Who would have believed it? Ole Miss’s Coach Zero becomes LSU’s stable genius

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Rogelio V. Solis, AP

LSU head coach Ed Orgeron was frowning during a 37-7 loss to Mississippi State in 2017, but he has been smiling a lot lately.

So, imagine we’ve gone back in time to the Saturday of Thanksgiving Weekend, 2007. The day before, at Scott Field in Starkville, Mississippi State rallied from a 14-0 deficit in the fourth quarter to defeat Ole Miss 17-14. If ever a team – and a coach – has snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, it is that Ole Miss team and that Ole Miss coach, Ed Orgeron.

You may remember the game was played the day after Thanksgiving. For Orgeron, it really was Black Friday. Ole Miss led 14-0 into the fourth quarter having dominated Sylvester Croom’s Bulldogs. Then, facing fourth down and one yard to go near midfield, Orgeron elected to go for the first down. State stuffed the run, awakening the home crowd and fueling an inspired comeback. The next day, Orgeron was fired.

In three seasons under Coach O, the Rebels won 10 and lost 25. They were 3-21 against SEC teams, 3-24 against teams from BCS conferences. Ole Miss won only one game in those three seasons against a team that finished with a winning record. Orgeron’s last Rebels ranked at rock bottom in the SEC in scoring offense, scoring defense, turnover margin, rushing defense, total defense, time of possession, red zone offense and kickoff coverage. What else is there, you ask? Well, they were next to last in rushing offense, passing efficiency, first downs, field goals and allowing third-down conversions. The 2007 Rebels were the only SEC team to finish the season without a conference victory.

Rick Cleveland

So now then, remember, we’re back to Nov. 25, 2007, and all this has just happened. Imagine, you are walking down the street and all of the sudden you hear a clear, deep voice that sounds a lot like it might be God’s coming down from the sky.

And this voice tells you: “Twelve years from now, Ed Orgeron will be the head football coach at LSU. His Tigers will be undefeated and ranked No. 1 in the nation and he will be leading candidate for not only SEC Coach of the Year but also National Coach of the Year. In a showdown with Nick Saban’s likewise undefeated Alabama Crimson Tide, Coach O’s Bayou Bengals will win a 46-41 thriller viewed by millions and millions of Americans, including Donald Trump – yeah, that Donald Trump, the 45th president of the United States.”

Your reaction?

I’ll tell you mine. I might have believed the part the crazy-haired and controversial real estate mogul who was then starring in a TV show called “The Apprentice.” I surely would have believed the part about Trump before I would have believed the part about Ed Orgeron.

•••

Seriously, how to explain all this? How to explain how someone who failed about as miserably at one job in the Southeastern Conference can become so successful at another?

Rogelio V. Solis, AP

Coach Ed Orgeron with his Ole Miss football team at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in 2007. He returns there this Saturday, a vastly improved coach of perhaps the nation’s best team.

I’ll do my best to explain the unexplainable, but first this must be said about Orgeron: If I was wearing a hat, I’d tip it to him. He has admitted to having made a mess of things at Ole Miss. Clearly, he learned from his mistakes. He has done a masterful job at LSU. In so doing, he has proved me to be dead wrong because I surely didn’t see this coming. Oh, I knew he would recruit great players at LSU. He is a Red Bull-fueled, recruiting machine and he speaks the language in Cajun Country. I just didn’t believe he would perform all the other duties a successful coach must perform. I didn’t believe it was in him to be a successful CEO. I was wrong.

Boy, was I wrong. I don’t know how this will all end at LSU, but Orgeron already has succeeded far beyond my wildest dreams.

How?

To state the obvious, Coach O is a much better fit at LSU than he was at Ole Miss. But it takes more than speaking the language to succeed anywhere, including LSU. The best head coaches – from Knute Rockne, to John Vaught, to Paul Dietzel, to Bear Bryant, and to Nick Saban – surround themselves with good coaches and then let them coach.

Orgeron did not do that at Ole Miss. He micro-managed everything with all the touch of the proverbial bull in a china shop. It did not work. At LSU, he has hired splendid coaches, LSU is paying them well and Orgeron is letting them coach. Highly respected Dave Aranda coaches the defense and is paid more like a head coach to do it. Steve Ensminger is the offensive coordinator and Orgeron brought in 30-year-old Joe Brady from the New Orleans Saints to revamp the Tigers’ passing game. The result? I’ve never seen a Nick Saban defensive secondary look so confused.

Orgeron has pushed all the right buttons. He often pushed his Ole Miss players beyond the pushing point. At LSU, he has made practices shorter and more efficient. To my knowledge, he hasn’t held any scrimmages during weather delays in Baton Rouge. His players play hard for him. They surely appear to love playing for him.

All in all, Orgeron’s evolution as a head coach – and his transformation of the LSU Tigers – have been truly remarkable. I would say unbelievable, but I’ve seen it and seeing is believing.