Ed Orgeron is so enamored with Bret Bielema’s offense that he visited Fayetteville, Arkansas, during his year off of football in 2014.
Orgeron met with the staff to learn about the Razorbacks’ pro-style scheme, its giant offensive line and its use of tight ends. Orgeron watched Bielema run a fall practice from the same fields on which he coached himself while an Arkansas graduate assistant in the mid-1980s.
A then 25-year-old Orgeron used to line up across from Arkansas’ All-American defensive end Wayne Martin. He’d slam against Martin, mimicking a left tackle in the wishbone offense.
Why pit Martin against a college teammate when he could test his skills against a big, fiery Cajun man?
“I loved it. Absolutely loved it,” Orgeron said of his stint in Fayetteville. “First Division I job. I started off in the weight room. (Coach Ken Hatfield) saw my work ethic in the weight room and asked me to go onto the field. That’s where I really learned how to start coaching football.”
The rivalry series between LSU (5-3, 3-2 Southeastern Conference) and Arkansas (6-3, 2-3) reignites Saturday night in Fayetteville, and this thing is about more than just that 175-pound, 4-foot, gold trophy shaped in the form of Louisiana and Arkansas — a giant golden boot.
This is about connections.
Orgeron, LSU’s interim head coach, has plenty ties to Arkansas. Aside from his two-year stint on Hatfield’s staff in 1986-87 and that visit to Fayetteville in 2014, Orgeron's wife, Kelly, is from a small town just outside of Jonesboro, Arkansas.
He made sure to tell everyone that during his radio call-in show Wednesday night from T.J. Ribs restaurant.
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“Watch what you say about Arkansas,” a smiling Orgeron warned a live questioner. “My wife's from Arkansas, and she's sitting behind you.”
LSU’s starting quarterback, Danny Etling, chose the Tigers over the Razorbacks upon transferring from Purdue after the 2014 season, and Bielema heavily recruited center Ethan Pocic, an Illinois native, and his brother while he coached Wisconsin. The brother of fullback J.D. Moore, a Ruston native, graduated from Arkansas and played in the school's marching band.
"I’ve actually been to more Arkansas games than I would ever like to in my life," Moore sad. "I know all the songs the band plays.”
Don’t forget, too, about the Louisiana kids who dot the Razorbacks’ roster. There are 10 of them, three from Archbishop Rummel and two from Evangel Christian. Five are starters, including receiver Jared Cornelius, a former Evangel star who is Arkansas’ third-leading receiver.
Santos Ramirez and Henré Toliver are starters in the Arkansas secondary, and redshirt freshman defensive back Nate Dalton is from Baton Rouge.
“It means a lot to them,” Orgeron admitted this week. “I think five are starting. It means a lot to those guys.”
LSU offered scholarships to just two of Arkansas’ 10 Louisiana players: Ramirez and true freshman Briston Guidry.
Said Bielema with a chuckle: “We recruit a lot of those guys. Don't get a lot of them.”
Bielema and Orgeron are two larger-than-life figures, a pair of outgoing ex-defensive lineman who enjoy a good time. They’re approachable coaches who do back pats and fist bumps, two guys who, many might say, are living representatives of their programs’ fan base.
They were caught on camera together two weeks ago on the recruiting trail. Photos surfaced on social media of the two on the sideline of a junior college football game in Mississippi, both watching highly touted defensive end target Isaiah Buggs of Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College.
“‘This is the first place I've been where I don’t have an accent,’” Bielema said Orgeron told him while watching that game.
“He fits in,” the Arkansas coach said.
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Orgeron speaks glowingly enough about Bielema’s offenses that you wonder if the coach would or has incorporated some of that pro-style, balanced scheme into his own repertoire.
“I like him,” Orgeron said. “I think he's done a very good job. I loved his recruiting. I love the way he runs his football team. It's the biggest football team I've ever seen in college football. His lines are bigger than some NFL teams. I like his physical-style approach.”
As a teenager, Pocic remembers sitting in Bielema’s office at Wisconsin’s Camp Randall Stadium as the soothing sounds of Reggae music filled the room. Bielema is a “very chill dude,” said Pocic, a native of Lemont, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. It was just a two-hour’s drive to Madison, Wisconsin.
Etling is from just three hours down the road in Indiana. Bielema recruited the quarterback out of high school and then re-recruited him once Etling announced his transfer from Purdue. In fact, Etling visited just two schools in the summer of 2015: LSU and Arkansas.
He ultimately chose LSU because of his relationship with Cam Cameron, the Tigers’ former offensive coordinator who was fired six weeks ago along with Les Miles. Etling also admits that the potential for quicker playing time was in Baton Rouge.
“Seemed like there was opportunities here to step in and contribute a little better,” he said. “It’s worked out for me.”
Will it work out for the guy they call "Coach O"?
He returns to a place where he got his first Division I coaching job for a game that might just determine his future at LSU. It won’t be easy.
“Being an ex-Razorback myself,” he said, “I know how tough it is playing in Fayetteville.”