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LSU Football: The Rise and Fall of Ed Orgeron

Ed Orgeron, LSU Tigers Football

A review of Coach O's tenure at LSU

Before anyone looks forward to Brian Kelly's first season as LSU's head coach, we should take a look back at the tenure of the man whom he is replacing: Ed Orgeron.

With as high of highs and as low of lows as any coach has seen in program history, Louisiana's native son brought LSU back into the spotlight like never before. 

Oregon became LSU's head coach under tumultuous circumstances. After starting the 2016 season with a 2-2 record, athletic director Joe Alleva fired Les Miles. Yet another case of clock mismanagement during the waning seconds of a loss to Auburn brought Miles' employment to an ignominious end.

Orgeron stood out as the only realistic candidate among the staff to lead the Fighting Tigers for the remainder of the season. He had experience as an intern coach at USC. Lane Kiffin was fired after starting 2-3 in the 2013 season, and Orgeron guided the Trojans to a 9-4 finish. Additionally, he was the lone LSU assistant with any experience as a head coach in the SEC, a three-year term at Ole Miss.

Just as Orgeron had done at USC, he prevented a team from collapsing following the termination of the head coach. The Tigers won six of their eight remaining regular-season games. They overcome having one game rescheduled and another canceled due to Hurricane Matthew. Their only losses occurred to No. 1 Alabama — after being locked in a scoreless tie through the third quarter that ended 10-0 — and No. 21 Florida — after being stopped one yard short of the goal line on the final play of a 16-10 loss.

After Tom Herman chose to fill the head coaching vacancy at Texas instead of at LSU, Orgeron had the word "interim" removed from his title as head coach. Some observers of college football viewed his selection as settling for a lesser choice when no other qualified candidate wanted the job. His team justified his selection by dominating the Heisman Trophy winner, Lamar Jackson, and his Louisville squad in the Citrus Bowl to conclude the season.

September 2017 provided plenty of ammunition for critics wanting to blast Orgeron. In the third game, the Tigers lost 37-7 at Mississippi State, the most lopsided defeat for LSU in the 112-year history of the series. Two weeks later, LSU lost to Troy, its only defeat by a Sun Belt Conference member in 19 games.

Orgeron would not let his dream job turn into another calamity. The week after the debacle against Troy, the Tigers upset the 21st-ranked Gators in Gainesville. The following Saturday, LSU rallied from a 23-14 halftime deficit with 13 unanswered points to beat No. 10 Auburn. They salvaged the season by finishing 9-3. However, a return trip to the Citrus Bowl ended with a blown lead in the final two minutes against Notre Dame.

Orgeron entered the 2018 season firmly planted on the hot seat. The temperature increased after he named an untested transfer as his starting quarterback. This new arrival had only seen mop-up time during his 10 games at Ohio State. Worsening the situation, the new quarterback arrived during the summer, prompting two other potential starters to leave the program.

In the season opener, Joe Burrow and the rest of the Tigers dropped a glacier on Orgeron's hot seat. LSU throttled Miami by racing to a 33-3 lead before the end of the third quarter. The Tigers' 5-0 start only came to an end when Burrow threw two interceptions in the final two minutes of the contest at Florida, and although the Tigers were shut out at home by Alabama and lost a seven-overtime marathon at Texas A&M, their 9-3 regular-season record showed that the program was not declining. They ended the FBS' longest winning streak in the Fiesta Bowl to lift LSU to a final AP ranking of No. 6, the highest in seven years.

As the 2019 season approached, uncertainty and high hopes swirled around Coach O's team. Although Miles' plodding offense reminiscent of the Big Ten during the 1970s was gone, LSU still lacked a scheme proficient enough to win the SEC. He lured Joe Brady from the New Orleans Saints to help re-structure the offense.

The combination of multiple future first-round draft picks and the upgraded offensive system produced a historic juggernaut. The Tigers scored more than 40 points in 12 of 15 games. They failed to score more than 30 just once. En route to the national championship, they defeated five opponents who finished the final top 10 of both major polls.

Inside the Superdome, confetti rained down on LSU's players and coaches after they had secured the national championship. The squad was being labeled as the greatest college football team in history. The haunting loss there for the national championship seven years prior had been exorcised. As Orgeron and his Tigers stood on the pinnacle of college football, no one could have predicted the rapid demise of this football program and of its head coach.

The following two seasons marked a steep decline. Orgeron's replacements for departed coordinators flopped. Numerous starters from the 2019 squad headed to the NFL without adequate depth behind them. Social strife sweeping the country penetrated the locker room, contributing to dissension. Players quit the team immediately before and during both seasons. Orgeron guided both squads to two victories to close out each season, including upsetting an opponent ranked in the top 15, to avoid losing records. With the announcement that he would not return as head coach, he sat out the bowl game at the end of the 2021 season where LSU slumped its first losing season since 1999.

How will historians of college football and LSU's fans judge Orgeron's tenure? Will he be remembered for preventing the 2016 season from collapsing following Miles' abrupt departure? How much of the credit for the 2019 season should he receive? Will he be remembered for two accomplishments that LSU had not achieved since the late 1950s: an undefeated season and a player winning the Heisman Trophy?

Will the critics of Orgeron's hiring write the history of his tenure? Will they note his inability to replace coaches held over from Miles' staff with competent substitutes? Will they point out the multiple embarrassing losses to opponents that LSU had historically dominated? Will he be remembered more for ending the 20-year-long streak with eight or more wins per season? Will the foibles of his personal life and in public appearances overshadow what he accomplished on the gridiron? 

No matter how Coach O's tenure will be remembered, it certainly will not be forgotten.

— Written by John La Fleur, a contributor to AthlonSports.com, who focuses on the New Orleans Saints and Michigan State Spartans. He also frequently comments on other teams in the NFL and in NCAA football. Follow him on Twitter @FBConnoisseur and read his viewpoints at gridironconnoisseur.wordpress.com and at gridiron-connoisseur.blogspot.com.