Before anything else, Ed Orgeron requested a rope.
It had to be a long rope, he told administrator Verge Ausberry. It had to be a wide, strong rope.
“It was funny,” Ausberry recalls. “We had just told him he was the interim (coach), and he asked for a rope.”
Ausberry turned to the Baton Rouge Fire Department. Firemen delivered the rope to the LSU football operations building and, later that Sunday night, Ausberry learned more about the request when he found himself in a game of tug-of-war in LSU’s team meeting room.
“He got everybody — players, coaches, trainers, video guys, (athletic director) Joe Alleva and myself,” Ausberry said. “We all got on the sides of the rope.”
More than a decade before, a coach named Pete Carroll gave his new Southern Cal football team instructions just days after he was hired: Meet at the Los Angeles Coliseum at midnight.
For what, they didn’t know.
“On the floor of the Coliseum, they played tug-of-war,” said David Wharton, a writer for the Los Angeles Times who covered the team that year, 2001. “Everybody thought, ‘What the heck is going on here?’ ”
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On Day 1 — no, Hour 1 — Orgeron plucked a page from the Pete Carroll playbook.
He began implementing a plan that he had been prepping, at least for weeks, before the school fired Les Miles on Sept. 25: the Pete Plan.
Step 1: Hold a game of tug-of-war.
“That was the meeting,” said Rocky Seto, a student assistant on that USC team. “From that moment on, we worked hard as a team.”
If you wondered how the 56-year-old Orgeron plans to return LSU to its championship-winning ways, look first out west, to the way Carroll turned USC from floundering squad to title contender in the early 2000s. Then look to South Florida, where Jimmy Johnson in the 1980s laid the foundation for Miami’s “Decade of Dominance.”
These are the two men who, maybe unbeknownst to them, will shape the future of the LSU football program, as their former assistant — the gravelly voiced Cajun — implements their ideals, philosophies and methods.
“Eddie has been successful at doing it,” said Carroll, whose friendship with Orgeron runs so deep that he refers to the coach by a name few use. “Eddie understands it. He’s put, of course, his own touches and own ways to it. When we were at USC developing the whole principles, Eddie was right there, in on everything. He kind of grew up with it as we were putting things together.
“It’s become him,” Carroll continued. “Now it’s really his deal.”
So, what is the Pete Carroll system?
The coach chortles.
“Seen through coach Orgeron’s eye, it could be anything. I’m not quite sure,” he joked. “Nah, we do have a system. I can’t tell you in a nutshell.”
Interviews with those close to Carroll, now entering his eighth season as head coach of the Seattle Seahawks, reveal more than the coach is willing to divulge about a system Orgeron began putting in place last September.
And Carroll’s championship-winning route in Los Angeles wasn’t so different from the path Johnson took in Miami.
They were both influential motivators and intense recruiters — attributes possessed by their protégé. But there’s more, of course, about two coaches who have combined to win three college football national titles and three Super Bowls.
Some of these ideals — that tug-of-war, for instance — are already popping up in Baton Rouge.
“If Ed keeps those principles in place,” said Norm Chow, Southern Cal’s offensive coordinator under Carroll, “he’s going to be fine.”
Those principles? There are many.
The first: fun.
Carroll is obsessed with creating a fun and energetic environment, key psychological principles he derived from a pair of books: UCLA basketball coaching legend John Wooden’s “A Lifetime of Observations and Reflections On and Off the Court” and W. Timothy Gallwey’s “The Inner Game of Tennis.”
“He tried to put players in the best position,” Wharton said. “The best position for them, he thought, was to be having fun and be relaxed.”
He held Halloween functions with the team, allowed players to high-dive into USC’s Olympic-style pool and had themes for each practice day. Sound familiar?
In taking over as interim coach last fall, Orgeron began naming the days of practice: Tell The Truth Monday, Competition Tuesday, Turnover Wednesday and so on.
“Pete just made it fun to come to work,” Orgeron said. “You wanted to come to work, wanted to go to practice. Guys were having fun.”
Push all the fun aside for just a second, Carroll says.
The central theme to his system, the No. 1 principle in his rebuilding effort at USC, was competition — competition in recruiting, in practice, in everything.
“You’re either competing,” Carroll said, “or you’re not.”
He instilled in his team a competitive nature where, every day at practice, jobs were up for grabs. Freshmen, for instance, often usurped presumed veteran starters, and Carroll would purposely light the competitive fires during drills.
“He’d get an offensive player, and he’d go to him and say, ‘Start yelling at the defense,’ ” Chow said. “Before you knew it … wooooh!”
He took the competition off the field, too. A basketball fanatic, Carroll routinely played pickup games with the staff, taking it so seriously that one former assistant said, “You thought it was the NBA Finals.”
He created a recruiting race of sorts with Orgeron to see which of them could visit more L.A.-area high schools. They popped into schools that didn’t even have prospects — something, Orgeron says, he’s bringing to Louisiana.
“We were going to put a fence around Southern California,” he said. “We were going to go to every school we could. We’d start early in the morning, hit 12 to 15 schools a day.”
“We did it because it came natural to us,” Carroll said. “Eddie is a great competitor. That’s what I am — a competitor. We build the formula around that mentality, and it really permeated through all aspects of the program.”
Johnson wasn’t so different. His strength was also on defense. Like Carroll, he was a fun-loving, players' coach, a man who bonded with inner-city kids and relentlessly recruited them to his program.
He gave his players more freedom than most coaches do, encouraging them to trash talk, for instance, and allowing them to run up the score.
"He should have coached with middle fingers extended," said Dan Le Batard, now a television and radio personality for ESPN who reported on the Hurricanes then for the Miami Herald.
Schematically, he brought to light the modern 4-3 defense, predicated on attacking defensive linemen, a swarming unit that didn’t read and react as most did in those days — they just acted.
He had the guys to do it, too. While a graduate assistant at Miami under Johnson and then Dennis Erickson, Orgeron coached NFL draft first-rounders Warren Sapp, Cortez Kennedy and Russell Maryland.
“All speed. That's what Jimmy valued,” Le Batard said. “Those defenses were some of the fastest you've seen, and it's because he didn't mind if the linebackers and defensive linemen were undersized as long as they were fast and frenetic.”
His biggest strength, though, was evaluating players, specifically defensive linemen.
“He could see a player at a different position and move him, and the player would become fantastic,” Orgeron said.
Tommy Tuberville, an assistant with Orgeron at Miami who’s now an analyst with ESPN, remembers Johnson’s evaluation and recruiting tactics. He emphasized to his assistants to watch recruits play sports — not just football.
“He was really high on kids who played basketball,” Tuberville said. “You can find out more about a football player from watching him play basketball than anything.”
His motivation, Orgeron said, was “second to none,” that Texas twang reverberating through locker rooms and pregame huddles.
“Pete was a motivator every day,” the coach said, “but when Jimmy spoke, his words were very, very strong.”
Orgeron and his two mentors are more alike than you might realize.
They were all heavily criticized for the jobs they landed. In Miami, there was an initial reaction of “Jimmy Who?” to the hiring of Johnson, then at Oklahoma State, in 1984. Carroll was Southern Cal’s fourth choice, by most reports, behind then-Oregon coach Mike Bellotti, then-Oregon State coach Dennis Erickson and then-San Diego Chargers coach Mike Riley.
“People went nuts when Carroll was hired,” Wharton said. “He was the fallback.”
Here, some might call Orgeron the same. It’s no secret that LSU’s pursuit of now-Texas coach Tom Herman, for whatever reason, failed. Orgeron was the beneficiary, and now comes the tough part.
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“He knows the seriousness, knows he’s out there as a guy people are looking at going, ‘How in the world did he get another job?’ ” Tuberville said. “Timing is a lot of it but, as I’ve told everybody, I think Ed was the best hire of anybody in the country. You don’t look at a job. You look at a fit. He fits that job.”
Carroll and his protégé have gone through the highs and lows. Carroll was fired with the New York Jets and then canned after three seasons with the New England Patriots. Orgeron won three SEC games in three years at Ole Miss before the school dismissed him.
“It’s hard being a head coach early in your career,” Carroll said. “Got a lot of stuff you got to figure out: what you stand for, how you make your decisions, how you stay in line with your beliefs. All of those things are very challenging when you’re getting started. Once you’ve done it a couple of times, you start to get a sense and can base it on the experiences you’ve had, the decision-making and stuff. Ed’s ready to do that.”
Each of them took a year away from football, too — Carroll in 2000, Orgeron in 2014 — before landing a comeback gig. It was an important year for both.
For Carroll, he began diving into psychology books and creating a game plan for his next gig, said Seto, an assistant for Carroll for 17 years at USC and then the Seahawks.
“It was massive for him. Didn’t have a burden of getting a football team ready to play,” Seto said. “He took reams of paper and took notes after notes.”
He began to formulate his principles and create the system that turned Southern Cal into a title winner, the plan that Orgeron hopes will take the Tigers to the top.
Thing is, without Carroll’s decision to retain Orgeron, maybe this whole system doesn’t work, maybe the Trojans never reach the summit of college football and maybe Carroll never wins big in the NFL.
Orgeron was a holdover from coach Paul Hackett’s USC staff. After a 19-18 mark in three years, Hackett was fired.
Carroll decided to keep Orgeron even before he landed the head coaching job. The two bumped into each other during the California high school state championship games, the coach says. It was a chance meeting that produced an awfully lethal combination.
“It was a couple of days before I got the job,” Carroll recalled. “Since he didn’t have a job and I didn’t have a job, we were able to get down there and watch the game up close. I was trying to figure out who the players were that I was going to be recruiting if I got the job.
“We spent the night watching a high school football game. I just realized how connected he was and how much he loved USC at the time and how instrumental he would be. I couldn’t hire him fast enough.”
IN THEIR IMAGE
Ed Orgeron plans to build and model his LSU football program after his biggest head coaching mentors, Jimmy Johnson (Miami) and Pete Carroll (Southern California). Through interviews and research, The Advocate discovered their three principles in building and maintaining a successful college program:
“CEO” Jimmy Johnson
Motivator: When Johnson talked, folks listened. That Texas twang of his reverberated with coaches and players. “His motivation is second to none,” Orgeron said.
Promoter: Johnson was accessible to media and boosters, promoting the Hurricanes in every way. Former assistant Tommy Tuberville called him the team’s “true spokesman.”
Evaluator: Orgeron claims his best coaching advice came from Johnson. “Go get the best players, Ed,” Orgeron says Johnson told him. “His evaluation skills were amazing.”
“Fun” Pete Carroll
Recruiter: Carroll’s bedrock at USC was “local recruiting” in talent-rich Los Angeles. “He wanted to visit every single (high school),” Los Angeles Times writer David Wharton said.
Psychologist: Carroll was big on giving his players a fun and relaxing environment, something he took from psychology books, Wharton said.
Competitor: No starting job was safe. Competition, on and off the field, was essential. Carroll held short but intensely competitive practices where freshmen could win jobs.