When Ed Orgeron was preparing to take the LSU Tigers to Texas A&M this time two years ago, he had no idea if they would still be his Tigers when they got back.
Would he pass Joe Alleva’s “audition,” permanently replacing Les Miles after Miles was fired earlier in the 2016 season? Or would the rumors swirling about LSU and Jimbo Fisher, then at Florida State, or Tom Herman, then at Houston, prove true?
“We didn’t know what's going to happen,” Orgeron said Monday at his final regular-season media luncheon. “Two years ago we got to Texas A&M and Jimbo Fisher was getting the job. That was Wednesday night. Then Thursday night, Tom Herman was getting the job.”
Through all the uncertainty, and the potential heartache of having his true dream job slip through his fingers, Orgeron remained unperturbed. He had been down the same rocky road as interim coach at Southern California three years earlier, going 6-2 after Lane Kiffin was fired. Orgeron stomped off when Steve Sarkisian got the job, leaving Clay Helton to coach the Trojans’ bowl game, but that life lesson served him well.
“I'm a defensive lineman. I wasn't always the first one to get the date, you know what I'm saying?” Orgeron said with a grin. “I had to work at it.”
On a chilly Thanksgiving night two years ago in College Station, LSU beat Texas A&M 54-39 in a game that wasn’t that close. The victory, coming on the heels of a painful 16-10 loss to Florida that likely kept the Tigers out of the Sugar Bowl, put Orgeron at 5-2.
Two days later, it proved to be enough to pass the audition.
“I can see why they wanted Jimbo Fisher” at LSU, Orgeron said. “He's an excellent coach. I can see why they wanted Tom Herman. He's an excellent coach. I understand that.
“Saturday, Ed Orgeron got it,” Coach O said of the day he got the LSU job full-time.
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The audition never really stops for an LSU football coach. Miles, who Sunday was introduced as the new coach at Kansas — high white KU cap and all — won 77 percent of his games over 11-plus seasons in Baton Rouge and was handed a golden parachute as he was ushered out the door. And Orgeron, who improved to 6-2 with a 2016 Citrus Bowl win over Louisville and then went a respectable 9-4 last season, with another Citrus Bowl appearance, was assumed to be sitting on one of, if not the hottest seat in college football coaching going into this season.
Now he has LSU at 9-2, ranked No. 7 in last week’s College Football Playoff rankings (new rankings are released Tuesday) as they play Saturday at Texas A&M. If he can direct the Tigers to victory again, LSU will be in the Sugar Bowl or another New Year’s Six game like the Peach or Fiesta. That would be a sign of real progress for his program.
But on the other sideline, Fisher will be there. Once LSU’s offensive coordinator under Nick Saban and Miles, he is Texas A&M’s $75 million man with a guaranteed 10-year contract courtesy of A&M athletic director and LSU grad Scott Woodward. The man who is expected to turn Texas A&M’s glittering wealth into a national contender.
The ties are thick as crude oil between the Tigers and Aggies. They recruit the same fertile Gulf Coast ground, have alums and fans who work the same refineries, are closer geographically to each other than either is to any other Southeastern Conference rival.
But with Fisher there, the ties and subplots run even deeper. Orgeron got the LSU job knowing he would be held up to Saban’s nearly impossible standard at Alabama to his east. Now Fisher is a new scarecrow in another cornfield to his west. Coach O is bracketed by enormous expectations. He will be judged harshly as to his ability to measure up.
“It doesn't matter,” Orgeron said. “It doesn't matter. I got here, man, you know?
“It’s just the way it was. You’ve got to compete. I think things happen for a reason. I think they all happen for a reason. You’ve just got to keep on competing. I'm glad I'm here. I thank God for this job.”
For the record, Sarkisian is now offensive coordinator with the Atlanta Falcons, doomed at USC by alcoholism issues. Helton might be on his way out at USC. Herman is 15-9 (though improving) at Texas these past two seasons, while Orgeron is 18-6. Fisher is a combined 12-10 at FSU and A&M over the same span.
Orgeron might not have been the first one to get the date, but he’s the one who got the girl. Now it’s his task to keep her. All things considered, he’s probably happy to take that deal.