Steve Ensminger enjoys his leather recliner.
That’s where he draws plays in the air with his right index finger, scribbling into the infinity as if his fingertip were filled with black ink filling up a whiteboard. His son has witnessed this so many times that it’s impossible to count.
Steven Ensminger Jr. is the middle child of Steve and Amy. He’s older brother to 25-year-old Brittany Rose and two years younger than 31-year-old Krystalin.
They all know about that leather recliner.
“If any of us are sitting in it and he’s there, we get up,” Steven Jr. said. “Ain’t nobody’s going to sit in that chair but him.”
In that chair, work and play come together for Steve Ensminger, the LSU quarterback-turned-assistant-turned-coordinator. He watches his favorite television shows there — crime dramas like "Law & Order" and "NCIS" — and it's where he plays his go-to iPad game, Sudoku.
But everyone in the family knows what that chair is for: football. It’s for that imaginary playbook he’s building in the living room air and for the game he rewatches “a 20th time,” his son said.
Like so many things in Ensminger’s life, it’s for football, it’s about football and it’s because of football. This is a man who spends several nights a year sleeping on a makeshift mattress in his office.
“I think he sleeps on his couch,” interim head coach Ed Orgeron said last week. “I don’t know if he’s gone home since he’s been the coordinator.”
Why would he? This is what it’s all about for Ensminger.
He’s offensive coordinator for his alma mater in his hometown, calling plays for the first time in nearly a decade in the twilight of a journeyman-like, 35-year coaching career. He’s running the show, at least on an interim basis, and holding the reins of a talent-laden offense — maybe his final chance at such a lofty job.
“He wanted to finish his career here,” Steven Jr. said. “In my mind, I can only think that this may be the last year for me to watch my dad do what he loves to do.”
Ensminger passed his first two tests — a pair of 35-point wins over middling teams from Missouri and Southern Miss. They were pop quizzes compared to the upcoming exams — five straight games against teams currently in the Top 25, a stretch which ESPN deemed the toughest remaining schedule in college football. It begins at 8 p.m. Saturday against Ole Miss (3-3, 1-2 Southeastern Conference) in Tiger Stadium, Ensminger’s home away from home.
He was Charlie McClendon’s easiest recruiting catch, a power-armed, LSU-loving quarterback from Central High School. Ensminger scatters his Cajun twang across the LSU football practice fields. His high-pitched tone collides with the gruff timbre of his new boss — Orgeron, the man they call Bébé — to create an unmistakable homegrown feel.
“He’s a perfect guy for Bébé,” said Tommy Tuberville, the former Auburn and current Cincinnati coach who knows both men well. “This has to be a dream come true for both of them.”
Ensminger is a “simple man,” Steven Jr. said. He doesn’t spend much money, occasionally fires up the grill and prefers to watch his son play golf from the seat of a golf cart than play the game himself.
To many of his players, he’s “Slinger” — a reference to his quarterbacking days, when he handed off to Charles Alexander and rifled passes to Carlos Carson. Decades later, Ensminger is a 58-year-old hardened by a cutthroat industry: As a coordinator, he has been fired three times.
Now here he is, at home, getting another, unexpected shot.
“I feel like he’s having a lot of fun right now, but he knows it’s a business,” Steven Jr. said. “He knows a lot is riding on this team.”
‘Hell, that’s coaching’
Tuberville and his entire Auburn staff were a week away from being fired.
Ensminger was on that staff in 2003, one part of an unusual offensive setup. Hugh Nall was offensive line coach and offensive coordinator, but Ensminger (as quarterbacks coach) called the plays. It was going poorly: Stacked with talent and ranked No. 6 in the preseason polls, Auburn was 6-5 entering its rivalry clash with Alabama.
The coaches knew they had to win or they would be fired.
“That was a done deal,” said Nall, now out of football and living in Georgia. “I think there was a meeting with Tommy and the (Auburn) president set up for Monday morning (after the Alabama game). There was so much excitement after we won, he postponed it for a week. It all turned.”
Ensminger has coached for his job before. That was one of the good outcomes, a 28-23 Iron Bowl win. Ensminger and Nall still were demoted, but they kept jobs at Auburn for six more years. They were fired in 2008, the third time that had happened to Ensminger.
In 1996, he was fired as offensive coordinator at Texas A&M. Two years later, he was fired as offensive coordinator at Clemson.
“At a young age, I didn’t understand how that worked: 'So this coach gets fired, and y’all are all fired?' ” Steven Jr. said, remembering conversations with his father.
In his three seasons as A&M’s coordinator, Ensminger took the Aggies from 61st in total offense to 33rd. One report indicated head coach R.C. Slocum fired Ensminger after a “difference of opinions.” He was one of three coaches Slocum dismissed after a 6-6 season.
At Clemson, head coach Tommy West hired Ensminger as his third offensive coordinator in three years. Ensminger’s offenses ranked 61st and 93rd nationally, and West and his staff were dismissed in 1998.
“Hell, that's coaching,” Nall said. "That’s the coaching arena.”
Don’t judge Ensminger’s play-calling ability by his time at Auburn, Nall said. Nall takes the blame for the disaster in 2003. The staff attempted to run the same pass-happy offense that former coordinator Bobby Petrino used before he left for Louisville.
“I should have made some changes after spring practice,” Nall said. “Steve came to me about the pass game concerns he had, and I … there were several decisions I should have made, and I didn’t go with my gut. That wasn’t Steve’s fault.”
In 2008, Tuberville fired first-year offensive coordinator Tony Franklin six games into that season, replacing him with Ensminger on an interim basis. Auburn lost five of its final six games, and everyone was dismissed.
“That was one of those years,” Tuberville said. “We weren’t very good and were training a new quarterback.”
“That was a big mistake, to bring in (Franklin),” Nall said. “We were in survival mode by the time Steve took over, trying not to get the kids embarrassed. It was a sad, sad situation as far as college football goes.”
After the firings at Clemson and Auburn, Ensminger dropped to the high school ranks, spending two years as head coach at Central (2000-01), one at West Monroe (2002) and a year at Smiths Station in Alabama (2009).
“He knew he had a family to support,” Steven Jr. said.
Don’t judge Ensminger solely on his misses, his coaching colleagues said.
“He’s one of the best that’s ever worked for me,” Tuberville said. “Steve was a guy I’d call when he was at other places and ask him about certain (pass) protections. The thing about Steve is a lot of QBs who are offensive coordinator … being a head coach, you have to watch them trying to light up the scoreboard passing. Steve likes to run the football.”
Said Nall: “The beauty about Steve Ensminger is, he’s an offensive lineman in a quarterback’s body. He’s a tough sucker.”
‘Man, that was strange’
A surprising visitor showed up at a Louisiana Tech bowl practice in December 1990: Georgia coach Ray Goff.
“He’s standing out there on the practice field. Can you imagine? He’s not even on the sideline. He’s right there in the mix of it,” said John Thompson, defensive coordinator on that Louisiana Tech staff. “I was like, ‘Man, that was strange.’ Everybody kind of knew he was there to interview Steve."
Goff hired Louisiana Tech’s offensive coordinator after that visit, landing one of the nation’s most sought-after assistant coaches. Tech ranked 11th in total offense and 25th in scoring in 1990, Ensminger’s third year as coordinator.
As quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator at Georgia, Ensminger developed the gem of his coaching career. Quarterback Eric Zeier led the Southeastern Conference in passing in 1992 and in total offense in 1993. The Bulldogs won 19 games in Ensminger’s first two seasons calling plays, and he turned that into the offensive coordinator position with Texas A&M in 1994.
He carried to College Station the scheme he learned in his first job as receivers coach at Nicholls State. Nicholls offensive coordinator Joe Clark, an offensive guru who went on to coach in the NFL, installed a trendsetting system in Thibodaux during Ensminger’s days on staff.
“We were doing things back then that others were not,” said Sonny Jackson, then the head coach at Nicholls who also coached Ensminger at Central. “Joe was so far ahead of the game, it was unbelievable.”
Receivers did not have assigned routes in the scheme, which Clark learned at a Cincinnati Bengals coaching clinic. Routes were based on how the defense was aligned, a strategy often used today but not so prevalent in the early 1980s.
“People weren’t doing it at all,” said Jackson, now retired and living in Natchitoches. “We set all kind of records.”
These were the good old days, when Ensminger was a 20-something-year-old, wide-eyed sponge for football knowledge, when he hung out with the likes of Tuberville, Thompson and Bill Johnson, now defensive line coach for the Saints.
One offseason, those four worked a Bobby Hebert camp in New Orleans. Hebert rented them a house in the city.
“We had a whooooole lot of fun there,” Thompson said, laughing. “It was coach hard during the day and enjoy ourselves at night.”
“We talked football,” Tuberville said, “and sat around and drank beer.”
Tuberville and Ensminger were reunited at Auburn in 2003, but Tuberville always knew that wasn’t Ensminger’s ultimate destination.
“Steve is LSU through and through,” Tuberville said. “I’ve always known that.”
Les Miles’ first four years at LSU (2005-08) overlapped with Ensminger’s time in Auburn.
“Les called me several times to visit about hiring him,” Tuberville said. “Finally, he called me at Texas Tech. I was like, ‘Les, I already told you what you need to know. Hire him.’ ”
Miles did. Ensminger spent just a few days as an administrator on Tuberville’s staff at Tech before the call from Miles ahead of the 2010 season.
Now, here Ensminger is, the man who hired him gone and his old Cajun friend giving him full control.
“I think Steve,” Orgeron said, “has ice water in his veins.”
'He's used to it'
The Ensmingers’ home in Central was not spared from the historic flooding that inundated the Baton Rouge area in August.
“I got out of bed and was in water,” Amy Ensminger told her son.
Their home received 3 to 4 feet, Steven Jr. said. Amy spent several days with family, and Steve Ensminger, naturally, slept at the office. After all, this was during preseason camp.
“He’s used to it. He’ll sleep at the office. He has a little mattress deal he’ll take out. He’s done that forever,” Steven Jr. said. “He’s done that since he started. I’d go stay at the office with him. He wears himself out at night and doesn’t feel like driving home and knows he’s going to have to get up at 4 or 5 a.m. He’s just like, ‘I’ll just pass out in the office.’ ”
Ensminger is a disciple of one of the most hard-working, good guys LSU has ever seen.
“I heard that a million times from him,” Thompson said. “That he played for Cholly Mac.”
Ensminger threw for 2,770 yards and 16 touchdowns, finishing 11-6 as a starter. McClendon played two quarterbacks during those days, splitting snaps between Ensminger, his passer, and David Woodley, his runner.
“I remember how hard he used to throw the football,” said Alexander, an All-America running back during Ensminger's playing days at LSU. “Steve was known for his rifle arm.”
Back then, Alexander thought Woodley would become a great coach and Ensminger would develop into an NFL star.
“Worked out the opposite way,” he chuckled.
Ensminger is the lowest-paid of LSU’s nine assistant coaches at $300,000 per year. His contract runs through March. It’s unclear whether he received a raise after his promotion. The university had no responsive documents to two public records requests from The Advocate regarding his financial situation. Old coordinator Cam Cameron made $1.2 million per year.
But Ensminger has never been in it for the money, Steven Jr. said.
It’s the X's and O's, the Jimmys and Joes, that keep “Slinger” around the game. It rubbed off on his son. Steven Jr., now a chemical operator with CF Industries in Donaldsonville, played quarterback at West Monroe and Auburn before transferring to Louisiana Tech.
Steven Jr. led West Monroe to the state title in 2005 while his dad coached at Auburn.
“He’d always find ways to get film of me,” Steven Jr. said.
The two would talk for hours on the phone, Ensminger in his office or in that recliner at home.
August's flooding ruined his favorite chair, Steven Jr. said, but don’t worry.
“He has a new chair,” Steven Jr. said. “It’s his chair.”