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LSU's Ed Orgeron: The imperfect son who delivered perfection for a state

USA TODAY SPORTS logo USA TODAY SPORTS 1/14/2020 Brent Schrotenboer, USA TODAY
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NEW ORLEANS — Sitting in a wheelchair outside the LSU locker room Monday night, Cornelia “Coco” Orgeron waited patiently to see the man of the hour – her son, Ed, the head coach of LSU.

It was going to be a long wait. Cigars were being passed around the loud steamy room inside after LSU won the College Football Playoff national championship by beating  Clemson, 42-25.

Ed was giving a speech to the team:

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“It was hard to hear him,” LSU center Lloyd Cushenberry said.

But the message was pretty simple, according to Cushenberry. Orgeron told them they had earned all of this after starting offseason training nearly a year ago. He said all that work paid off. He also told his players just how proud he was of them.

Ed Orgeron standing in front of a crowd: Ed Orgeron celebrates after LSU defeated Clemson. © Provided by USA TODAY Ed Orgeron celebrates after LSU defeated Clemson.

 “We are so blessed to have him as a coach,” Cushenberry said.

After everything that's happened – including his battles with alcohol more than 20 years ago and then his firing at Ole Miss in 2007 – this was his big moment: the Louisiana son who led LSU (15-0) to arguably its greatest season ever, with a season-ending win in the Superdome just 80 miles down the road from campus.

Just over five years ago, he was out of coaching after being passed over for the head coaching job at Southern California. Then in January 2015, then-LSU head coach Les Miles hired him as an assistant to coach LSU’s defensive line.

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“You know, God had a plan,” Orgeron said Monday after being asked about his journey since then. “I've got to say it, and it's not me. And all I did was follow the plan. And without him, I wouldn't be here. Without my family, I wouldn't be here. I've said it, I'm thankful for Coach Miles for giving me a chance. He hired me at LSU. It's where I wanted to go. I knew I was going to coach. I didn't think this was going to happen. When I didn't get the job at USC I said, `Hey, maybe you'll be an assistant the rest of your life.’”

He's lucky he stayed in the coaching business at all after a spate of issues over the previous three decades.

Among the lowlights:

►In 1982, his college coach at Northwestern State in Natchitoches, Louisiana, came perilously close to kicking him off the team for allegedly trashing his dorm room. Those who knew him then feared he might go back home to dig ditches or shovel shrimp if he was forced out of football.

►In 1992, he headbutted a man at a bar in Baton Rouge, leading his arrest and the loss of his job as an assistant coach at Miami. He later gave up drinking.

►In 2007, he was fired as head coach at Ole Miss after compiling a 10-25 record in three seasons, including just 3-21 in Southeastern Conference play.

►Then, after serving as interim coach at USC in 2013, he didn’t really get taken seriously as a candidate for the permanent job in Los Angeles. His gruff Cajun speech was said to be a factor. So he left coaching, not to return until Miles hired him five years ago.

“I think it's a combination of being in the right place at the right time,” Orgeron, 58, said. “I think it's perseverance, too. Man, people are going to talk and all that, but you can't let it affect you. I use that as internal motivation. People, they tease me the way I talk, tease me the way I look. And it's kind of funny, the things that I was doing at Ole Miss I was ridiculed for, and now I punch myself in the jaw and everybody at LSU likes it. So it just depends where you're at. It's been a great ride.”

The whole state of Louisiana has been taken along with it.

In the French Quarter, gift shops sold purple T-shirts that said, “Coach Oeaux Made the Tigahs Great Again!” – a reference to his Cajun roots and accent, which stem from his hometown of Larose in South Louisiana.

In the Superdome after Monday’s victory, a fan held a sign that conveyed a clever message about LSU's undefeated record: “15-O” with a picture of Coach O in place of the “O.”

In Natchitoches nearly four hours away by car, former college teammates and classmates spoke lovingly about the man they called “Bebe” (pronounced Bay-Bay), a nickname from his youth.

“He’s from Louisiana,” Cushenberry said when asked afterward why his team loves him so much. “He’s been an LSU fan all his life. You can’t have a better coach for the program.”

After Miles was fired four games into the 2016 season, Orgeron served as the team’s interim head coach as LSU flirted with more traditional candidates to replace him — younger, polished coaches with winning records, such as then-Houston coach Tom Herman, now the head coach at Texas. Instead, the Tigers ended up with Orgeron, who then led LSU to finish 9-4 in 2017, 10-3 in 2018 and 15-0 this year.

Next season, he won’t have senior quarterback Joe Burrow, who won the Heisman Trophy for LSU last month and is likely to be a top pick in April’s NFL Draft. But he already started talking about next season in the locker room afterward.

He told us to “get ready to go back to work,” said Myles Brennan, Burrow’s sophomore backup quarterback this season and apparent successor this fall.

Orgeron’s mom, meanwhile, didn’t wait much longer as a crowd of news media filled the hallway outside the LSU locker room. After getting a kiss from one of Orgeron’s three sons, she left to see him another time, realizing she now shares him as a favorite son of an entire state.

There would be plenty of time to celebrate later, at least until Orgeron decides to load up on his beloved energy drinks and put in another shift for “the people of Louisiana,” a constituency he talks about it as if he were the state's governor.

With his wife Kelly standing nearby, he said he was “so happy” for them and “proud to represent them.” Their last national championship came in January 2008, but it was nothing like this – an explosive season led by a Heisman winner at quarterback and a favorite Cajun son as head coach.

“Everything fell into place, and we're just getting started,” Orgeron said. “This is not the finish. I want to be here at LSU for a long time and win many a championship at LSU. And this is just the beginning.”

Follow reporter Brent Schrotenboer @Schrotenboer. E-mail: bschrotenb@usatoday.com

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: LSU's Ed Orgeron: The imperfect son who delivered perfection for a state

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