It's all about the “O”

BY PARRISH ALFORD
Daily Journal

OXFORD – He rants, he raves, he screams and does most of that in an occassionally unrecognizable dialect from Louisiana's innermost core.

Many Mississippians chuckle at Cajuns. Now one has come to lead one of this state's signature football programs.

“He can communicate and talk like any good Cajun,” says a hometown friend.

From Louisiana's deep south culture, one that so values its language, it seems a bit odd that the man expected to vault Ole Miss football to championship form can be defined by one letter: O.

But there it is, “O,” the only letter Ole Miss fans need to immerse themselves in conversation about their coach, Ed Orgeron. The letter represents to many fans the dawn of a bright future.

Stickers and T-shirts with the letter abound. Orgeron signs his camp brochure that way.

It doesn't matter that he's yet to call his first timeout as a head coach in the SEC.

He is the man for Ole Miss fans, and his time is now.

Orgeron has spent seven months in this, his first head coaching job. But, save 15 spring practice days, the duties have been largely administrative or traveling to speak to different support groups.

“Every day has been fantastic. There have been new challenges, but it's been things that I have been prepared for by being an assistant head coach,” he said. “It's been a great opportunity to be here, to go out and speak and meet the Ole Miss Rebels family.”

August camp is only days away. Now the gears shift.
“It's all about preparation now. It's about really nailing our system,” Orgeron says. “Right now it's not about who we play, it's about what we do … our conditioning, our planning, our practice habits, our game plan, our schedule. All those things have to be put into place.”

Among those priorities, a Sept. 5 season opener at Memphis that seems light years away. In calendar reality, however, it is very close.

Football in his blood

With the opener comes the realization of a lifetime goal for Ed Orgeron, who in his childhood never struggled to answer the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” For one whose daily life involved pick-up games as cousins and neighbors would string together the front yards of rental houses in Lafourche Parish, the answer was easy.

“When I was 6 years old, I knew I wanted to be a coach,” he said.

At that time there were many front yard games still to play. The ditch between two houses was the 50-yard line. The hedges were out of bounds.

The games lacked the traditional four quarters and a clock. Kickoffs were in the morning. There was a lunchtime break, and the only way mothers could convince their children to come inside in the evening was to withhold the priviledge of playing the next day's game.

“There were 15 kids or more,” Orgeron recalls. “They would come over, and the game was on. You were either full of mud, or you were laying in the hedges.”

Games became more serious at South Lafourche High School, where Orgeron was an all-state defensive tackle. The Tarpons won the state championship in Louisiana's largest classification in 1977. Orgeron, his first cousin Tommy Gisclair, and future New Orleans Saints quarterback Bobby Hebert, were teammates.

The games then not only led to championships. They were a way out.

“My parents made it clear to me that I was going to get an education. They said, You're an athlete. You have a shot, you have a chance. You're going to do something with your life, or you'll stay here and work for minimum wage,'” Orgeron said. “Down there you grow up rich or poor. There's very little opportunity for change.”

Now the wages in Orgeron's incentive-laden $1.5 million contract are something above the government minimum.

An eye on Orgeron

The money is a worthwhile risk, even for a first-time head coach, Ole Miss athletics director Pete Boone said.

Finding a coach became priority one for Boone on Dec. 1 when he fired David Cutcliffe after six seasons, a 44-29 record and a co-Western Division championship in 2003.

While Orgeron may have flown under the radar of candidates, his was a name that Boone knew quite well.

“Three seasons ago when we were in our 0-for-5 slump at the end of the year, David talked with Kentucky. Someone sent Ed's name to me, and I started research and kept up with him since then,” Boone said.

The research revealed a fiery, passionate coach, personality traits important to Boone that he said Cutcliffe lacked.

Boone and chancellor Robert Khayat led the coaching search. It involved other candidates – including a California flight for a one-on-one meeting with former San Francisco 49ers coach Dennis Erickson – but Khayat and Boone maintain the job was offered only to Orgeron.

Boone likes what he's seen so far.

“He had a work ethic, energy and ability to draw people into the program,” Boone said. “I've spoken with players who voiced concerns about the coaching change, and they're all excited, upbeat and positive.

“So much of winning is on the head coach, his charisma and ability to create a positive image in recruits' minds. That's what coach Orgeron brings to the table.”

Untamed past

The table was nearly knocked over and the rug swept from beneath Orgeron on a hot summer night in 1992 in Baton Rouge. A wilder, less settled Orgeron was an assistant at Miami, seemingly on the fast track to big success, when he became the central figure in a barroom fight that escalated to assault charges.

Already down in Dade County, Orgeron had been arrested on domestic violence charges. That case ended in July 1992 when a circuit court judge signed an order for Orgeron to complete a 26-week program on domestic violence.

The bar fight was the final straw. Orgeron was fired, and the fast track came to an abrupt halt.

Soon Orgeron was back living with his parents in tiny LaRose, La.

“He saw the top at a young age, with national championships at Miami, and when he lost all that, he saw the bottom,” said Gisclair, who drove Orgeron back from Miami. “He's bounced back with greater intensity, desire and want.”

Orgeron has called the incident career suicide. It would have been had he left it at that.

Back home in Lafourche Parish, he refocused. He received encouragement from his father, Edward Sr.

“He was awesome,” Orgeron said. “He told me, You're going to get it back, and it's going to be better than it's ever been.'”

The father's words came true, because the son put in the work to make it happen.

Current Delta State coach Rick Rhodes, then head coach at Nicholls State in Thibodaux just down the road from LaRose, took on Orgeron as a volunteer assistant. He coached linebackers.

A year later, in 1995, Orgeron's big break came when Paul Pasqualoni made him the defensive line coach at Syracuse.

There was a risk involved.

“I think there was, yes, but coach Pasqualoni and our staff looked at who the man was,” said George DeLeone, now the Rebels' offensive line coach. “There was no hidden agenda. Ed has a unique charisma. You get close to him very quickly.

“His defensive line made our whole team better. Our offensive line got better because it had to compete so hard. Our secondary got better because of the pass rush his kids put on. Our offense got better because of the field position his defensive line created with sacks and fumbles.”

An even bigger break for Orgeron came in 1996 when the Orangemen were playing in the Liberty Bowl, and former Ole Miss assistant David Saunders introduced him to Kelly. They are now parents to Tyler, 13, and 7-year-old twins Parker and Cody.

Orgeron was groomed for this moment in time by USC coach Pete Carroll. He left Syracuse to join the USC staff of Paul Hackett in 1998 and survived the purge when Hackett was replaced by Carroll a year later.

When Orgeron entertained ideas of working as an NFL assistant, Carroll enticed him to remain by pledging to make him into a solid candidate for a college head coaching job.

“He said, Eddie, if you stay, you will be involved in most of the decisions.' A lot of that was already happening, but it really accelerated after he and I talked,” Orgeron said.

Carroll also fine-tuned Orgeron's communication skills by sending him out to represent the program at public-speaking engagements.

Early off-the-field conflict

His first seven months have not been without conflict. Incoming freshman linebacker Wallace Bates was dismissed July 1 after pleading guilty to possession of drug materials.

Two of Orgeron's first hires – linebackers coach Charlie Camp and defensive line coach Joe Cullen – are no longer on staff, fired after alcohol-related arrests.

“We talked about that before … especially with my background,” Orgeron said. “That's not to say those things don't happen at other places, but I was disappointed for the team and the university. I was not disappointed in the way it was handled. It was handled correctly.”

Khayat praised his coach's handling of early adversity.

“Normally when a new person comes in, there is a honeymoon period. That was disrupted by the difficulties associated with the two coaches. Then he's had a player or two misbehave, and he's had to deal with that as well,” Khayat said.

“I have been impressed by his fair assessment of the facts available to us and his prompt and decisive action,” he added. “And I agree with the way he's taken care of issues.”

Orgeron moved quickly to put his coaching staff together. He gained a great deal of experience in DeLeone and defensive backs-special teams coach Chris Rippon, both of whom became available when Pasqualoni was dismissed at Syracuse.

DeLeone has been coaching for 35 years, the last 18 at Syracuse.

“I probably could have gone somewhere else, but I came to Ole Miss because of Ed Orgeron,” he said. “I wanted to join his staff, because I believe in what he stands for, and I believe in his approach to the game. He will get more out of a football player on a practice field than any coach I've been around in 35 years of college football.”

A method, not madness

For Orgeron, getting the best from a player means screaming, but it's a method, not madness.

“When I went down to Miami, there were nine guys screaming like that … screaming and coaching. I have been like that ever since,” he said.

The screaming, the passion should not be confused with his raucous past. Those days are over, he says.

“I haven't been a hellraiser since 1992,” he said. “People really don't know who I am or what I do today. In California they knew me.”

In Mississippi they're learning him, watching him trot from station to station, up-tempo style, in an organized practice session where visitors are not only welcome but encouraged.

“I love the results, the way my players have responded to me over the years. At first, there's an adjustment period. Then they realize what I'm getting done with them,” Orgeron said. “To be able to produce three All-Americans at USC, two of those drafted in the first round, the other in the second round, to hand-pick and recruit those guys myself, then win two national championships … those are the results of hard work.”

Now the system is in place at Ole Miss, and Sept. 5 is racing into view.

Orgeron says predictions are a “waste of time” but doesn't see a slow, painful buidling process as he inherits a 4-7 football team.

“I've not been talked to about a window of time,” he said. “We've only played against ourselves. You see some strengths, you see some weaknesses. But we have enough talent to have a good football team. We want to win now.”

The goal can be attained through focus, organization and preparation – even with a rookie head coach.

“The first couple of weeks it hit me, but I'm done with that now,” he said. “My plan is to not act like a new head coach. I'll act like I've been here before.

“And I think my team will respond to that.”