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USC Sports

USC’s Ed Orgeron is a rah-rah recruiter

Start with the sound of him.

A voice deep and gruff, like dump trucks rumbling down the street. If dump trucks had a Cajun accent.

Add a sturdy face and barrel chest, a sense of determination that allows the man to go days on end with little sleep, living on Slim Jims and Red Bull.

These are the peculiar charms that Ed Orgeron brings to his job.

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“I learned it a while ago,” he says. “Be who you are.”

Orgeron is — among other things — the recruiting coordinator at USC, in charge of coaxing high school football players to sign with the Trojans. Over the past decade, he has built a reputation as one of the top names in a cutthroat line of work.

“He’s a big guy who goes in there with a lot of humor and aggressiveness and the kids just love him,” says Tom Lemming, a recruiting expert for CBS College Sports Network. “He overwhelms them.”

Though USC figures to harvest another top-10 class Wednesday — the first day that prospects can sign letters of intent — the next few years could be rough.

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The Trojans face continuing NCAA sanctions that, unless overturned by appeal, will severely limit scholarships through 2014. That means rival schools will be looking to gain an edge in living rooms across the country.

“There’s no question,” Orgeron says. “We have to deal with this.”

Now, more than ever, USC needs a man of his charms.

Star search

Recruiting was tailor-made for a big guy with an even bigger personality, a former defensive lineman who played at Northwestern State in his native Louisiana.

But before Orgeron could send his first letter or make his first call, he needed to recognize talent. A series of entry-level coaching jobs landed him at Miami in the late-1980s, working under Jimmy Johnson.

“That’s where I learned to evaluate,” Orgeron says. “I just listened to him.”

The process began with hours of watching film. But lots of players look impressive against high school competition, so there was an element of trial-and-error, developing an eye for athletes whose skills would translate to the next level.

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Years later, Orgeron, 49, explains: “You’re doing it for 25 years and you have pictures in your mind. You remember what Mike Patterson looked like, what Kenechi Udeze looked like, what Matt Leinart looked like.”

Experience taught him to stretch beyond football. He made a practice of talking with anyone who could tell him about a prospect’s character — the school principal, the counselor, even the janitor.

It was all about sharpening his instincts, finding ways to measure a young man’s heart.

Those early days in Miami were exciting, Orgeron coaching eight All-Americans on the defensive line — including Warren Sapp and Russell Maryland — while the Hurricanes won a pair of national championships.

But the good times did not last.

First came a domestic violence incident in 1991, when he was single. The next year, Orgeron was charged with head-butting a man during a fight in a Baton Rouge, La., bar. The incident led to a year away from the game.

“I believe that things happen for a reason,” he says. “We learn from what we do.”

The road back began at Nicholls (La.) State and wound through Syracuse before leading him to Paul Hackett’s staff at USC in 1998. The late Marv Goux, a legendary assistant for the Trojans, pulled him aside to talk about hard work and loyalty.

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“I realized how powerful this place was,” Orgeron recalls. “There were people here who helped me, both in football and in my personal life.”

Newly married and starting a family, he saw everything falling into place. Then Hackett got fired.

Love of the chase

It was the winter of 2000 and Pete Carroll felt confident about getting hired at USC. In town for an interview, he stopped by a Long Beach Poly game to scout the local talent.

That is where he met Orgeron.

“Ed didn’t know who the next coach would be, didn’t know if he’d still have a job,” Carroll says. “But he was out there recruiting, working it.”

Done correctly, college recruiting demands a year-round effort, every spare moment devoted to finding new blood for the program. Some coaches would rather diagram plays or work with their teams on the practice field. Or play golf.

“If a head coach plays golf, the chance is great that he will be a lousy recruiter,” Lemming says. “A lot of coaches play golf.”

Carroll and Orgeron were different because they had a passion for the chase and loved signing prospects almost as much as winning games.

Their plan to bolster USC’s struggling program was simple: They focused on local talent, which meant reconnecting with high school coaches throughout Southern California. It was a matter of sheer will, the men constantly challenging each other to see who could work harder.

That meant driving to a dozen or more campuses each day.

“I distinctly remember Coach O showing up and telling me that he and Coach Carroll were going to do it like it’s never been done before,” recalls Matt Kerstetter, the coach at Taft High in Woodland Hills. “They said it and they followed through with it.”

Orgeron enjoyed the legwork, sometimes showing up at high schools early to talk football or even lift weights with the coach. He liked getting to know recruits and their families.

That first spring, the Trojans surprised everyone by signing Shaun Cody, a prep All-American from Hacienda Heights Los Altos. In seasons to follow, they cast their net wider, stealing Mike Williams from Florida and LenDale White from Colorado.

“It’s tireless,” Orgeron says. “You’ve got to love the grind.”

Man with a plan

The job at USC entailed more than just recruiting.

Orgeron produced a string of top defensive linemen for the Trojans. That big voice thundered across the practice field as he transformed the likes of Patterson and Udeze from ungainly freshmen into NFL-ready talent.

“He knew how to maximize results,” former linebacker Dallas Sartz says. “He coached you hard.”

But it was in the pursuit of high school prospects that Orgeron distinguished himself, named recruiter of the year by the Sporting News and Rivals.com in 2004.

This success helped get him the head coach’s job at Mississippi, where he stockpiled talent but was fired after three seasons and 10-25 record. The New Orleans Saints hired him to coach their defensive line for a season before Lane Kiffin took over at Tennessee and brought him back to the college game.

Orgeron did not need much persuading.

Watching Ole Miss win with his recruits made him feel as if he had fallen a year short of succeeding in that job. He wanted another shot. Also, he missed the recruiting.

With each passing season, his strategy grew sharper.

“It’s a detailed process,” he says. “You have to be organized and execute your plan.”

The line between persuading and pestering can be thin. Rather than inundate prospects with calls and emails, Orgeron tries to establish what he calls “regular patterns of communication.” For instance, he will tell a recruit to expect a call every Thursday night.

For each home visit, he draws up a list of talking points and answers to questions he expects to hear. After that, the laughing and joking can take over.

“He’s very spirited in how he talks and, being a kid, that’s what you want to hear,” says Sartz, who came to USC from Granite Bay High near Sacramento. “He also got very close to my sister and both my parents.”

Hooked on work

Several USC boosters arranged for a private jet to fly Kiffin and Orgeron on a whirlwind tour last week. The coaches visited recruits in 11 states over five days.

There wasn’t much time for sleep. At one point, Kiffin suggested they stop for a meal, but Orgeron waved him off.

“We’re good,” the coordinator said. “I’ve got plenty of Slim Jims and Red Bull.”

Both men are known for their recruiting prowess, and the living-room banter followed a predictable pattern: Orgeron loud and energetic, Kiffin quieter and more serious. They met the issue of NCAA sanctions head-on.

“We know at the end this is going to be a great story,” they told recruits. “We’re going to win national championships again.”

It helps that Orgeron is nearly as well-known as his head coach. There was a book called “Meat Market” about his time at Ole Miss and he appeared as himself in the popular film “The Blind Side.”

His devotion to work suggests that Orgeron — who has been sober for more than a decade — traded alcohol for an addiction to recruiting, though he explains himself a different way.

“I don’t like to use the word addicted,” he says. “I can put down the football and play with my kids or go out to dinner with my wife.”

But when it is time for football, he is clearly focused.

After the hectic trip, he returned to USC to host recruits visiting campus over the weekend. Then came a dead period in which no in-person contact was allowed, but coaches could work the phones, trying to protect the recruits who had verbally committed and, perhaps, sway a prospect planning to sign elsewhere.

“We’ve seen a lot of crazy things happen on Monday and Tuesday,” Orgeron says. “We make sure they hear our voices and we’re answering questions.”

No one around Heritage Hall expected to sleep on Tuesday night because the first signatures usually come over the fax machine around sunrise on the East Coast — 4 a.m. in Los Angeles.

“It’s like game day,” Orgeron says. “It’s exhilarating.”

That voice tends to grow a little louder, a little rougher, with excitement. Orgeron has been waiting all year for this.

Even better, he says, “the next day we start all over again.”

david.wharton@latimes.com

twitter.com/LATimesWharton


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