Commentary: LSU’s shocking upset of Florida won’t wipe away Ed Orgeron’s 2020 problems
Two nights after slaying the Nick Saban dragon last fall, Ed Orgeron welcomed me to his office balcony and shared a spectacular view of Tiger Stadium in the distance. He seemed in awe of his place as the newly anointed king of Tigerland — “You kiddin’ me?” he said — but there was no sense of imposter syndrome coming from the Cajun boy made good.
Orgeron knew he belonged, and now everybody, especially those doubters in L.A. city and LA state, could no longer deny it.
As a native of Shreveport, La., in my first year covering national college football for the Los Angeles Times, I was easily swept away by Orgeron’s raw and rugged underdog story and the idea USC had let a great coach get away because of pure cultural superiority. The 2013 Trojans loved him and wanted him to be their coach after his 6-2 interim stint, but the decision-makers couldn’t stomach his gravelly accent, born on the bayou of Larose?
Two months later, that stirring narrative compelled me down to the Superdome field after Louisiana State defeated Clemson to complete a 15-0 national championship season. I found Orgeron’s mother, Coco, watching her son celebrate from a wheelchair. I asked her to sum up the emotions.
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“It all came to an end today,” she said, “all the dreams and the wishing, and we got to start all over again for next year. We got to keep on wishing.”
“Next year?” I asked in surprise.
“Well, you got to plan!” she said with a wink.
I could not have known then how prophetic Coco Orgeron would be. Her son would have to start all over again, and, as it turned out, there was no plan that could have prepared him for what was coming in 2020.
Entering Saturday night’s game at Florida, LSU was 3-5 and coming off a 55-17 loss to No. 1 Alabama last week. No defending national champion in the sport’s history has fallen further faster. The Tigers deserve a ton of credit for not giving up and going into “The Swamp” and shocking the college football world by knocking off the sixth-ranked Gators 37-34 thanks to a 57-yard field goal from Cade York, but this year’s LSU collapse goes far beyond its 4-5 record.
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It’s gotten so bad in Baton Rouge, we’re going to need bullet points:
- In August, a USA Today investigation revealed that two women reported to LSU coaches and administrators they were raped by star running back Derrius Guice in 2016 and 2017. The women said the school did not investigate the incidents properly. Orgeron had taken over as head coach in the middle of the 2016 season. Guice played in 2017 and was selected by Washington in the second round of the NFL draft. Orgeron responded to an accusation that he had knowledge of the alleged rapes by saying, “I will always stand up for what is right, and without question, I have complied — and I will continue to comply — with all university Title IX protocols and procedures.”
- In November, USA Today expanded its investigation to find that “at least nine LSU football players have been reported to police for sexual misconduct and dating violence” since Orgeron took over. The story compared LSU’s handling of these cases to the scandals that erupted recently at Baylor, Penn State and Michigan State.
- In February, according to the Advocate, Orgeron and his wife, Kelly, filed for divorce. Throughout the Tigers’ magical 2019 season, Kelly had been by Orgeron’s side during on-field celebrations and national TV interviews, looking the part of the dutiful wife. In October, a picture circulated on social media of Orgeron in bed with a much younger woman. He was grinning, and the photo went viral.
- In the summer, as the Tigers worked out in preparation to play through the pandemic, Orgeron casually admitted that “most of our players” had contracted COVID-19.
- In October, LSU self-imposed penalties relating to an NCAA investigation into the program’s problems with institutional control. Most of it centered around incidents during Les Miles’ tenure, but the NCAA also looked into former LSU wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. handing out $2,000 in cash to players after the Tigers’ national title win over Clemson. LSU’s offered penalties include the loss of eight scholarships over two years and a bowl ban for this season announced this week after the Tigers fell to 3-5. Traditionally, only teams with at least a .500 record play in bowl games.
- According to the Advocate, “Since LSU’s national championship season ended, 18 scholarship football players have left the football team in some fashion. Seven players opted out of the season. Six transferred to other schools. Three were arrested or suspended. Two entered the NCAA transfer portal.” The paper reported that some player discontent was related to the way Orgeron handled a team meeting in August relating to players wanting to march for racial justice.
Watching all of this unfold, LSU’s 2019 run might be even more amazing. The Tigers weren’t just a really good team that happened to get hot and win a title. They were rightfully debated as one of the best teams of all-time. Now it looks like transcendent quarterback play from Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow, brilliant game planning from passing game coordinator Joe Brady and defensive coordinator Dave Aranda and a roster stocked full of NFL talent covered up cracks developing in the program’s culture.
Burrow, Brady, Aranda and a record 13 draft picks are gone, although Burrow couldn’t escape LSU’s 2020 luck with his season-ending kneeinjury with the Cincinnati Bengals. Given the attrition, it was predictable the Tigers would struggle mightily even in a normal, non-pandemic season. Once star wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase and two defensive starters opted out before the season began, we all should have known a humbling was on the horizon. Yet, with 2019 memories fresh, the Tigers were still ranked No. 6 in the preseason.
USC’s 2020 reputation for comebacks hit its high mark for the season Saturday in the Trojans’ gutsy 43-38 victory over crosstown rival UCLA.
The football situation can be forgiven — especially after Saturday’s reaffirming win over the Gators. The Tigers’ victory showed that, while it is alarming that LSU is hovering around 70 scholarship players out of the allotted 85, they have young players who still want to fight for Orgeron.
The fire burning hot around Orgeron’s culture is another matter. A year after floating on top of the world, he appears in over his head, exactly as USC bigwigs feared would be the case in Troy.
Looking back, this abrupt reversal of fortune for “Coach O” would have been unthinkable to everyone — everyone except the man’s mother.
Coco Orgeron is a Louisiana lifer, and she clearly understood something about the frenzied football culture down there when she could hardly enjoy her son’s rise to the zenith of his profession without thinking about how he had to do it again immediately.
Winning big can quickly silence the new questions of culture, but the problem is Orgeron isn’t positioned to take down Saban again within the next few years. If the Tigers continue down this path off the field, the glory of 2019 can extend the native son’s reign only so far into the 2020s.
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