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How coach Ed Orgeron's redemption led to LSU football's transformation

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Can UGA's stout defense combat LSU's dynamic offense? (2:44)

With everything on the line, head coaches Kirby Smart and Ed Orgeron discuss the necessary steps to walk out of the SEC championship game victorious. (2:44)

BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU coach Ed Orgeron has had the better part of two days to watch the game tape over and over again, to play back all the missed tackles and botched assignments against Ole Miss.

Coming off a momentous victory against Alabama, his defense looked hung over as it went on the road to Oxford. Defensive tackle Rashard Lawrence called what happened there an "embarrassing effort," giving up 614 total yards to a team that won't even make a bowl game. The Tigers made freshman quarterback John Rhys Plumlee look like the second coming of Lamar Jackson the way he ran up and down the field for 212 yards and four touchdowns.

Many LSU players didn't hide their disappointment afterward, hanging their heads and firing off a few choice four-letter words in disgust as they walked off the field.

In the past, Orgeron would've joined them, ignoring the fact they actually won the game. He would have thrown more fuel on the fire and let the whole thing burn out of frustration without a second thought for the consequences.

"I would have chewed their ass out," he says.

Back at the LSU football facility in Baton Rouge, where it's "Tell the Truth Monday," Orgeron insists his approach to these types of situations has changed.

"I hardly yell," he tells ESPN. "I don't need to do that anymore."

Don't just take Orgeron's word for it. Go look at what he told reporters after that Nov. 16 game for some measure of proof: how proud he was that his offense was capable of winning a 58-37 shootout, and how improving to 10-0 was something to celebrate. During his weekly news conference the following Monday, he put the blame on his shoulders for not properly preparing his defense. He then met privately with players and told them the same thing. It wasn't a fun review of the game, but Lawrence said it didn't feature any of the shouting you might expect.

Orgeron is still, shall we say, spirited. His expletive-filled comments in the locker room after beating Alabama are impossible to ignore.

He knows what the outside world thinks of him, though, and he's here to say that he has learned from his past failures and better understands his strengths and weaknesses now. He knows he's only as good as the players and coaching staff around him, and he couldn't ask for more on either front. He says his one regret is he didn't get LSU to this point -- undefeated and ranked No. 2, and set to play Georgia on Saturday for the SEC championship -- sooner.

"It feels good," he says. "When we started this is what we wanted. This is what we wanted for LSU. This is what we wanted for the state of Louisiana, but it took some work. I had to get lucky. We got Joe Burrow. We got Joe Brady. There's a lot of things that fell in place."

But before he recruited his Heisman Trophy-caliber quarterback, before he found his hotshot assistant on offense, Orgeron had to work on himself.


Orgeron scarfs down dinner alone at his desk after practice. Then he paces back and forth in his office with a phone pressed to his ear, speeding through a so-called "power hour" of recruiting calls. By the time he's finished and settles into a comfy leather club chair, he is a picture of happiness and vindication. "Our offense is crazy," he says, shaking his head. "Unbelievable."

Contrary to popular belief, the 58-year-old former defensive lineman from Lafourche Parish, Louisiana, who grew up on the wishbone and 3 yards and a cloud of dust, says he has always been searching for this type of modern, high-scoring offense, dating back to his days as an assistant at Miami and USC. It just took a while for him to find it.

There were those three previous seasons as LSU's head coach, of course, but the search for all the right ingredients took much longer than that.

As it turns out, Orgeron doesn't raise his voice when he's serious. Instead, he dips into a hoarse whisper, growing lower and lower, pulling you further and further in. He does it as he talks about his stint as USC's interim head coach in 2013, during which he went 6-2, including a win against No. 5 Stanford. He says he thought he'd done enough to keep the job then, and when he didn't, "it was devastating."

When he's really trying to make a point, though, when he leans in as his eyes go wide, there's a deep growl that rumbles from somewhere within his chest.

"The year I was out of coaching, you have a lot of time to reflect," he says solemnly. "And you know what I missed the most?"

He pauses.

"The grind. The pressure. The adversity."

As Orgeron waited for his next opportunity, every day back home was the same. He would work out, go to the bank and grocery store, and count the hours until Friday night, when he'd watch his sons' high school football games. Being around his wife and three boys more was a welcome change, but he would watch the news before going to bed feeling like something was off.

At one point, USC came back to him with an offer to rejoin the staff as an assistant. He says it was "head coach money" but "I had to say no."

"It took me about three months to get over it," he says. "I wasn't myself for a while. I didn't tell anybody that, but my wife saw [it]."

But as much as it hurt, the time away from the game afforded Orgeron an opportunity to reflect.

It's why he doesn't hold back now when he talks about all the misconceptions that have been associated with him: "Defensive line coach; dumb; you know, Cajun, can hardly speak; got the raspy voice; a hard-ass at Ole Miss; nobody could work for him; can't be a head coach."

It's also why he understands that some of those labels might have been partly his own doing. He says he was a defensive line coach trying to be a head coach the first time around at Ole Miss and everyone paid the price for it; he'd constantly yell and scream back then. He held on too tightly, reluctant to delegate; he ultimately strangled the life out of the program, finishing 10-25 over three seasons from 2005 to 2007. He says going 100 mph, on and off the field, "broke people, it broke the team."

"My dad always told me, 'Son, you have to do everything twice,'" says Orgeron, who called some of his former assistants to apologize. "You live and learn. If you want it bad enough, you'll change, and I always wanted to be a head coach. I wanted to be a successful head coach, and I had to try it my way first to see if it would work. In those years I was out from Ole Miss, I just wrote stuff down every day. I changed, and it was a process. ... I had to learn to be a head coach."

For starters, he says he learned to treat people better. That meant handling players as if they were his sons and treating assistants the way he'd want to be treated, with respect. If he saw something wrong, "I'd bring the coach to my office and talk to him like a man," rather than airing things out publicly.

Next, he wanted to cultivate a leadership style that wouldn't be defined by anyone's self-interest. He had seen selfishness of players and coaches creep in during his time as an assistant at USC and LSU, and vowed to create an environment where that attitude couldn't exist.

"I see myself coaching from within," he says. "I don't want to coach from above. I don't want it to be me looking down on everyone else. Na-ah. I want it to be all of us together."


Orgeron wasted no time settling into the head-coaching role at LSU after taking over for Les Miles on an interim basis in September 2016. After helping the Tigers salvage an 8-4 season, the job was his on a permanent basis by December.

His first major move was telling athletic director Joe Alleva to "do whatever it takes" to keep defensive coordinator Dave Aranda. Fending off a strong offer from Texas A&M, thanks in no small part to a new $2.5 million-per-year contract, "was huge," Orgeron says.

His next order of business: transform LSU's offense. He nearly lured Lane Kiffin away from Alabama and then swung for the fences again by hiring Broyles Award winner Matt Canada, whose cutting-edge offense was never able to get off the ground.

After Canada's short-lived and tumultuous stay, Orgeron chose to promote longtime SEC assistant Steve Ensminger to offensive coordinator before the 2018 season. The decision made the college football universe roll its collective eyes; Ensminger had no background with the spread and everyone knew it. It appeared as if Orgeron was going back on his word to deliver a modern offense.

But something else was happening behind the scenes. After the 2017 season, Burrow announced he was ready to leave Ohio State, so Orgeron and his staff made some calls. That spring, the grad transfer made a visit to Baton Rouge. Burrow didn't know Orgeron at the time. Like everyone else, he says he thought the coach was "a rah-rah guy."

During the visit, Orgeron and Ensminger sat with Burrow, watched tape and talked ball. They showed Burrow his high school highlights and some of his plays from Ohio State. Then they showed him those same plays within the LSU playbook.

"[Orgeron] told me they wanted to change the offense and go more spread, and I knew it was going to be a process because they hadn't done it here -- ever," Burrow recalls. "We kind of had a four-hour film session here on my visit that really sold me that 1, Coach O knows what he's doing and 2, Coach Ensminger knows what he's doing."

Burrow says it was "blind faith" that led him to commit to LSU over Cincinnati, believing Orgeron was a man of his word and was ready to change, even if it wasn't going to be immediate. That "rah-rah guy" he saw from the outside? Burrow learned, "He's really intelligent, as well. He's an X's-and-O's guy, he really is, on defense and on offense."

The results that first season were a mixed bag. Burrow ran a traditional pro-style offense under Ensminger, taking his first seven-step drop since middle school. But, if you paid attention, one could see a development late in the season that proved to be a harbinger of things to come: Burrow didn't just sit in the pocket, he ran.

And guess whose idea that was? It was Orgeron who dropped by the quarterback room one day and made the recommendation to implement more designed QB run plays. "That sparked us," Burrow says.

But Orgeron knew he had to take it a step further. After the 2018 season, he brought Ensminger into his office for what could have been an awkward conversation anywhere else. With Jerry Sullivan departing as an offensive assistant, there was an opening to fill. Orgeron told Ensminger he wanted to bring in someone who could change the offense. "Steve," he told him, "we gotta go spread."

Ensminger didn't fight it, and the two quickly agreed to call New Orleans Saints assistant Joe Brady in for an interview. The little-known, 29-year-old former walk-on from William & Mary had impressed Ensminger with his knowledge of the run-pass option during a visit the previous offseason, and he was hired to be the team's passing-game coordinator within a week of his interview.

"We're older," Orgeron says of himself and Ensminger. "We go, 'Hey, man, we don't have all the answers,' but we do have good qualities in leadership as far as toughness that we can give to the team, and let guys do what they need to do."

By letting Brady bring his own unique blend of the West Coast, spread and run-pass option offenses to Baton Rouge, LSU has catapulted into the college football elite. Burrow, back in the shotgun and running again, has gone from a middling QB in the SEC to a Heisman Trophy front-runner leading an offense that ranks second nationally in points per game (48.7).

Orgeron knows other suitors will be lining up to lure Brady away soon, but he's ready for that. "We have a fight on our hands every day here," he says. "We're used to that."

Few people could have seen such a thing coming: a dynamic LSU offense led by head coach Ed Orgeron. It would have been seen as improbable only a few years ago.

But then, Orgeron did the impossible: He rewrote the book on himself.

Orgeron can still recall everyone who mocked his thick, gravelly Cajun accent, calling him dumb and saying he'd never be a head coach again. But the truth is, it only nudged him closer to being the head coach he is today.

"When someone tells me I can't do something, I'm gonna do it," he says. "I just always had faith that things are going to change and they'll come around. And it seems like they have."