On a night nearly 30 years ago, the Miami Hurricanes swept into Tiger Stadium to play LSU.
The game was partially played in a pounding thunderstorm, the kind that would halt a game today because of dangerous conditions — and maybe the one after that. Before the new south upper deck was built, there was a string of flagpoles atop the south rim of the stadium where the club seats and suites are now stacked, representing all the other Southeastern Conference teams. I seem to recall — though maybe it is because corners of my memory have still not dried out from that night — one or two of those pole getting bent during the storm. That’s how bad it was.
This was 1988, the season of LSU’s “Earthquake Game” victory over Auburn, but down on the field the football Hurricanes seemed unperturbed by Mother Nature’s approximation of their nickname. They crushed an LSU team that would share the SEC championship with Auburn 44-3. Then LSU coach Mike Archer, a Miami grad, grumbled if he had the Hurricanes’ playbook it would not have helped.
In the stadium that night was a 27-year-old Miami graduate assistant named Ed Orgeron. One would like to picture him scowling through the wind and rain like the captain of a shrimp boat on a stormy night in the Gulf, ignoring the elements, laser-focused on the game.
After a string of graduate assistantships at his alma mater Northwestern State, McNeese State and an assistant strength coach gig at Arkansas, Orgeron’s career was about to take off. After that year under Jimmy Johnson, the man who turned Miami into “The U” in all its glory and villainy, he was hired as a full-time defensive line coach by Johnson’s successor, Dennis Erickson. During Orgeron’s five seasons in Miami, the Hurricanes went an astounding 55-5 with two national titles, never finishing lower than No. 3 in the final AP poll.
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“I felt like that’s where I learned how to coach,” Orgeron said last week. “I started off at Arkansas under Ken Hatfield, and they got me ready for coaching. I learned a lot of stuff about studying film, the professionalism of being a football coach.
The last stop on Steve Ensminger’s full-circle, LSU football odyssey sits inside a small, unassuming town 447 miles northeast of Tiger Stadium.
“But I went down to Miami, and my first day on the practice field, coaching defense with Jimmy Johnson, Dave Wanstead, Butch Davis, Tommy Tuberville, Dave Campo, I understood the tempo of practice, and how to prepare for practice and what a real practice looked like.
"From then on I wanted to be that type of coach. I thought Jimmy Johnson was an excellent motivator. He was an excellent leader. He was a tough coach — a great recruiter. I learned how to recruit from him.”
LSU and Miami meet for the first time in 13 seasons on Sunday (6:30 p.m., ABC), far, far away from Orgeron’s old haunts in south Louisiana and South Beach. As they said in “All the President’s Men,” they’re following the money, to a pot of gold beneath the roof at AT&T Stadium, in Arlington, Texas, for a game being billed as the AdvoCare Classic.
Will Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones’ stadium, aka Jerry World, be a pleasure dome or the start down a road filled with regrets for Orgeron? Given his history with Miami, the place where he cut his teeth as a football coach, this game with this opponent could not come at a more crucial time in his career.
If you borrow Jones’ private jet and take a swing out to Las Vegas (or maybe Mississippi?), you could place a bet on who will be the first college football coach to be fired this season. And you could get pretty favorable odds on it being Orgeron.
Though he is 15-6 in his first two seasons at LSU — that and his 6-2 interim mark at Southern California in 2013 makes Orgeron 21-8 in his past 29 games, a top-10 winning percentage in that span among active coaches — he faces some stiff headwinds this season. LSU’s offense is full of so many question marks — new offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger, new quarterback Joe Burrow, new receivers, unproven running backs — the school should have someone dressed as The Riddler as its costumed mascot Sunday instead of Mike the Tiger.
No. 8-ranked Miami is the first of four preseason top 10-ranked opponents on No. 25 LSU’s schedule, and the preseason No. 18 team (Mississippi State) hammered the Tigers by 30 last season. The headlines coming out of LSU’s August were dominated by three player suspensions for arrests and two quarterback transfers, though things did end on a high note with the NCAA’s surprise lifting of talented cornerback Kristian Fulton’s suspension over a tampered drug test from 2017.
The Advocate's LSU beat team predicts the outcome of Sunday's game with Miami ...
If Orgeron seems wracked by worry going into this season, he doesn’t show it. Asked Thursday night if LSU has plans to take advantage of Burrow’s mobility with some planned quarterback runs, Orgeron cut his eyes toward the inquiring reporter and replied with a sly smile, “You want me to give you the formations, too?”
Whether you think Orgeron was a bad choice to succeed Les Miles after his firing in 2016 or like a Louisiana guy from Larose with bayou water in his veins as your coach, whether you hope for the Tigers to make the College Football Playoff or that the whole thing comes crashing down so LSU can clean house with a new coach and regime, the truth is there are few if any more compelling stories entering this 2018 season than Orgeron and his team.
Circling back to that LSU-Miami game 30 years ago, is this the calm before a storm besets LSU football, or just the start of more calm?
It's time to find out.