ORLANDO, Fla. — When the Citrus Bowl ends New Year’s Day afternoon, an era of LSU football will come to an end as well.
Pete Jenkins came out of retirement last year to once again serve as LSU’s defensive line coach because Ed Orgeron, his devoted disciple, had just become the school’s interim coach. It basically took four words:
“Pete, I need you.”
Jenkins and his wife, Donna, had just driven through Baton Rouge for a brief stop at their home in town, on their way back to their main residence in Destin, Florida. They had spent nine weeks in Los Angeles, where Jenkins worked as consultant at USC. He came out of retirement at Orgeron’s request there in 2013 when Coach O became the interim coach of the Trojans.
“We were just getting unpacked, and he called me on a Sunday night and asked if I could be there Monday,” Jenkins recalled. “I said, ‘I can be on my way Monday and I can be there by Tuesday.’ We threw stuff in the car and came back.
“I was so excited. I told people I have a hard time saying no to two things: One, Ed Orgeron, and two, LSU.”
If you do the math (and it takes some advanced calculus), this is Jenkins’ 15th season at LSU spread over three stints at the school.
He first came to LSU in December 1979 with new head coach Jerry Stovall. Stovall was piecing a staff together from some of the assistants who followed Bo Rein from North Carolina State and some of his own people. Rein had died in a bizarre plane crash en route back to Baton Rouge from a recruiting trip in Shreveport, his plane and pilot eventually crashing off the Virginia coast in the Atlantic Ocean.
Jenkins worked at South Carolina with Stovall under Paul Dietzel, LSU’s former coach and at the time the school’s athletic director. It was those connections that allowed Jenkins to fulfill a long-held career ambition.
“I’ve told this story 1,000 times, but my dream was to some day coach at LSU,” Jenkins said. “You’re talking to a guy who feels really blessed. I was so grateful for the opportunity.”
Jenkins stayed at LSU 11 seasons the first time around, from 1980-90. He served as defensive coordinator on the Tigers’ 1982 Orange Bowl team and again from 1987-89. From 1980-84 and again in 1990 he was assistant head coach.
Jenkins went to Mississippi State and Auburn before returning under Nick Saban to coach defensive line in 2000-01. Orgeron is his fifth head coach at LSU, the others being Bill Arnsparger and Mike Archer.
Like Jenkins, Arnsparger was considered a defensive guru. He was one of the few who could teach Jenkins a thing or two.
“Arnsparger used to say winning is controlling the distractions,” Jenkins said. “I think that’s still true today.”
Being back at LSU this time was never going to be a long-term hitch for Jenkins, who turned 76 in August. He will go back to consulting, coincidentally at a training facility in Orlando, working with draft-eligible players in January and NFL veterans in February.
“Now I look at the calendar, and at the end of February there’s nothing there,” Jenkins said with a chuckle. “I’m looking forward to getting rested. But I will miss it. This is probably my last time to come out of retirement.”
What makes Jenkins so good at what he does, so in demand?
“It’s hard to put it on just one thing,” Orgeron said. “His teaching process is the best I’ve ever seen. He takes a guy from ground zero and teaches him about his hips, his feet, his hands, all the details and the film demands every day. The guy is relentless.”
But not without a measure of fun thrown in. Perhaps it’s what helped him relate to generations of football players through a 50-plus year career.
“He’ll come in every day with a new joke,” said defensive end Christian LaCouture, a fifth-year senior who will go out with Jenkins on Monday. “Yesterday we were out (at practice) and the way one of our scout guys was moving, he said he looked like a cow on ice. I didn’t know what it meant, but he started doing an impression of it and it was funny. I don’t know where he gets them.”
He keeps getting future pros in his program, though more likely in many cases they became pros because of Jenkins. He’s coached more than 30 defensive linemen who went on to the NFL, including LSU players like Leonard Marshall, Jarvis Green and current SEC Network analyst Marcus Spears.
“Coach Pete is a legend,” defensive end Frank Herron said. “He helped me grow as a player. I look at football way differently now. I used to look at it like a game, but he made me feel like it was an opportunity. Football can take you so much further than any other game. It teaches you how to build friendships, how to be held accountable and it’ll teach you how to be a man.”
For Orgeron, Jenkins is the coach whisperer, dropping insights into what previous LSU coaches he worked for did in various situations.
“He will come to me and say, ‘Coach Arnsparger did this, coach Stovall did this and coach Saban did that,” Orgeron said.
“And I listen. I will always rely on him. He’ll always be a part of us.”