Writer’s Note: I’m taking a risk writing this particular column. It goes to press before the results of the College Football Playoff National Championship game are known. Because I’m not certified as a fortune teller nor am I even a fair guesser, there is no way that I can say for certain that the LSU Tigers are the national champs.
What I can say is that 2019-2020 has been a heck of a football season for the Tigers and their head coach, Ed Orgeron. Many are calling it an historic season, and so do I — whether by the time you read this they are national champions or runner-ups. They have earned my respect and admiration either way. Geaux, Tigers! — GP
Who would have thought two years ago that today Louisiana State University’s Tigers would be the talk of not only the town and state, but of football fans all across the United States? That they would be SEC Champions? That they would play for the national championship? Coach Orgeron believed. So did many LSU fans. Still, there were doubters.
the Right People . . .
Recruiting begins with staff. Orgeron’s handpicked elite staffers — Defensive Coordinator Dave Aranda, Offensive Coordinator Steve Ensminger, and Passing Game Coordinator/Wide Receivers Coach Joe Brady (who Orgeron snatched from the New Orleans Saints to bring the spread offence to Baton Rouge) — have proved that they have the talent and the chemistry to work together with Orgeron to create a highly competitive team. Still, even the best coaches have to have material to develop. Did they?
For more seasons than most LSU fans would care to remember, the question of quarterback has been a nagging one. While LSU has certainly had good quarterbacks, clearly what was needed was one of those rare “once in a lifetime” superstars to jumpstart the program and lead the team to glory. Few paid much attention to a graduate student transfer quarterback who had spent much of his college career on the bench. Coach Orgeron did.
Could a mostly backup quarterback (albeit an Ohio 4-star recruit) who had put together a good season for LSU in 2018 rise to the challenge of putting together a championship season in 2019? Perhaps even more important, could the talent around Joe Burrow also be developed to the level necessary to make the run? The short answer to both is “yes”.
Joe Burrow was literally a diamond in the rough, and LSU had recruited the material to work with him (LSU signed the 6th most talent in college football during the past 5 recruiting classes). Still, according to Sports Illustrated, several of the best players this season were not heavily recruited nor even all that well known when they joined the Tigers. Among those cited by Sports Illustrated as being legacy players are Lloyd Cushenberry (3-star guard who is considered the leader of the offensive line), Clyde Edwards-Helaire (3-star running back whose runs have sizzled the playing field and changed the record books), and Damien Lewis (3-star guard who is referred to as the catalyst on the right side of the offensive line).
History . . .
This wasn’t the first time that LSU has been in contention for the national championship. The Tigers won the top prize in 1958 (Coach Paul Dietzel), 2003 (Coach Nick Saben), and 2007 (Coach Les Miles). Dietzel is remembered by fans for his infamous “Chinese Bandits”, Saben is remembered for his unanticipated resignation as head coach to coach in the NFL, and Miles is remembered for his turf grass munching. All kidding aside, all three of these former head coaches advanced the LSU Tiger football team’s reputation for toughness and grit and impacted the program in positive ways.
LSU has also won 15 conference championships. Perhaps no previous conference championship victory was sweeter than the one this season when the Tigers whipped the Georgia Bulldogs decisively.
Oh, and that “diamond in the rough” quarterback has done just fine, making LSU history by becoming LSU’s second Heisman Trophy winner. Burrow (who by the time he won the Heisman had been affectionately renamed “Jeaux Burreaux”) earned the Heisman by leading LSU to a perfect 14-0 season, including the SEC Championship and first playoff games. He led the SEC in passing yards (5,208) and touchdowns (55) and singlehandedly rewrote LSU and SEC record books. Burrow had the highest completion percentage (77.9%) nationally. (NOTE: All numbers represent most recent available prior to going to press.) Not bad for a kid who had never eaten crawfish and had no idea what jambalaya was! It would seem that Orgeron and his staff have become quite adept at polishing diamonds.
Cajun French, Sha . . .
One of the most interesting things to watch both during Coach Ed Orgeron’s earliest days coaching and today is the reaction that interviewers have when he answers their questions. To say that many are stymied by his gravelly voice combined with his VERY Cajun accent would be an understatement. Those “not from here” must wonder where this fellow came from anyway, and how did he learn to talk like that?
In a recent Sports Illustrated article (“Ed Orgeron is the Beacon of Light Down on the Bayou” by Ross Dellenger), Orgeron’s background in — and influence on — Lafourche Parish is covered in detail. The parish is suffering an economic downturn, but Orgeron’s success with their beloved Tigers has given the people what his mother calls “hope”.
When Orgeron was growing up here in Larose (population 7,306), he worked in the seafood industry like so many other young people. His grandfather, according to Dellenger, operated a ferry on the bayou and his mother made a living trapping muskrats and skinning their hides for sale. Orgeron’s family tree is filled with trappers, hunters, oil field hands, and tugboat operators — all known for working hard and loving gumbo.
Orgeron and a group of his classmates at South Lafourche High helped lead the Tarpons to a state championship in 1977. An improbable group of ragtag Cajun boys proved that year that anything is possible no matter where you are from or how much money your family has.
The Path Back
to the Bayou . . .
Orgeron has never forgotten his Cajun heritage even when his coaching career has led him far away from home. We have not been allowed to forget his Cajun roots either, because every time he opens his mouth to speak, we hear solid evidence of it.
Like all coaches, Orgeron has endured highs and lows throughout his career. When he was tapped as head coach for the University of Mississippi, a less than stellar stint there changed his name from “Coach O” to “Coach Zero”. That proved temporary, however, because through several subsequent coaching positions, Orgeron learned from his mistakes and honed his coaching skills.
Orgeron often said that coaching at LSU would be his “dream job”. In 2015 he landed the defensive line coach position and within months became the recruiting coordinator at LSU. In September 2016 he was named interim head coach, and in November of that year he became the Tigers’ 33rd head coach and only the second one who was a Louisiana native.
Orgeron’s “system” (aka “the Coach O Way”) has clearly worked. With a theme for each day’s practice and an obsession with increased efficiency and production from every member of the team, Orgeron has put his stamp on the culture at LSU. While it is true that LSU might be his dream job, it is also true that Orgeron is clearly LSU’s dream coach. The Cajun coach from the backwaters of Cajun country seems a perfect match for the job.
Tiger Titans Clash . . .
After defeating Oklahoma (4th ranked nationally) decisively by 35 points, Orgeron and his Tigers (ranked 1st nationally) had to wait only a few hours to learn who they would be playing for the national championship. When the Clemson Tigers (3rd ranked nationally) defeated Ohio State (ranked 2nd nationally), the die was cast. This was to be a Tigers versus Tigers battle.
If there is such a thing as “home field advantage”, LSU surely had it for this game. Playing major games in the New Orleans Superdome is nothing new for LSU. And their fans are always happy to pass a good time in New Orleans!
The Superdome folks took several steps to try and create a impartial atmosphere (even though everyone knew that LSU fans would significantly outnumber the Clemson fans at the game). The chefs at the Superdome developed a specialty pizza for each team – LSU’s was made with alligator, shrimp, and crawfish in a creole sauce with onions and peppers, while Clemson’s was a barbecue pizza with broiled peaches on top (apparently South Carolinians love their barbecue and produce the largest peach crops in the US). Fans not wanting pizza could enjoy an LSU Dr. Pepper bacon burger or a Clemson pimento cheese chicken sandwich.
It All Came Down
To This . . .
By the time you read this, the game will be history and the champion will have been crowned. There was a winner and a loser. I think, however, that there was not a loser in this matchup. Both teams were worthy to be playing in this game-of-games, and both should be congratulated.
The best team, on that particular Monday night, on that particular field, won.