, Burrow, the best LSU team and season ever.
But there’s more.
To fully appreciate what this game means to Louisiana, you have to factor in Louisiana’s 2nd-favorite football team – the New Orleans Saints.
Just 2 years removed from LSU’s most recent national championship in 2007, the Saints went and won themselves a Super Bowl. Never been there before. For a long time, it looked like they never would.
Then came the 2009 season and it was magical – every bit as special as LSU’s seasons in ’58, ’03 and ’07.
But for the past 10 years, the Saints have been trying futilely to win another championship just like LSU has been for the past 11 years.
Along the way, the Saints became the first NFL team to lose 6 consecutive playoff games by one score.
Lots of celebrations canceled at the last minute.
In the past 3 regular seasons, the Saints have won 37 games and lost 11.
They were 1 win from playing for the NFC Championship 2 years ago and a botched tackle on a desperation play turned into a miraculous 61-yard touchdown as time expired and Minnesota was off to the next round and New Orleans was headed home.
Last season the Saints were hosting the NFC Championship when the officials had the mother of all missed calls, ignoring blatant pass interference by the Rams that if called almost certainly would have enabled New Orleans to kick a chip-shot field goal in the final seconds and head back to the Super Bowl.
But there was no flag. No field goal. Just a Rams overtime win.
The Super Bowl happened without the Saints. Then, in perhaps most New Orleans and Louisiana thing ever, New Orleans ignored the Super Bowl and threw its own “Boycott Bowl” party on Super Bowl Sunday, celebrating just being New Orleans.
This season the Saints were the first NFL team to clinch a playoff berth. They were rolling alongside LSU throughout the fall.
It looked like the Saints would be playing deep into the playoffs in the Superdome at the same time LSU was playing for its championship in the same building.
That was gonna be some party.
But the Saints didn’t hold up their end. They were the biggest favorite in the wild-card games and lost to Minnesota – in overtime, in the Superdome, just 8 days before LSU would take to the same field.
So now it’s up to LSU.
To finish the greatest Tigers season ever with a win. To wipe away that taste from 8 years ago.
To snag that championship that keeps slipping through the Saints’ fingers.
To have the football celebration to top all football celebrations.
Ed Orgeron: Motivated to win it for Louisiana
Football is a big deal in a lot of places, but it’s different in Louisiana. Football games – especially LSU football games – are a reason to celebrate, an excuse to eat drink and be merry, to have a 1-day Mardi Gras 7 or 8 times a year when LSU is playing in Tiger Stadium.
Or the Superdome.
Orgeron understands this as none of his championship-winning predecessors could.
Outsiders sometimes think Louisiana is one big bayou, but lots of the state is bayou-less. Orgeron, though, is from authentic bayou country — Larose, which sits on Bayou Lafourche, about 60 miles south of New Orleans and 100 miles southeast of Baton Rouge.
Louisianians know Orgeron is one of their own. It shows every time he shows up at a high-school game or in a recruit’s living room.
“When we go to a home on a home visit in Louisiana, it’s not an official home visit, it’s a party,” Orgeron said. “There’s 30, 40 people there, there’s jambalaya, there’s gumbo, food, music and it’s just a festivity. That’s the great part about being in Louisiana.
“There’s something about being in Louisiana, wearing the purple and gold and going into a school or a home in the state of Louisiana. I feel like I’m at home. I feel like I can relate to the guys. If they talk some Cajun French, I can talk to him. I probably know them. I know their coach for sure, and there’s relationships.”
Orgeron is the patriarch of Louisiana football – even more than Sean Payton, the Saints’ Super Bowl-winning coach – and it’s a public trust he takes very seriously.
“That’s why you coach at LSU. That’s why you play at LSU, to represent the purple and gold and to represent this great state,” Orgeron said. “We have a great relationship with the Governor. We have a great relationship with everybody in the state. And all the high school coaches are so proud.”
The Governor is John Bel Edwards, a friend of Orgeron who recently won re-election but can’t touch Orgeron in terms of popularity.
Orgeron routinely invokes McClendon and Billy Cannon (Burrow’s Heisman-winning partner), the Chinese Bandits and all the historic figures of LSU football. He watched them – or at least studied them – as a young LSU fan.
He has coached inside and outside of Louisiana. He made stops in Arkansas, Miami, Syracuse, USC (twice), Ole Miss and Tennessee. Always in the back of his mind was the goal of getting back to Louisiana – to coaching at LSU.
When USC chose not to elevate him from interim head coach to full-time head coach after the 2013 season, he went home and took a year off before fate – and Miles – brought him to LSU. Eventually, he succeeded Miles – the only LSU championship-winning coach to not spurn the university.
Dietzel was a native of Ohio who spurned LSU for Army, though he later returned as athletic director. Saban is a West Virginia native who spurned LSU for the NFL. Miles is an Ohio native turned Michigan Man who endeared himself as an honorary local.
But Orgeron is authentic. LSU football is in Orgeron’s DNA. It’s been there since he was born.
He understands as none of those predecessors could what LSU football means to Louisiana, what this championship would mean to Louisiana. And win or lose, he ain’t leaving LSU.
“I remember growing up being 6 years old and watching LSU play and Cholly Mac (McClendon) and I remember what it did to the community,” Orgeron said. “In the year I was off, I worked out at Franco’s (health club) down there in Mandeville, and man, look out, when LSU won and when the Saints won, the whole city was on fire, so I know that’s the way the state is. So we want to give back. It’s a great state.
“Now, to see the joy on the kids’ face, to see the joy on our team’s face when we win, to see the elation of the people of Louisiana, that means the world to me, and I’m more of a giver, and I just like to see all the people happy. And I know how much it means to them, so it puts a little internal motivation in myself to win it for the people of Louisiana.”