LOS ANGELES -- Pat Haden can stop his coaching search now.
He can put that $6 million annual salary in his back pocket and save it for a rainy day.
That sexy coach USC was supposed to hire this offseason?
It turns out he has always been right in front of them.
With that unmistakable Cajun drawl and infectious personality that has intoxicated the entire university, Ed Orgeron has improbably turned the Trojans around and, almost as improbably, earned the opportunity to become the team's next full-time head coach.
Orgeron was engulfed in a sea of cardinal-and-gold-clad fans on the field after USC upset No. 4 Stanford, 20-17, Saturday night at the Coliseum. It was an unprecedented show of support for the team and coach by a fan base that had become so apathetic with the product on the field that the Coliseum was half-empty two months ago, with a majority of those fans booing and calling for the coach's job.
Fast-forward six weeks and USC's band is playing songs dedicated to the Trojans' coach, while fans do card stunts at halftime professing their love for him. Forget sexy -- "Coach O" has quickly become the most popular figure on campus and turned what was going to be a difficult decision for Haden, the USC athletic director, into a no-brainer with two games left in the regular season.
Before the fourth quarter began Saturday, the entire USC team gathered around Orgeron on the sideline. He didn't call the players over. He didn't have any messages for them. They simply wanted to surround their coach and let him know they would be playing as one, as he had asked them to do when he was first named the interim head coach.
"When you have a father figure like Coach O come in here and take us under his wings and treat us like his own, we just want to run through a brick wall for him," USC linebacker Hayes Pullard said. "He didn't call us out; we just went up there as one team, one heartbeat. He said that the first day and we just wanted to carry that over."
On USC's winning drive, facing a fourth-and-2 on the Stanford 48-yard line, Orgeron called a timeout to decide what he wanted to do. When his offensive players gathered around him, he knew the call he had to make.
"I knew I was a taking a chance, but I looked in these guys' eyes and I knew they wanted to go for it, and I knew they wanted to win the game," Orgeron said. "I wanted to give them a chance as a coach and give them what they wanted."
USC wide receiver Marqise Lee, who suffered a shin injury earlier in the game, hobbled back onto the field and told USC quarterback Cody Kessler that he had one more catch in him -- then ended up snagging a 13-yard pass for a first down before he was helped off the field. Moments later, Andre Heidari, who earlier Saturday missed an extra-point attempt, kicked the 47-yard winning field goal.
After the game, as players and fans surrounded Orgeron, he began to cry as he hugged them and told them how much he loved them.
"Coach O is very unique," Kessler said. "There's no one in the country like him that I've seen or that I've met. I speak for the whole team, we absolutely love him. He's awesome. He's amazing. He has that look in his eye when he's talking to you that you can see that he really, really does care. He really gets emotional and he really puts everything he has in this team and he wants us to succeed so much. When I gave him a hug, I saw his eyes water up because he just cares so much and he loves us so much, and we feel the same way about him."
As the Trojans enjoyed their biggest home win since Pete Carroll was roaming the sidelines, a long list of four- and five-star recruits watched from afar with smiles on their faces that grew even wider as they walked in and out of the USC locker room.
If Haden is looking for a coach who can turn around USC's current and future recruiting classes and awaken what was an apathetic fan base, he found him. He's the same guy who was here as an assistant with Paul Hackett, Carroll and Lane Kiffin. He has been here through thick and thin again with this program and these fans. No one knows them better than he does, and even though they might not have known it until now, there might not be anyone better for the job than Orgeron.
"It's about the Trojan family," Orgeron said. "I have a great relationship with the fans. I've been here since 1998, but it's about these boys and it's about our family and they mean the world to me. Just to see them smiling and happy and winning, that's all we ever wanted as a staff."
Haden has said he won't make any decisions until the season is over, but sticking with Orgeron, even if it's just for the final year of NCAA-imposed scholarship reductions next season, is beginning to make more and more sense.
"There's going to be decisions made here after we play UCLA," Orgeron said. "That's totally out of my hands. All I can do every day on a daily basis is give it all I got for these young men and the Trojan family. I will say this -- I think everything happens for a reason. I think there is a plan out there. What that plan is? I don't know, but I will work on a daily basis to get there."
Maybe there will be a time in the near future when Haden will have to call on an outsider to revive the program and will offer him a blank check to come to USC, but that time is not now. It's time to give someone who has already begun the process of turning the program around the opportunity to finish what he started.