Ed Orgeron said he would evaluate his coaching staff after the 2020 season ended.
It certainly didn’t take him long.
The LSU Tigers wrapped a mostly disappointing 5-5 season Saturday with a wild 53-48 win over Ole Miss. By Monday, defensive coordinator Bo Pelini was out, as was passing game coordinator Scott Linehan and safeties coach Bill Busch. Tuesday, offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger and defensive line coach Bill Johnson announced they were retiring from on-field coaching and moving into analyst roles.
Now it will be Orgeron’s turn to be evaluated.
Coach O, who has been lauded, lambasted and lampooned in 2020 like few public figures you can imagine, now faces the most crucial span of his tenure at LSU since that decisive eight-week stretch in 2016, when he passed then athletic director Joe Alleva’s live “audition” to go from Les Miles’ interim replacement to full-time head coach.
Eight weeks from now, Orgeron will have had to have successfully put a bow on this 2020-21 recruiting class, filling most of LSU’s five remaining scholarship slots with much-needed offensive linemen. And part of his recruiting pitch will involve the men he will name as offensive and defensive coordinators.
LSU offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger will retire from on-field coaching, the university announced Tuesday, moving toward an analyst role …
This is a rare and weighty amount of decision-making resting on Coach O’s desk. LSU hasn’t replaced both coordinators since Gerry DiNardo was fired in 1999, taking Bob McConnell and Lou Tepper with him. Nick Saban arrived for the 2000 season, bringing in a rising young star of an offensive coordinator in Jimbo Fisher and a veteran defensive coordinator named Phil Elmassian (who remembers that name?) who only lasted one year.
Of course, Saban was virtually his own defensive coordinator, anyway. That isn’t Orgeron’s skill set. A venerated defensive line coach, Orgeron has never been a coordinator. He still likes to get in the trenches and school the D-linemen, but he leaves most of the game plans and scheming to his coordinators.
That is why these hires are so important, to LSU and to Orgeron. It is a simplified but true statement to say that Orgeron is as good as his coordinators will help him be.
Or as bad.
The second coming of Pelini at LSU was, sadly, a dumpster fire. Pelini was beset with some huge handicaps: hardly any spring practice to transition from a 3-4 to a 4-3 scheme and the loss of all but two starters from last year’s defense. The defense was bound to take a hit, but not this bad. Opposing players running free through LSU’s defense was a staple of every game.
As happy as Tiger fans were to see the offense modernized under Orgeron, LSU is a school that prides itself on defense, the home of DBU and the Chinese Bandits, Tommy Casanova and the Honey Badger. You simply can’t be THIS woeful on defense at LSU and expect to survive.
That said, Pelini still deserves a respectful place in LSU lore for his three tough-nosed defenses from 2005-07 that helped LSU go 24-6 and win the 2007 BCS national title. Hopefully, he will be remembered for that, too.
As for Ensminger, I have little doubt he would have soldered on for another season as play caller if Orgeron asked. Because every time LSU asked something of Ensminger, he was there. Asked to share quarterbacking duties in the 1970s with the late David Woodley, he did. Asked to call plays when Miles and then offensive coordinator Cam Cameron were fired in 2016, he did. Asked to reprise that role in 2018 after the Matt Canada experiment failed. He did that, too. He even called LSU’s victory over Oklahoma in last December’s Peach Bowl hours after learning of the death of his daughter-in-law, Carley McCord, in a plane crash.
Simply put, Steve Ensminger deserves to go down as one of the most beloved player/coaches in LSU history.
But now it is time for LSU and Orgeron to turn the page. Orgeron’s hiring report card has definitely been mixed. Coaches like former passing game coordinator Joe Brady, wide receivers coach Mickey Joseph and special teams coordinator Greg McMahon have been tape measure home runs. Hires like Canada and Pelini and Linehan have been swings and misses.
Orgeron can’t afford swings and misses. I’m still not sure how hot his seat will be in 2021, especially with LSU dealing with enormous COVID-related financial hardships. But they found the pot of money for him to buy out Pelini and Linehan, so …
Orgeron can answer the doubters with some impressive hires. But he probably only gets one chance to remake his coaching staff to this degree. In a sense, this will be the second audition of his LSU head coaching tenure.
Giving a pass/fail grade to Ed Orgeron’s coaching hires and retentions at LSU:
Steve Ensminger, tight ends (2010-15, 2017) offensive coordinator (2016, 2018-20): Pass. Every time LSU needed him, Ensminger was there. Deserves to go down as one of the most beloved players/coaches in LSU history.
Dave Aranda, defensive coordinator (2016-19): Pass. Orgeron didn’t hire Aranda but retained him, until he didn’t want him around. Now head coach at Baylor, where he went 2-7 in 2020.
Matt Canada, offensive coordinator (2017): Fail. Orgeron went for the splash instead of a fit, and both he and Canada regretted the move. Now quarterbacks coach with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Bo Pelini, defensive coordinator (2020): Fail. Pelini failed to adjust to modern offensive attacks. But he deserves a respectful place in LSU lore for his three tough-nosed defenses from 2005-07 that helped LSU go 24-6 and win the 2007 BCS national title.
Joe Brady, passing game coordinator (2019): Pass. And pass. And pass, pass, pass, pass. Brady perhaps got some credit that should have gone to Ensminger, but no doubt he had his fingerprints all over LSU’s CFP trophy.
Bill Busch, safeties (2018-20): Pass. A lot of blown coverages by Busch’s safeties this season, but he did encourage Orgeron to recruit Joe Burrow after being on staff at Ohio State.
James Cregg, offensive line (2018-): Pass, but not as much of one as some might think. This position group must make critical improvements in 2021.
Kevin Faulk, running backs (2020-): Pass. Faulk’s player rotation was questioned at times, but his recruiting acumen is paying dividends.
Jeff Grimes, offensive line (2014-17): Pass. A Les Miles holdover who more than held his own. Now offensive coordinator at BYU.
Pete Jenkins, defensive line (2016-17): Pass. Replaced Orgeron when he became interim coach. He didn’t help much with recruiting, but he’d come back and help LSU again if called.
Bill Johnson, defensive line (2019-20): Pass. Johnson filled a huge area of need when Dennis Johnson couldn’t coach because of a basketball injury.
Dennis Johnson, outside linebackers (2016-17), defensive line (2018): Pass. The LSU grad was a quality solider in Dave Aranda’s army. Now at Baylor.
Mickey Joseph, wide receivers (2017-): Pass. Joseph has done an exceptional job as a recruiter and position coach. Exhibit A in both areas: freshman Kayshon Boutte.
Scott Linehan, passing game coordinator (2020): Fail. Maybe not as big a fail as it seems, but Linehan did not exactly run with the baton Joe Brady dropped.
Greg McMahon, special teams coordinator (2018-): Pass. McMahon’s unit has had a couple of hiccups this season, but LSU’s special teams under his watch have been a huge asset.
Corey Raymond, cornerbacks/recruiting coordinator (2012-): Pass. Raymond’s rep, like everyone else associated with this defense, took a hit this year but the former Tiger has been on balance a standout coach and recruiter.
Tommie Robinson, running backs (2017-19): Pass-ish, but Orgeron clearly let him go to make room for Faulk. Now at Texas A&M.
Jerry Sullivan, passing game coordinator (2018): Pass. A veteran coach who was at LSU from 1984-90, Sullivan was a recruiting liability but knows more about running routes than anyone.