NATCHITOCHES — Northwestern State football coach Brad Laird waxed about his shared history with gregarious Ed Orgeron during a Monday news conference in what is now called The Stroud Room.

The room is a wide-open tiled space with dogleg walls — a multi-purpose area at the bottom level of the field house that is used for interviews, receptions and meetings.

Take down the Demon-dotted backdrop, rewind the clock about 35 years, and you'll see a burly 23-year-old graduate assistant dragging a dorm bed across the floor to set up for the night.

In 1983, The Stroud Room used to be the visitor's locker room at Northwestern State — otherwise known as the first home in the adult life of the man people still call Bébé, who started his coaching career by taking a job without pay.

"That was my first place to live," Orgeron said Wednesday night on his weekly radio show.

That room is where a 34-year coaching career began for the Larose native.

It's where dreams rose higher than digging telephone ditches for his father in South Lafourche, or shoveling shrimp in Grand Isle sheds.

It's where opposing offenses once huddled before kickoff to game plan for the Demons defensive tackle, who earned a reputation for tormenting quarterbacks on the field and finishing fights in bars.

Bébé often blew those game plans apart, becoming a permanent team captain and the first recipient of the team's Joe Delaney Memorial Leadership Award — named after the former Demons running back, who died in 1983 attempting to rescue three drowning children.

It's an award that Laird won himself as a quarterback in 1995.

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LSU head coach Ed Orgeron (77) gets horizontal while diving for an opposing quarterback while a defensive tackle for Northwestern State from 1980 to 1983.

By then, Orgeron was climbing up the college coaching ladder, using the connections he made in Natchitoches.

Some might say Orgeron's reached the top rung as head coach of LSU, especially now that he seems to have built the Tigers back into championship contenders.

How fitting it is that Orgeron has reached such a juncture, where No. 4 LSU (2-0) hosts Northwestern State (0-2) at Tiger Stadium at 6:30 p.m. Saturday — a game that links his uncertain past with his promising future.

Yes, there were lessons in between.

You've heard of the bar brawl arrests that led to Orgeron's departure from both Northwestern State in 1984 and Miami in 1992. They've been written about in length, as has Orgeron's failed three-year run as the head coach at Ole Miss, and his being passed over as interim head coach at Southern Cal.

There were also lifelong connections made in north Louisiana.

Bill Johnson was Orgeron's position coach at Northwestern State — the man whom Orgeron credits with convincing former Demons coach Sam Goodwin to hire him as a student assistant in 1984.

Johnson also helped Orgeron get hired at McNeese State and Miami, and nearly 30 years later, Orgeron hired Johnson to be his defensive line coach at LSU this season when position coach Dennis Johnson suffered an offseason basketball injury, restricting him to a wheelchair. 

"We both always wanted to be at LSU," Orgeron said. "God has a plan for both of us. We're very appreciative of the job we have here."

And Orgeron's closest friends are starting to stop short once they find themselves winding up to tell a wild story about their buddy Bébé. A few still slip out, although after a few cross-references with multiple people, the details get so mixed up, you're not quite sure what's fact or fiction.

"I've got stories that there's no way — you'd have to torture me to tell," said Bobby Hebert, former New Orleans Saints quarterback who was Orgeron's teammate at South Lafourche High and Northwestern State.

The past never quite dies, and it doesn't seem that Orgeron wants it to fade away.

"No, I don't think he wants to forget," said Jacque Reed Horton, a longtime friend and classmate of Orgeron's at Northwestern State. "He wants to put it in its place. We all have stories. We all have made uh-ohs. But I don't think that's the issue. I think he's trying to be the man that he was meant to be."

'We have a history there'

Bryan Arceneaux clapped along with the crowd.

Orgeron had asked his college roommate to come up to Baton Rouge from Lafourche, and there Arceneaux was, sitting at the front table next to Orgeron's wife, Kelly, Wednesday night at TJ Ribs for Orgeron's weekly radio show.

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LSU head football coach Ed Orgeron (77) reaches for an opposing quarterback while a defensive tackle for Northwestern State from 1980 to 1983.

It was the first time Arceneaux had seen the ritual spectacle in person: purple-and-gold-clad fans packing the house to chow down on ribs, suck down suds and cheer on the man he knew as Bébé, the coach who traded quips with screened callers, completely in his element.

"People are starting to learn about him," said Arceneaux, who played nose guard at Northwestern State from 1981-84. "Everybody growing up, everybody has a hobby. He's not a hunter. He's not a fisherman. He's not a golfer like a lot of guys. His passion was football."

In between commercial breaks, Orgeron stepped off the stage to chat with Arceneaux, who had brought 10 or so items for his friend to sign for folks back home.

Orgeron's hands moved quickly as he signed, and Arceneaux joked: "Bébé, your fingers get worn out from all that signing?"

Orgeron grinned back: "Not as bad as shoveling all that shrimp."

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LSU head football coach Ed Orgeron's team picture before his senior year as a defensive tackle at Northwestern State in 1983.

Arceneaux can still smell the pungent funk of the shrimp sheds in Grand Isle, where he said he and Orgeron worked 18-to-20-hour shifts during college summers making $5 an hour.

It was brutal work for the bayou boys who grew up a quarter-mile from each other on La. 1 in Larose.

Both were brought up in humble households by hard-working parents. Everyone called Orgeron's mother "Coco" and Arceneaux's mother "Fury." And the son of Fury was never destined to grow up with a silver spoon. 

The two friends made all their money for the year shoveling piles of shrimp into baskets with wide shovels, while the shrimp boats kept hauling in loads all night long.

The shed was their living quarters, Arceneaux said, and they could put their fingers through the holes in the walls. There were no mattresses. They'd shower in the shrimp plant with a water hose and a bar of soap, and they'd be so tired, they'd just fall asleep on the table or the floor.

"We'd smell like crap," Arceneaux said.

At summer's end, they'd take a portion of their earnings and buy as much shrimp as they could haul back to Natchitoches. They'd call ahead and tell friends and Northwestern State faculty that they were coming, and then they'd sell the shrimp out of ice chests at a marked-up price.

And where did they spend all that money?

Well, the standard bills of living, certainly; but a good portion found its way into the cash registers of the local bars: The Student Body, Antoon's and The Keg.

The Keg played country music all night, Arceneaux said, or really it seemed like just one song all night: David Allen Coe's "You Never Even Called Me by My Name."

"We have a history there," Arceneaux said. "We played hard, we ran hard, we roomed together."

Networking

Most oddsmakers peg LSU as at least a 50-point favorite over Northwestern State on Saturday.

Gary Morgan, a Demons outside linebacker from 1980-83, said the line would have been more like 14 back in their day.

Sure, Northwestern State had two winning seasons in those four years as an independent athletic program; but some of the names the roster indicate they just may have been able to hang with LSU.

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Ed Orgeron was invited to speak to the Demons football team and be on the sideline during Northwestern State's game against Southeastern Louisiana on Oct. 4, 2014.

Delaney (1977-80) was named AFC Rookie of the Year as a running back with the Kansas City Chiefs in 1981; Hebert (1979-82) played 14 seasons of pro football and was named MVP in the USFL title game in 1984; Mark Duper (1980-81) remains the Miami Dolphins' all-time leading receiver; and Gary Reasons (1980-83) won two Super Bowls as a linebacker with the New York Giants.

There were notable coaches, too, and Orgeron later hired a few of them.

A.L. Williams was the Demons coach from 1975-82, and he eventually led Louisiana Tech to the Division I-AA title game in 1984.

Joe Raymond Peace was an assistant under Williams in Natchitoches, and he was one of the coaches who persuaded Bill Johnson, an undersized Demons center from 1975-78, to join the coaching staff as a graduate assistant.

Johnson had originally planned on moving back home to Monroe to work in the paper mill, when Peace told him, "That's not what you're going to do. You're going to get into coaching."

So began a 40-year coaching career for Johnson, who has coached 18 NFL seasons as a defensive line coach and won Super Bowl XLIV with the New Orleans Saints.

Then there was John Thompson, Northwestern State's defensive coordinator from 1983-86 and from 1988-89. Thompson, who got his start as a graduate assistant at Arkansas, was the one who helped Orgeron onto the Razorbacks staff as an assistant strength coach in 1986.

About 20 years later, Orgeron hired Thompson to be his defensive coordinator at Ole Miss for the 2007 season.

"The best thing that ever happened at Northwestern was I got my degree and I networked," Orgeron said. "I networked, and I met some people, and I got to get into college coaching. For that, I'm very, very appreciative."

'Anything for Northwestern'

Horton drove down to Tiger Stadium in March to see her old friend Bébé, and to retrieve a favor.

Horton, now an instructor at Northwestern State in child and family studies, had been asked to help with a school fundraiser. Gary Morgan, a former outside linebacker who played with Orgeron, is now a sales rep at Riddell and gave her a helmet that was half LSU Tigers gold and half Demons purple.

Needing someone to sign it, she called Orgeron.

"Anything for Northwestern," he told her.

Horton became friends with Orgeron through her roommate at Natchitoches, who was dating Hebert at the time. Horton's father was on the faculty at Northwestern State, and every now and then she'd invite people over to fry up ice chests full of shrimp, redfish and crabs at the house.

She remembers how her father had a bad back and laid down on the shag carpet to rest, watching the TV with a pillow behind his head while the party went on outside.

"I'll remember forever and a day, Bébé came in and laid down on the floor next to Daddy," Horton said. "He undid his pants and he said, 'Woof. I ate too many fried potatoes (pronounced pa-TAY-tuhs).' I called him 'fried pa-tay-tuh' forever."

Horton brought the helmet into Orgeron's office in Tiger Stadium, and they caught up on old times.

Orgeron kept weights in his office, she said, explaining happily that he had to "keep up with his boys," Parker and Cody.

Cody is now the starting quarterback at McNeese State as a junior.

The years have passed, but Orgeron has retained the same vigor he had as a player.

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Ed Orgeron pictured with former Northwestern State head football coach Sam Goodwin at Legends Gala on May 5, 2017.

"I don't know when he's going to slow down," Hebert said. "He has the energy of a 28-year-old. He's like a young, fired-up coach."

And why wouldn't he be?

After last week's 45-38 win at Texas, LSU has the inside track to the College Football Playoff, and Orgeron said Monday the program is turning into what he envisioned when he became the full-time coach in 2016.

"Your staff makes the head coach," Morgan said. "Your players make your staff. All you need is a general to guide, instruct and lead, and that's what he does."

And while Arceneaux sat at the front table at TJ Ribs Wednesday night, he heard a caller tell Orgeron he thought he was an "elite coach."

"You become an elite coach when you have elite players," Orgeron said. "And we have elite players."

Those elite players will face his alma mater Saturday night.

"I am going to send a text to tell him he better take it easy on the Demons," Horton said. "Be careful which purple you've got on."

Email Brooks Kubena at bkubena@theadvocate.com.