The deep green Coliseum field turned cardinal and gold, swarmed by thousands of fans, enveloped in thousands of screams, a heart of Trojans nation beating together in dizzy disbelief.
In the middle stood one sweating man who was somehow bigger than all of it, his giant white-sleeved arms raised above his giant smile, his massive shoulders carrying this bear of a victory.
He was rocked, he was hugged, he was loved like no man has been loved here since the early days of Pete Carroll.
He is Coach Ed Orgeron, and he orchestrated and inspired USC’s stunning 20-17 last-second victory over fifth-ranked Stanford on Saturday night in such a way that every question about his brief but dazzling tenure was answered but one.
Will he be allowed to keep his job?
After Andre Heidari kicked a 47-yard field goal with 19 seconds remaining to give the Trojans their biggest victory in several years, one more startling question dominated the postgame celebration.
If the Trojans win their final two games, against Colorado and UCLA, then win their bowl game, how can they let Coach O go?
As the pressure lifts from a USC team that has joyfully won five of six games since Orgeron replaced Lane Kiffin this fall, the pressure mounts on Athletic Director Pat Haden to remove Orgeron’s interim tag and allow this crazy Trojans rebirth to continue.
Actually, if you listen to one of Saturday’s defensive heroes, freshman Su’a Cravens, the pressure begins now.
“Coach O needs to be here next year ... we want Coach O next year,” Cravens said after his fourth-quarter interception set up the game-winning drive. “Forget the hiring, forget all that. We got Coach O and that’s all we need.”
It was always Haden’s intention to employ Orgeron as the head coach only for the rest of the season, biding time with this former defensive line boss and recruiting coordinator until a splashy hire could be made. It was Haden’s best hope -- everyone’s best hope, really -- that Orgeron could simply calm down the fractured USC football culture and prevent it from further embarrassment until an established winning head coach could be plucked from elsewhere. Orgeron would be rewarded with a top assistant position on the new coach’s staff and the nice long embrace for as long as he wanted to stick around.
That was then. This is wow.
Orgeron is not only 5-1 at USC, but his team won at Oregon State for the first time in nearly decade and now has beaten Stanford for the first time in five years. He may have been 10-25 in his only other head coach job, at Mississippi several years ago, but he has clearly matured as a leader and is beloved by the sort of USC players and recruits whose presence here is vital.
“Anytime you have a father figure like Coach O, he comes in here, treats us like his own, we want to run through a brick wall for him,” linebacker Hayes Pullard said.
Orgeron will still probably have to win the rest of his games, or at least be as competitive as Saturday night, to have a shot at keeping this job. But after Saturday night, anything seems possible, as the victory over the Cardinal was a testament to everything that Orgeron inspires in his players.
On this night, as he has been in every game, Orgeron was lot more than a big dude with a thick Cajun accent, this victory being a reflection of everything he has brought to this program, big and powerful and passionate.
“Coach O has made up for my early three years in ... six games,” said redshirt junior safety Dion Bailey, who also had a key interception. “This will be the most memorable season of my life.”
Bailey’s defense had a game to remember, stopping Stanford three times in USC territory down the stretch, with those two interceptions and a blocked field-goal try.
“He means so much to us and you can tell we mean so much to him,” quarterback Cody Kessler said. “It’s such an honor to play for someone that has just as much or even more passion about the game and for the team as you do.”
Kessler’s offensive upheld that honor by rewarding Orgeron’s brilliantly bold decision in the final three minutes to go for a first down on fourth and two from the Stanford 48. Kessler completed a 13-yard slant pass to hobbled Marqise Lee for a first down that led to the victory.
“I don’t know if I pulled them together, they just came together,” Orgeron said of his renewed Trojans, deflecting credit as always. “They did it, I didn’t do anything.”
So now, if the Trojans keep winning, what will Haden do?
“Decisions will be made, but it’s totally out of my hands,” Orgeron said. “I think everything happens for a reason, there’s a plan out there, what that plan is I don’t know, but we work on a daily basis to get there.”
The USC students have a cheer where they put their hands above their heads. On this night, as they continually did the move amid a rollicking full and roaring Coliseum, the gesture was unmistakable.
It looked just like an O.