Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer 421d

Has Coach O begun his turnaround?

College Football, LSU Tigers

BATON ROUGE, La. -- The roar from Tiger Stadium had long since subsided, but Cornelia Orgeron sat in the north end zone still soaking it all in.

Just inside the tunnel to her left, her son, LSU coach Ed Orgeron, was soaked in sweat and emotion as he sat before a packed news conference, breaking down the biggest win of his full-time head-coaching career.

Orgeron was his usual, colorful self with the booming baritone voice and thick Cajun accent. But leave it to Mom to put into proper perspective what these past few weeks have been like on the Bayou for the Tigers.

"How do you describe heartbreak, anxiety, elation and then happiness beyond happiness?" said Cornelia, who's known affectionately as "Coco." 

The Tigers had just overcome a 20-point deficit to stun No. 10 Auburn in the largest comeback by LSU against an SEC opponent in Tiger Stadium since 1949. The 27-23 win breathed some fire back into an LSU team that was left for dead after an embarrassing homecoming loss to Troy back on Sept. 30.

All of a sudden, LSU has won back-to-back games over Florida and Auburn, and the Tigers are back in the AP rankings. Orgeron, for his part, also has some breathing room after a forgettable start to his head-coaching career.

"He's not going to give up. He wasn't raised to give up," Orgeron's mother said. "He earned this, baby. He worked hard to get here, and he loves his job."

Orgeron appreciates his mom's undying support, but he's been around the game long enough to know you're only as good as your last win. He also knows that LSU still has a long way to go this season on the field -- and on the recruiting trail -- if the Tigers are going to get back to winning championships.

It just so happens that the last guy to win a championship at LSU, Les Miles, was back in Tiger Stadium on Saturday for the first time since he was fired during the first month of the 2016 season. Miles and the 2007 national championship team were honored at halftime and received the largest ovation of the day up until that point.

Maybe it was a sign because LSU was a different football team in the second half.

Miles didn't go to the locker room to celebrate with his former team, but was still basking in the win.

"The people that made the decision they did [to fire Miles], I didn't have the necessity to see them," Miles said. "But I'm always happy when the Tigers win."

Orgeron, who was hired by Miles to come to LSU, was happy to see him back in the house. 

"People asked me what I thought about Les coming to the game," Orgeron told ESPN. "I was glad he was here. I said, 'They ought to give him a standing ovation.' And you know, God bless him. He deserves it. He did a lot of great things here.

"With everything that went into that day, you couldn't have written a better story."

Orgeron is intent on writing a markedly different story as a head coach this time around after his failed stint at Ole Miss, where he went 3-21 in three seasons in SEC play from 2005 to '07 and was fired. He's the first to admit he was in over his head at Ole Miss, but he isn't sure he would have made it through the rocky start to this season had it not been for that experience.

"I would have gone nuts. Hell, I was nuts," cracked Orgeron, who returns to Ole Miss on Saturday night (7:15 ET, ESPN and the ESPN App). "I coached like a defensive line coach would. I'd bark and yell and want more. You can't coach like that all the time. People break. I know that now. But we didn't change a thing here after the Troy loss. We just kept fixing and kept identifying the things that we could fix and fixed them."

Orgeron turned to his leaders on the team to do the heavy lifting. He called 11 players of his choosing into his office the Monday after the Troy loss and opened the floor to them. They talked about effort, buying in, attention to detail and guys being on the fence, especially juniors considering entering the NFL draft.

"They talked, and I listened," Orgeron recounted. "Every position group was represented. I told them, 'What you just told me, you go tell the team and I'm walking out.' I gave them about a half-hour, and it turned into an hour team meeting."

More than a decade ago at Ole Miss, Orgeron probably would have been the one storming into the locker room with his shirt ripped off and threatening to take on any player who even dared to look at him. But not this version of Orgeron, who has dialed back the WWE theatrics and taken a more holistic approach to being a head coach.

"He told us as players that we had to take over," said LSU senior receiver D.J. Chark, whose 75-yard punt return for a touchdown was the turning point in the comeback against Auburn. "Coaches can only do so much. They can coach. They can get together a game plan, but they can't go out there and make catches or tackles. So he really brought the leaders of the team together, set the tone for us, and we took over from there."

Orgeron also trusted those who have a stake in the LSU program, namely former players. Duke Riley, a former LSU linebacker and now a rookie with the Atlanta Falcons, showed up at the cafeteria unannounced the week after the Troy loss and asked Orgeron if he could speak to the team.

"He watched practice and observed, and I mean, son, he lit into the team," Orgeron said. "That was the turning point."

Orgeron has also learned to coach in a vacuum, which was hardly the case at Ole Miss. He heard and read everything when he was in Oxford and was quick to lash out when he didn't like it. At LSU, he has stayed away from Twitter, newspapers, radio, everything.

"I didn't want to hear what was out there. I didn't want anybody to tell me what was out there and wasn't going to let it seep in," said Orgeron, whose Tigers were throttled 37-7 by Mississippi State in their SEC opener this season. "I thought about Pete Carroll when we started off 2-5 in his first season [at USC]. I thought about Paul Pasqualoni when we were 1-3 [at Syracuse] and ended up in the Fiesta Bowl and how impressed I was with those guys staying the course.

"You keep fighting. You keep learning, and you keep doing what you believe in. I believe in these players, and I understand everybody in this program is watching me. If I'm aggravated, everybody is aggravated. If I'm grumpy, everybody else is grumpy. If I'm positive, everybody is going to be positive. If I have energy, most people are going to have energy."

Orgeron's energy is boundless. He may not be guzzling Red Bulls like he once did, but he's still going 100 miles an hour, especially on the recruiting trail. The day after the Auburn win, Orgeron was recruiting up until late Sunday evening. LSU had three official visitors on campus and 35 more unofficial visitors. The Tigers are particularly thin in the offensive line and started two true freshmen against Auburn. In the past two years, the Tigers have had eight offensive linemen leave the program early for various reasons.

Alabama, which has won six in a row over LSU, came into Louisiana a year ago and signed three of the state's best prospects, but this will be Orgeron's first full recruiting cycle as head coach. He said the 2018 class in Louisiana is very good and that the 2019 class is one of the best he's seen in the state in the past 15 to 20 years.

"You've got to stay at it because everybody loves coming into this state, and Alabama has done a great job, an excellent job," Orgeron said. "They've got connections in this state, but you've got to beat them. As much as you go in there and recruit and sell and all that, you've got to beat them. To lock down the state, we've got to beat them on the field and show that we can beat them. That's what we're going to have to do.

"What comes first, the chicken or the egg?"

As the final minutes of the Auburn game counted down last Saturday, Orgeron said he could feel the presence of his late father, Ed Orgeron Sr., who introduced him to LSU football when they used to listen to games on the radio together from their Larose, Louisiana, home. And when it was over, Orgeron pointed two fingers to the sky and said softly, "Thank you" and then found his three sons -- Tyler, Parker and Cody -- and hugged them.

There's a long way to go to nirvana on the Bayou, but Orgeron feels well on his way to turning around the Tigers.

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