TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — As water and blue Powerade cascaded over his back, spilling down his shoulders and soaking his clothes, Ed Orgeron raised his right hand in the air. He closed it into a triumphant fist and rushed to midfield.

This was validation for Orgeron, the day he proved all the doubters wrong. Since he took over as the Tigers' full-time coach in 2016, Orgeron had rebuilt his image and turned LSU back into a powerhouse program.

So when the No. 2 Tigers toppled No. 3 Alabama 46-41 on Saturday, winning for the first time in eight years, Orgeron’s players grabbed two coolers. They drenched their coach.

His black hair glistening inside Bryant-Denny Stadium, Orgeron smiled. Deep creases lined his face. Players and coaches — people he brought to LSU — entered delirious celebration. When Orgeron finished an interview, he screamed.

“What do you say, baby!” Orgeron bellowed. “What do you say!”

LSU withstood a second-half surge by the Crimson Tide. Orgeron stood in the middle of it all, the man who turned LSU into this team, one in control of the Southeastern Conference, marching toward championship games and sitting at the top of college football. He had created what happened Saturday night.

“I pray to God we can keep this man,” linebacker Patrick Queen said.

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More than a decade ago, Orgeron botched his first job as a head coach. His reputation became one of an ace recruiter and motivator, but also someone who didn’t understand how to form a program. People heard the gravel voice. They made assumptions about his intelligence. They saw the man who lifts dumbbells every morning once he reaches his office, the chest that looks like it can still play defensive line.

When Ole Miss fired him in 2007, Orgeron promised changes if he ever got a second chance. He wrote meticulous plans when he became LSU’s head coach three years ago, including treating players like his sons.

Orgeron increased support staff. He instigated the changing of LSU’s offense. He made essential hires, like that of passing game coordinator Joe Brady. After his stint at Ole Miss, Orgeron learned to delegate responsibilities. He has given suggestions and shared his vision, but he trusts his assistants.

On Monday afternoon, Orgeron told his players they would beat Alabama. He had never said that before, but he believed LSU had the better team. As Orgeron stepped onto the field five days later, Alabama fans booed him. Orgeron raised one fist in the air. He walked across the field, and when he turned toward the locker room, the boos resumed. Orgeron slapped his chest. He formed his right hand into an “L” for Louisiana.

Orgeron watched the game bent at the waist, resting his hands on his thighs. He paced the sideline. He raised both arms and stomped when LSU scored two touchdowns at the end of the first half. He felt nervous as Alabama cut the lead to 12 points, then five. But Orgeron maintained his belief. When the game ended and LSU had won, he led the team to Alabama’s logo.

“We on the middle of the damn field,” Orgeron said. “Let’s break it down! Tigers on three!”

With his wife Kelly beside him, Orgeron walked toward LSU’s band. He hugged quarterback Joe Burrow, the Heisman Trophy front-runner he convinced to come to LSU last year. As the alma mater played, Orgeron’s eyes welled. He looked around the stadium, staring at the scene he had created.

Orgeron had waited for this moment his entire life. Growing up, the man who likes two scoops of potato salad in his gumbo dreamed of coaching at LSU. His father declined an in-home visit from Alabama coach Bear Bryant. His mother attended the game on Saturday, and Orgeron imagined she told people, “That's my boy.”

Standing underneath the south end zone, after “Choppa Style” blared from the LSU locker room, Orgeron had changed into a new shirt. He didn’t accept any credit. He never does. He pointed to his players and assistant coaches. He felt happy for his home state.

LSU will reach the Southeastern Conference championship game with two more wins. It can see the College Football Playoff for the first time. Players said none of it would’ve happened without the program Orgeron molded.

“I know Coach O is going to give us all the credit,” safety JaCoby Stevens said, “but he deserves all of it.”

Orgeron said that for the past few years, whenever he dropped into a convenience store to buy an energy drink, fans told him he had to beat Alabama. Now, Orgeron said, he’ll tell them he did.

“We did it," Kelly Orgeron said. “I wonder what they're going to say next.”


Email Wilson Alexander at walexander@theadvocate.com