BATON ROUGE – He looks the same and definitely talks the same, but Ed Orgeron is a different head coach than the one Ole Miss fired at the end of the 2007 season following a 3-9 campaign and an 0-8 mark in the Southeastern Conference.
Orgeron, now the interim coach at LSU, plays his old team and his former pupil, Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze, at 8 p.m. Saturday when the No. 23 Tigers (4-2, 2-1 SEC) host No. 22 Ole Miss (3-3, 1-2 SEC) in Tiger Stadium on ESPN.
Buzzing on caffeine and overconfidence and fresh off back-to-back national championships as USC's defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator, Orgeron began his first head coaching job in 2005 at Ole Miss as a brash, 44-year old from Larose with a hard head and cayenne pepper exuding from his Cajun veins. Right off, in a team meeting, he told the Rebels, who were just one year removed from their biggest bowl in 34 years, that the Cotton Bowl wasn’t good enough. He also ripped his shirt off and challenged anyone to wrestle.
Orgeron proceeded to prove that the Rebels could wrestle with few in the SEC and were not good enough for any bowl under him, including the Music City or Independence, which is where previous coach David Cutcliffe had taken them before a 10-3 and 7-1 finish in 2003 that landed them in high Cotton. Orgeron brought attitude and the USC offense with him, but he forgot to bring USC’s players or any coaches familiar with it.
“When I was a first-time head coach, I wanted to run the USC system,” Orgeron said at his weekly press luncheon Monday. “I loved the USC offense. And Noel Mazzone was my coordinator. And I forced the USC offense on him, and he didn’t know it well. Obviously, he’s a very successful offensive coordinator today (at Texas A&M). So, I thought that was a mistake on my part.”
There were others. Mainly, he tried to coach it all. “I wanted to do everything,” he said recently. “Coach the quarterbacks, the receivers, and I didn’t know anything about them. But I wanted to do it my way. And I learned about that.”
He lost big - 3-8 and 1-7 in the SEC the first year in 2005. There was “progress” in 2006 at 4-8 and 2-6 before the aforementioned finish, and he was fired.
“That was a great opportunity for me,” Orgeron said Monday. “I mean, that’s a good job. But I didn’t do well, and I didn’t like it. I was mad at myself. The techniques that I used to create some of the best defensive lines in the country did not work as a head coach. You’ve got to look at yourself in the mirror. I’m the only person that can change me. So I had to get out of that mode and get more into the head coach role and delegate, and not be the hard butt on the staff.”
He wrote it all down and saved it for some day. In the meantime, he landed as a New Orleans Saints defensive line assistant and settled into a home in Mandeville in 2008, but he tended to spend too much time looking for other jobs. Then he worked under Lane Kiffin, a former USC coaching mate, at Tennessee before returning to USC and ending up as a successful interim head coach who delegated much better than he did at Ole Miss. He didn’t get the permanent job, though, took a year off and found himself as LSU’s defensive line coach in 2015.
He is now the first LSU coach in history to win each of his first two games by more than 30 points, and he is 8-2 (.800 winning percentage) in his last two interim spots so far, which is better than his 10-25 (.280 winning percentage) mark at Ole Miss. Saturday will mark the first time he coaches against his old school as the head coach.
“I don’t have many memories of that place that I want to remember,” he said. “I’m glad I’m an LSU Tiger.”
It wasn’t all bad, though. He recruited very well, and it was largely surmised that Houston Nutt won with Orgeron’s players as he went 9-4 in back to back seasons in 2008 and ’09 before falling to 4-8 and 2-10 in his last two seasons and getting fired after the 2011 season. One of Orgeron’s signees in 2005 was Briarcrest Christian School/Memphis offensive lineman Michael Oher, a first round draft choice in 2009 who remains in the NFL and was the subject of the 2009 movie, “The Blind Side,” in which Orgeron has a cameo with star Sandra Bullock.
“Well, I had more success in “The Blind Side” than I did at Ole Miss,” Orgeron said Monday.
Another Orgeron success at Ole Miss was his signing of a 36-year old Briarcrest coach named Hugh Freeze, whom he hired to be his assistant athletic director for football external affairs in 2005 when Oher signed. Freeze, who was not portrayed accurately in the movie, was promoted to recruiting coordinator in 2006 and is now in his fifth season as Ole Miss’ head coach after replacing Nutt, though his program is currently under NCAA investigation. He was head coach at Lambuth and Arkansas State before returning to Ole Miss.
"I really don't know that my career does what it does without the opportunity that he gave me," Freeze said at his press conference Monday. "I am so indebted to Coach Orgeron. I have great respect for him and everything that he has meant to my career. I learned a lot from him."
Freeze went to the Orange Bowl after the 2004 season to watch USC and Ole Miss-bound Orgeron play Oklahoma for the BCS national championship. Before the 55-19 USC win, Freeze found Orgeron on the sidelines and went up to him.
“I was walking on the field, and he introduced himself,” Orgeron said Monday. “I thought it was very courageous of him to go down to Miami and meet me on the football field to ask me for a job. And I liked that about him. I really did. I always thought that Hugh was a tremendous coach. I almost hired him (later) as my offensive coordinator. Probably should have. He helped me out in all of the facets of running the program, and he’s a tremendous recruiter. When I left there, I told him you’ll probably be a head coach there. So I’m glad he is the head coach. I wish him the best.”
Freeze has noticed a different Orgeron than the one at Ole Miss.
"He learned some things. We all do," he said.