Column: UCLA once ran Ed Orgeron out of town, but he’s back with LSU: ‘I’m so damn excited’
One of the most beloved college football coaches in this city’s history will lead a team from across the country onto the Rose Bowl field Saturday afternoon with emotions as thick as that voice.
At the same time, UCLA also led him to the greatest moment of his career.
On his first public return to Los Angeles since a 2013 loss to the Bruins both booted him out of his USC job while sending him home to greatness at Louisiana State, the national championship coach of the Tigers is not going to know whether to laugh or cry.
Knowing Coach O, he’ll probably do both.
“I’m so damn excited,” he said in a phone interview this week. “It is kind of surreal.”
Orgeron insisted that his LSU team’s season opener against 1-0 UCLA — the same program he faced in his last game here eight years ago — is not about him.
“It’s not about revenge, I can’t go there, I won’t go there, when you get personal it’s wrong,” he said. “We’re one team, one heartbeat.”
UCLA is hoping to build on a rout of Hawaii in the season opener when it hosts LSU on Saturday at the Rose Bowl. Follow along for the latest news.
Yet for many in town, it’s all about him, because his one team should still be the Trojans, and his one heartbeat should still thump cardinal and gold.
“I thought I’d be in Los Angeles forever,” he admitted. “Those memories are going to pop up. I’ll try to avoid them, but they’re there.”
Ah, and what memories they are, bubbling up from one of the most dizzying two months in the recent history of the USC program.
Eight years ago, Orgeron replaced the fired Lane Kiffin early in the season and, as an interim coach, led USC to a 6-2 record that some thought was enough to retain him in a job he might still be holding today.
The players loved him. The fans embraced him. The field was filled with passion. The stands were filled with fans holding up their hands to form the letter ‘O.’ After one game, his team tried to carry him from the field. After another game, seemingly the entire student body tried to do the same.
No USC coach since Pete Carroll had elicited such unabashed affection. Yet then-athletic director Pat Haden reportedly didn’t think he looked like a typical USC coach.
Texas coach Steve Sarkisian rebuilt his life after getting fired from USC because of alcohol issues, but he did so without those who helped launch his career.
From his gravelly Cajun voice, to his emotional sideline presence, to the fears that his raw personality would not connect with elite Trojans boosters, Orgeron didn’t fit the athletic administration’s idea of a Trojans leader. He had to be perfect on the field to even have a chance at the permanent job. Once his team lost to Notre Dame early in his tenure, it was clear the Trojans had to beat UCLA in the season finale to survive.
They did not, losing 35-14 to a more talented Bruins team. Two days later it was announced that Steve Sarkisian would be the new USC coach.
Holed up in Room 122 in the campus Radisson Hotel — where Orgeron lived to be close to the team — the giant coach wept, then packed his bags and headed back home to Louisiana, never to return.
Until Saturday, in another game against UCLA, where Ed Orgeron’s career will come full circle.
He remembers his first game in the Rose Bowl as a coach, in 1998, when he was a USC assistant under Paul Hackett. The Bruins beat the Trojans for the eighth consecutive time, and afterward he was jeered off the field.
“I’ll never forget that day, I was walking back into the dressing room and UCLA fans are screaming ‘Eight more years, eight more years,’’’ Orgeron recalled. “I told my family, ‘You all go home.’ I slept that night in my office, and I vowed I would never hear that stuff again.”
Sure enough, USC won seven straight games against the Bruins, with Orgeron on the staff for five of those games, including four under Pete Carroll.
“One of the most miserable nights of my life,” he said. “But we turned it around. I think of those memories. Lot of great memories.”
Just as his first game against UCLA was traumatic, so was his final game, as he lost to Jim Mora Jr. and was quickly shoved off into oblivion. Orgeron was so upset at losing the head coaching job that he quit on the spot and did not stick around to coach in the Las Vegas Bowl.
It opened the door for Clay Helton to begin coaching the Trojans as a one-game substitute. It also opened the door for Orgeron to return to his Louisiana bayou roots and find greatness among his people.
“No question, it was the best thing to ever happen to me, and I use it when I talk to people, when I give speeches, when I talk to injured players,” he said. “I’ll be honest, when I got on that plane [to go home], I was crying, I told my wife, besides the day I buried my daddy, this is the worst day of my life. She said, ‘No it’s not, God has a better plan.’’’
Orgeron said he turned around and told her, “It better be good.”
He eventually realized it was, even beyond his wildest imagination.
“She was right,” he said. “It happened for a reason.”
And today, the bitterness has faded, even if the resolve to prove them wrong has not.
“I love USC, I love the people, wonderful school, great for my career…it took me about a year to get over it, I was pretty upset, but not anymore,” he said. “You don’t like to lose a game, but that UCLA game brought me back home to where I needed to be.”
Three years after he left here, early in the 2016 season, Orgeron was named the interim head coach at LSU, replacing Les Miles. By the end of the season he became the permanent coach, and three years later the Tigers captured the imagination of the college football world by going 15-0 and winning the national championship behind Heisman-winning quarterback Joe Burrow.
Everything that USC thought Orgeron wasn’t, it turns out he was.
“I believe USC blew it,” said Gordy Rush, former LSU defensive back and current LSU sideline reporter and general manager of the Tigers’ flagship radio station. “Coach has a skill set where he can reach everyone. He connects with everyone. He fits everywhere. The reasons we hear he didn’t get the USC job, those don’t exist down here.”
His relentless energy wasn’t enough last season as the Tigers went 5-5. He was also feeling some heat this summer after being listed as a defendant in a Title IX lawsuit against LSU amid allegations that he did not report a rape accusation leveled against former running back Derrius Guice. He was earlier accused of interfering with a sexual harassment case involving Guice, although independent investigators found his denial to be credible.
UCLA hopes its recent rout over Hawaii and ticket offers will result in big attendance against LSU on Saturday at the Rose Bowl.
“I can’t comment on it, but I will say this, we handled it on a daily basis, we made progress through the university, we’re making positive strides toward improving the stuff that went on,” Orgeron said.
And so, with the pressure turned up, he brings his future back to his past, and don’t be fooled, returning to the Rose Bowl to beat UCLA would matter very much to a coach whose loss to the Bruins once kicked him out of town.
“For him to go back and play USC’s rival at the Rose Bowl, to prove 2019 was the real deal, that means a lot to him,” Rush said. “He’s going to tell you it doesn’t, but it does.”
Even dressed in purple and gold, he will look strikingly familiar. He will run on the field as a mammoth sweaty mess. He will stalk the sidelines as a roaring inspiration. And, as always, Ed Orgeron will fight on.
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