This defining loss for USC will go on Ed Orgeron’s impermanent record

USC interim coach Ed Orgeron leaves the field after a 35-14 loss to UCLA on Saturday at the Coliseum. The Trojans were 6-2 under Orgeron.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

As balmy late afternoon quickly turned to chilly darkness, the coronation of USC’s new football coach devolved from a crisp exclamation to a harsh declaration.

“Coach O!” had become “Coach Whoa.”

In the biggest game of his interim tenure Saturday night, Ed Orgeron’s USC football team was passionate and disciplined.

It was also a 35-14 loser to UCLA, the Bruins’ first victory at the Coliseum in 16 years.


In his final regular-season audition for a permanent position, Orgeron shook fists and patted helmets and commanded the sidelines with his giant positive presence.

Then the game ended and he jogged sheepishly to midfield to congratulate UCLA Coach Jim Mora, who owned the Trojans and the building and the night.

By then, the hands of the relatively few kids remaining in the USC student section were mostly stuck in their pockets instead held over their heads in the shape of an “O.” By then, the only thing that even remotely resembled a coronation was the Bruins’ cheerleaders waving two giant UCLA flags at midfield while several Bruins players gathered on the midfield Trojans logo and posed for photos.

The coach with so much fire looked extinguished.

“Nobody played well enough to beat a rival team and that is our responsibility,” Orgeron said.

The coach who never let his players get down admitted that the Bruins had gotten them down.

“We did not make the plays and we got discouraged early and that’s disappointing. . . . It took the fire out of us,” Orgeron said

The teams will now retire to their respective bowl games in places like El Paso or Las Vegas, but the real news will be happening in the office of USC Athletic Director Pat Haden.

It was assumed that if USC won this game, as many believed it would do, Haden would make the popular Orgeron the permanent head coach, perhaps as soon as Monday morning. The affable defensive line coach was an underdog when he became the interim replacement for Lane Kiffin two months ago, but then he won six of his first seven games, including a victory over then-fifth-ranked Stanford. He was loved by the players, who lobbied for him to get the job, by fans who began filling the Coliseum again, and by alumni who have been prodding athletic department officials to look no further.

But that was all before Saturday, when Mora’s Bruins were not only clearly the better team, but also clearly the tougher team. UCLA outgained USC 396-314, converted more than half of its third downs, made every big play offensively and defensively and even burned the Trojans with an average of 43 yards on kickoff returns.

Now, Haden surely will officially open up a national search to find the next USC coach, and Orgeron surely is no longer a leading candidate, with two things stacking the odds against him.

First, last year, Haden stunningly gave his coach a “150%” vote of confidence after the Trojans lost to UCLA. It turned out to be a huge mistake that was rectified months later with Kiffin’s firing. Would Haden dare make the same sort of proclamation again?

Second, how do you announce the hiring of an interim coach who lost to your two biggest rivals, Notre Dame and UCLA?

One thing initially thought to be working in Orgeron’s favor was that earlier Saturday, perhaps the most attractive potential Trojans candidate became unavailable when Kevin Sumlin of Texas A&M; signed to coach through 2019. But it would be unlike the thoughtful and deliberate Haden to hire a coach just because he couldn’t find anybody else.

Haden will look now, and he should look. This is not a hire about two months, it is a hire about at least the next three years, and Haden must now perform his due diligence.

Ironically, you know who the blueprint for the Trojans’ new hire should be, right? It’s Mora, of course. He has taken the eternal chip on the Bruins’ shoulder and flung it at the world, winning 18 of his 26 games as the UCLA leader with equal parts toughness and inspiration. On Saturday he was smart enough to outcoach the Trojans and then emotional enough to scream at his players that they “own this town.”

“We have to play [USC] again in 12 months . . . it’s temporary,” he said afterward, typical Mora.

This loss gives Haden the breathing room to search for a hidden gem like Mora, and even Orgeron seems to know it.

Orgeron acknowledged the odds against him late Saturday, saying, “Obviously we are disappointed, especially when you don’t beat Notre Dame and UCLA, that is what a head coach of USC is supposed to do.”

Finally, resignedly, he even spoke about the team as though his tenure was in the past, saying, “This group of young men and coaches will always be in my heart.”

In the end, that crisp exclamation had become a painfully protracted cry of frustration for all those who wanted this fun and feisty man to succeed.

“Coach O!” had become “Coach Ohhh-Nooo.”