ORLANDO, Fla. — Greetings from O-town.
Unless LSU agreed on a whim to play a game on Ed Orgeron’s high school field at South Lafourche, there couldn’t be a more fitting address for the first official game of Coach O’s tenure than Orlando. O-town. The place where, as the guide books tell us, the magic happens.
The place where dreams come true.
They certainly came true for Orgeron, a man of the people in south Louisiana, of the bayous and fishing ponds and hunting camps, of the festivals and church Sundays, of the mosquitoes and joie de vivre.
Of football, the sport that holds a dearer place in every Cajun’s heart than any other.
For Orgeron, a man whom football has taken all across the country and back, no place is dearer to his heart than this job.
“I promised myself the No. 1 thing when I got the interim job is I was going to be the head coach at LSU,” Orgeron said Friday at the final pre-Citrus Bowl news conference.
Orgeron is Louisiana’s first native son to coach LSU since Tigers great Jerry Stovall in the early 1980s. Stovall held favored-nation status — at least for a while — in the hearts of many LSU fans but eventually lost the job after four up-and-down seasons.
Orgeron similarly has some LSU fans on his side because of who he is, where he’s from, how he talks. But he knows the standard is the same for him as it was for Stovall and Bill Arnsparger and Gerry DiNardo, and certainly for Les Miles.
Just win, my friend. Or else. And it wouldn’t hurt anything if the Tigers — his Tigers — could close with an impressive win over Louisville and Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson.
“I'm going to be judged whether I win or lose,” Orgeron said. “I understand that. But those pressures cannot affect the way I coach or the way our team plays.”
The way his team has played is why Orgeron is still here. Orgeron cut practices, gave interim play-caller Steve Ensminger and the offensive coaching staff a wider latitude than they had with Miles and former offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, and brought a fresh approach to a program that had grown stagnant.
Heck, during the week here, Orgeron even tweeted a photo of himself sharing a post-practice cold tub with guard Josh Boutte and punter Josh Growden. How many coaches do that?
“Coach O changed the way we practice, do our meetings, how we do things on game day,” guard Will Clapp said. “It’s a fun way to do things.”
The results showed on the field. The Tigers went 5-2, probably the minimum for him to keep the LSU job long-term, with impressive wins over the likes of Ole Miss and Arkansas and Texas A&M, the latter two big-time bouncebacks after a frustrating loss to No. 1 Alabama and a bitter defeat to Florida.
That both of those teams wound up playing for the Southeastern Conference championship — and that Alabama has gone on to one of Saturday’s CFP semifinals in the Peach Bowl — is an unmistakable target for where LSU and where it wants to go under Orgeron. That's where it must go, if he is to have any long-term designs on this job.
LSU made it to the SEC’s biggest bowl without ties to the College Football Playoff — fairly impressive, given the season’s upheaval. The Tigers are playing on the same day of college football’s biggest games so far this season, the national semifinals.
Now they need to move, literally, back into college football’s prime time. In an age when bowl games are seeing their worth diminished in comparison to the playoff, it’s an important potential steppingstone for LSU.
“This is a kick-start to the 2017 season,” said Booger McFarland, the former LSU All-American and current ESPN analyst. “You’ve got recruits watching. It’s an opportunity for Derrius Guice to launch a Heisman campaign. He’s got a chance to make people forget about Leonard Fournette. People may say that’s crazy, but the kid is special.”
It’s not so crazy to say that like New Year’s Eve itself, this game for LSU is the line of demarcation between the Miles era and the Orgeron era, beyond the fact that he is the new head coach.
There will be a significantly different coaching staff in place next year, and maybe even a different starting quarterback. (Incoming offensive coordinator Matt Canada, who won’t be here Saturday, has promised an open competition come spring practice.) It’s a chance for LSU to evolve and reinvent itself as a program — and attempt to regain relevance on the national stage.
“It’s by no means a meaningless game,” McFarland said. “This game means a lot.”
Especially for a Cajun kid who found a way to keep that big promise to himself.