If you’re curious about the bizarre particulars of Ed Orgeron’s separation agreement with LSU, look no further than Tennessee.
Orgeron and LSU “parted ways” on Sunday, despite the Tigers’ resurgent win over Florida, their head coach’s overall record (49-17) and his recent national championship win (less than two calendar years removed from right now, in case you forgot). The program had myriad reasons: a revolving door of disastrous coordinator hires both before and after the perfect 2019 season, a 9-8 record since the Tigers beat Clemson for that title and a host of off-field issues ranging from a Title IX investigation to Orgeron’s suddenly public private life.
Per the terms of Orgeron’s buyout following a contract extension after the national championship, the coach would’ve been owed around $17 million. Following discussions between Orgeron’s representatives and LSU, he’ll be paid that amount in severance, despite multiple rumors that the school had a case to fire Coach O for cause and void his contract’s terms. In one of the weirder wrinkles, Orgeron will be required to make public appearances for the school and is still an employee.
It’s not hard to read between the lines: Neither Orgeron nor LSU A.D. Scott Woodward was interested in going to war. The same can’t be said in Knoxville, where former Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt is threatening to sue the university over an unpaid buyout. Attorneys representing Pruitt have set an Oct. 29 deadline for UT to arrange payment for a $12.6 million buyout to Pruitt, who signed a contract extension with the Vols in 2020.
So if you found yourself wondering why Orgeron seemed so amicable (albeit likely feigned) with Woodward during an awkward press conference Sunday night, everything looming over Knoxville explains it. In the modern era of SEC football, there’s simply too much potential for estranged coaches to retaliate against programs with damning evidence. In the Vols’ case, there’s a looming NCAA enforcement case. If push comes to shove with the NCAA over Title IX or anything else in Baton Rouge, LSU now has Orgeron tucked in its fold and not grinding (as large of) an ax. The Tigers chose to pay their problem away, whereas the Vols will be painted as pennywise and a pound foolish if Pruitt’s lawsuit allows for public discovery and details about the program emerge.
LSU: The Tigers have now reset the coaching market ahead of USC. While the two are different jobs, LSU’s roster is in better shape, and its recruiting prospects (something else Orgeron won’t mess with on his way out) are stronger than the Trojans’. Much like Southern Cal, expect James Franklin’s name to surface quickly, as well as Michigan State’s Mel Tucker. Tucker’s resume might look a little thin to the untrained eye, but there’s a very small list of coaches in this industry who would be welcomed back immediately to both Nick Saban's and Kirby Smart’s staff if the need arose. Tucker’s SEC bonafides are unimpeachable.
Washington State: After Nick Rolovich’s termination by the school on Monday for refusing the COVID-19 vaccine, WSU finds itself in a bizarre situation: It needs to make a hire that can calm the outside perceptions of turmoil in the program, but the team itself isn’t a hopeless cause at all. Unlike years past, the next WSU coach won’t have to rebuild from the ground up, but the decade-long run of Pullman hosting eccentrics like Rolo and Mike Leach is almost certainly over. There’s a long list of potential suitors, but two names really stand out: Nevada head coach Jay Norvell, who is about to send a quarterback out first overall in the 2022 NFL Draft, and former WSU DC Alex Grinch, currently holding the same job for the Oklahoma Sooners. Both would be instant upgrades, and both are capable of steadying an otherwise solid program immediately.
Names that seem safe: Dan Mullen is failing to maintain the Florida standard, and if Georgia ends up winning the national championship, a clear redefinition of power in the SEC will begin to cement. That being said, Mullen's static buyout ($12 million through ‘25, with no decline) gives him a little bit of safety, at least until he posts another three- or four-loss season. Syracuse’s Dino Babers should also make it out of ‘21 thanks to his contract, and while Cal has failed to find any offense, Justin Wilcox seems safe as well.
Names that don’t: Manny Diaz’s days are numbered, and his fraught postgame moment with North Carolina’s Mack Brown didn’t help portray Diaz as calm or collected. … Pittsburgh’s beatdown of Virginia Tech continues to push discontent with Justin Fuente in Blacksburg. A name that’s making more and more sense for the Hokies is Louisiana’s Billy Napier. If he’s a possibility, expect VT to make a move.
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– Steven Godfrey is a senior writer for Vox Media's Secret Base, and co-host of The Split Zone Duo podcast. Follow him on Twitter @38Godfrey