Ed Orgeron said last week he wanted to tweak what the Trojans had been doing under Lane Kiffin rather than introduce sweeping changes in midstream, but Orgeron added a significant new formation to the team’s playbook Thursday in his debut as USC’s interim coach.
As players, coaches and support staff walked away from the team buses and across the Coliseum field, they stopped near the Trojans logo to form an imperfect but impressively big circle and held hands. Orgeron stood in the middle to address the group, his gravelly voice unmistakable even if the exact words were lost at a distance.
After a few minutes Orgeron left the center and blended into the rim of the circle, slinging his arms around the shoulders of the people on either side of him, their heads bowed as if in prayer or deep thought. This private moment in a public venue was new; Kiffin routinely walked off the bus and across the field to the tunnel while the receivers or linemen gathered in small circles, but the team didn’t gather as one as it did on Thursday.
Orgeron, a big promoter of Trojans tradition, might have created a new ritual in USC’s 38-31 victory over Arizona at the Coliseum while delivering a much-needed infusion of liveliness and creativity.
The first clue that Orgeron would do things differently from Kiffin was subtle but important: Orgeron allowed cookies, cupcakes and ice cream to again be served at the team’s training table after they had been banished. He turned off the music that had played during practices but reached back to the Pete Carroll era for other musical cues.
“I wanted to change the things that I thought needed to change, make the guys a little bit looser,” Orgeron said earlier this week. “Cookies and ice cream — I’m a lineman so I knew it would make the guys happy — and stuff like that.
“And we wanted to bring some music into the meeting rooms and go back to the competition. A lot of the stuff we did with Coach Carroll, that I thought was fantastic. He brought a lot of energy.
“Let’s let the players cut loose a little bit — that’s what we wanted to try. Just wanted to get their mind off what had happened and change their thought process to, ‘Hey, we can have fun and still play football at a high level and win.’ That’s what we’re trying to instill.”
Unlike Kiffin, who clung to his super-sized play chart like it was a life raft — though it didn’t save his job after the Trojans’ sloppy 62-41 loss at Arizona State on Sept. 28 — Orgeron walked the sidelines Thursday with no cue cards in front of his face to jolt his memory or mask his emotions.
Orgeron was touchy-feely and expressive, bumping fists with players as they came to the sidelines after successful possessions and tapping one player or another on top of the helmet during timeouts. Dressed in shirt sleeves despite the evening chill, he wasn’t all over his players enough to smother them, but he was there and they seemed to respond.
In another big and welcome change, Orgeron wasn’t married to managing the offense, as Kiffin had been. Orgeron left defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast to oversee the defense and delegated the play-calling to offensive coordinator Clay Helton, the better for Orgeron to keep his mind open to all aspects of the game and process everything that played out in front of him.
The result was the kind of solid, reassuring performance the Trojans needed in order to regain some stability after the upheaval of Kiffin’s firing.
“I’m coaching the whole team,” Orgeron said when asked how he and his assistants would divide the sideline duties.
“Obviously, I can speak with them on the headsets, but I’m going to do what I do best: coach toughness, style and energy throughout the whole game with the whole team. I’ll be with the whole team as much as I can. We’re going to give it everything we got.”
That still might not be enough to salvage this season.
“Obviously there’s probably going to be some ups and downs that we have to go through,” he said, “but I want them to fight and compete and play with energy and have fun playing the game. If we do that, we’re going to do well.”
And we’ll see if the cookies and ice cream are just dessert, or their just deserts.