Experts: With Kevin Steele and Ed Orgeron, LSU recruiting staff jumps from good to one of country's best _lowres

Advocate file photo by BILL FEIG -- Ed Orgeron, then the head coach at Ole Miss, voices his displeasure during a timeout in a 2005 game against LSU at Tiger Stadium. Orgeron has been known as an effective recruiter throughout his coaching career.

Ed Orgeron’s mind is full of regrets from his time as Ole Miss’ head coach. They’re as plentiful as the Monster energy drinks — he’s off Red Bull — that LSU’s interim head coach consumes on an hourly basis.

The list of regrets — lessons learned, he might call them — is long.

He probably wishes to have back a decision to attempt to convert a fourth-and-1, while leading 14-0 with 10 minutes left, in an eventual loss to Mississippi State in 2007. State stuffed the Rebels and then scored 17 unanswered points to win, a result that led Ole Miss administrators to fire Orgeron the next day.

He probably regrets treating all of his players and staff members as if they were Warren Sapp — the big, grizzled defensive lineman Orgeron coached at Miami in the 1990s.

He probably shouldn’t have banged a bass drum up and down the hallways while his assistant coaches were trying to work, shouldn’t have meddled in position groups — like quarterback — that he knew nothing about.

He probably shouldn’t have forced his first offensive coordinator at Ole Miss, Noel Mazzone, to run a scheme — the Southern California offense — that Mazzone wasn’t familiar with.

Orgeron has another regret, too, and it concerns the current head coach at Ole Miss, Hugh Freeze.

“I always thought Hugh was a tremendous coach,” Orgeron said Monday. “I almost hired him as my offensive coordinator — probably should have.”

The meeting between No. 25 LSU (4-2, 2-1 Southeastern Conference) and No. 23 Ole Miss (3-3, 1-2) at 8 p.m. Saturday in Tiger Stadium isn’t just the continuation of a hostile rivalry. It’s a clash of head coaches who are passionate about each other, a battle of friends and former co-workers.

 

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Freeze and Orgeron are close enough that they spoke on the phone just last week. The coaches held near-simultaneous news conferences Monday, each praising the other.

Freeze attributed the quick ascent in his career partly to Orgeron. He hired Freeze, then a high school coach, when he took over at Ole Miss in 2005. Orgeron described the Rebels leader as a master of the spread offense, a coach he should have promoted to offensive coordinator in 2006, Orgeron admitted.

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Hugh Freeze

Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze watches play in the second half of a game against Arkansas on Saturday, Oct. 15, 2016, in Fayetteville, Ark.

The two are close enough to exchange text messages and calls. Heck, Freeze even called into question Ole Miss' firing of Orgeron.

“People are not patient,” Freeze said. “I really think that we had recruited well under Ed here, and it was close to turning a corner."

Orgeron doesn’t hide from his mistakes. His three Ole Miss teams compiled a 10-25 record. The Rebels won just three of 24 SEC games.

“I had more success in ‘The Blind Side’ than my coaching,” Orgeron joked, referring to his cameo in the 2009 box office hit.

“Being a head coach for the first time … it’s not a progression,” said John Thompson, Orgeron’s defensive coordinator in his last season in Oxford. "It’s going from air controller to flying the plane. … He coached the team like he coached the defensive line. That’s all he knew.”

He knows more now. Orgeron’s changes have been well-documented. A guy who ripped off his shirt at his first meeting with Ole Miss players is now scaling back practice time for his LSU players.

“When I talk to him now, he seems a bit different about his approach, and I think it’s working for him,” Freeze said. “No surprise the kids are playing well under him right now. (I’m ) very indebted to him.”

Why?

Orgeron hired Freeze as an off-the-field administrator in 2005, plucking the then-30-something-year-old away from Briarcrest Christian School, a private school outside of Memphis, Tennessee. Freeze won big there, leading the program to two state championships and a near 80 percent winning clip over a 10-year stretch.

After being announced as Ole Miss’ coach, Orgeron remained with Southern Cal for one last game: the Trojans' BCS national title game against Oklahoma at the Orange Bowl. Freeze traveled to Miami to ask Orgeron for a job.

“I was walking on the field, and he introduced himself,” Orgeron said. “I thought it was courageous of him to go down to Miami, get on the football field and ask me for a job.”

Orgeron promoted Freeze to tight ends coach/recruiting coordinator in 2006, and he served in that role in 2007, too — the year that messy season finale against State ended things in Oxford.

Pete Boone, the Ole Miss athletic director who fired Orgeron, said in an interview last month that the school planned to give Orgeron and his staff another season before the collapse in Starkville.

“I will say,” Boone said, “that I believe that the time Ed was here at Ole Miss was a real good time for him. Unfortunately, he had to have some experience being a head coach, and that comes from doing it. He just didn’t fit at that time for us.”

Ole Miss is a place the Orgerons would like to forget. The Tigers interim coach made that clear Saturday night after his team beat Southern Miss.

“Whatever happened there happened for a reason, and I moved on,” he said. “I've been a coach at several other places before. I don't have many memories of that place that I want to remember.”

Kelly Orgeron, Ed’s wife, is terse when asked about her time in Oxford.

“I still have good friends there,” she said.

Kelly remembers that game against Mississippi State — it's ingrained in her mind. She was on the sideline as the final seconds ticked off.

“You could tell on the field,” she said a few weeks ago, "we knew were gone.”

Freeze took over for Orgeron in an interim role until Ole Miss, just a few days later, hired Houston Nutt away from Arkansas. After stints elsewhere, Freeze got the Ole Miss job full-time for the 2012 season.

Now, here they are. They’ll be opposing coaches in Tiger Stadium, where they nearly won a decade ago. Orgeron’s 2006 Ole Miss team entered that game against No. 9 LSU as a 27-point underdog.

“Looked like we were playing the Green Bay Packers, the Tigers looked so big,” Orgeron said. “But, you know, we were ready to play that night.”

The Tigers needed two touchdowns in the final 9 minutes to tie the score and send it to overtime. They recovered a fumble on Ole Miss’ first possession and won 23-20 on Colt David’s 26-yard field goal.

“Our guys gave us the best effort,” Orgeron said, “but eventually LSU’s talent took over.”

Orgeron has that talent now, but he admits “times have changed” at Ole Miss. The Rebels beat LSU 38-17 last season in Oxford, and Freeze has signed recruiting classes ranked 17th, 15th and eighth nationally in the past three years.

On the recruiting trail, he learned from one of the best — the guy he calls Coach O.

“Without him giving me an opportunity to come here and be in an off-the-field position and to learn from him in recruiting and things I watched him do and how persistent and how he did his things with great passion … I learned a lot from him,” Freeze said. “I’m very indebted to the time I had and the opportunity he gave me. I don’t know my career does what it does without the opportunity he gave me.”

Follow Ross Dellenger on Twitter, @RossDellenger.