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Inside Ed Orgeron’s rocky road to LSU redemption

NEW ORLEANS — The dream was discarded in two weeks. The lifelong LSU fan donned purple, gold and pads, then quit and drove 100 miles back down the Bayou, where the freshman would no longer be homesick.

But Edward Orgeron Jr. couldn’t go back to Larose, La.

Almost everyone in the tiny town knew where the defensive lineman was supposed to be. When Orgeron was spotted digging cable wires for the phone company — alongside his father, Edward Sr. — the teenager cringed at the constant insults from passing motorists who reminded him he couldn’t cut it at LSU.

“I regretted it. There was no question,” Orgeron said Saturday. “I just felt there was always unfinished business at LSU, that I didn’t give myself a chance to compete at the highest level like I should have, so I’m a little disappointed in myself. I wanted to get the chance to come back to LSU and prove myself.”

Orgeron had so much to prove to so many more. He was the coach who flamed out in three disastrous seasons at Ole Miss, whose interim opportunity at USC ended without an offer, who was no fan’s first choice when LSU fired Les Miles.

Last month, Orgeron, 58, was named the country’s Coach of the Year. Four decades after leaving campus, the crawfish-craving, Red Bull-chugging owner of vocal cords slathered in gumbo, gravel and gusto has LSU within one win of its first national championship in 12 years.

Ed Orgeron
Ed OrgeronAP

“It’s been phenomenal. I’m blue collar, a lot like they are. I tell them I represent them in every way I can,” Orgeron said of Louisianans. “I’m honored to be here. Being from Cajun Country means a lot.”

Currently, the capital is the family’s home in Larose, where his mother, Coco, grew up skinning muskrats, where Orgeron took the nickname Bébé from his father, shoveled shrimp and spoke fluent Cajun French.

“He’s a Bayou boy and we love him. He’s brought us all together,” Louisiana native Wendy Kahn said. “He’s the best thing that ever happened to LSU. Louisiana loves him. He’s brought goodness to our state. He’s so true and down to earth.”

So do players, plucked from all around the Pelican State.

“There’s nothing close to him,” safety Grant Delpit said. “He’s a player’s coach. We love him. We couldn’t ask for a better coach.”

As a star lineman at South Lafourche High School, Orgeron played in the Superdome and won a state championship in 1977.

After Orgeron left LSU, his distant cousin, former teammate and future NFL quarterback Bobby Hebert, helped land him a roster spot at Northwestern State. Following graduation, Orgeron spent four years coaching at three schools, before getting hired by Jimmy Johnson at Miami, as a defensive line coach.

Orgeron built all-time dominant lines. He successfully recruited Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. He won a national championship in 1991.

Then, years of hard-drinking led to Orgeron getting arrested for head-butting a Baton Rouge bar manager, leading to his resignation.

He has been sober for two decades.

“Everybody deserves a second chance,” Orgeron said.

The next chance came after a year out of the sport. Orgeron went to Nicholls State, then Syracuse, then USC, where he won a pair of national championships as an assistant coach and was named the country’s top recruiter in 2004.

Ole Miss came calling. Then, Orgeron went 10-25, finishing 2007 winless in the SEC and without a job.

“All the criticism that has come his way throughout his career, he handles it with a grace about him, and I have a lot of respect for him for being in the battles he’s been in and having the perspective that he has,” LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda said. “He’s so smart. He’s just a great man with a great heart. It’s a goal of mine to be able to go through my coaching journey and come out like Coach O.”

After bouncing from the New Orleans Saints to Tennessee, Orgeron was crushed to learn another four years at USC and a 6-2 record as interim head coach in 2013 wasn’t enough to earn him the job.

“For a while I thought I would stay on the West Coast,” Orgeron said. “It looked like I was going to be at USC for a long time.”

Barely a year after making his long-awaited return to LSU as defensive line coach in 2015, Orgeron was named interim head coach. This time, 6-2 was good enough. This time, no one was a better fit.

“Everybody in the state of Louisiana will have a hope and a dream,” Orgeron said when he was hired. “This is bigger than life. Driving past the stadium, I just wanted to be an assistant coach here. I just wanted to have my feet on the grass.”