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Inside the unraveling of Ed Orgeron’s LSU tenure in just 21 months

Written by on October 18, 2021

BATON ROUGE, La. — Some of the waitstaff at TJ Ribs wore shirts with “It’s O time” across the front, but there was no escaping the feeling Wednesday night that Ed Orgeron’s time at LSU was coming to an end. When the embattled head coach walked in for his weekly radio show a few minutes before 7 p.m., he passed a grim reaper among the Halloween decorations in the lobby and received little more than a golf clap.

For the next hour, he spoke about fighting through the losses, through myriad injuries, through all the bad breaks that keep piling up.

“Our fans are tired of hearing this,” he said, “but we’ve had great practices.”

A middle-aged woman standing near the bar shook her head.

“Wait till next year,” she whispered to a friend. Then she paused and lowered her voice: “But there’s probably going to be a new coach.”

Orgeron didn’t let on, but the conversations about him stepping down were already underway. After an embarrassing 21-point loss to Kentucky on Oct. 9 dropped LSU to 3-3, he met with director of athletics Scott Woodward. Both of the Louisiana natives agreed that it was time for a change and by Sunday, it was official.

Twenty-one months after going undefeated, winning a national championship and putting together perhaps the greatest single season in college football history, LSU announced that it had reached an agreement to part ways with Orgeron at the end of this season.

The high-flying offense of quarterback Joe Burrow and coordinator Joe Brady was long gone. A once close-knit locker room had been broken by a head coach who had lost his way — from making bad coordinator hires, fumbling social justice issues, allegedly mishandling legal allegations against his players, and making public outbursts that left administrators questioning whether he was the right man to lead the program.

Here’s how things unraveled so quickly for Orgeron, from a championship high in 2019 to the athletic department agreeing to pay him nearly $17 million just to depart.

DURING LSU’S CHAMPIONSHIP run in 2019, Orgeron spoke to ESPN about the new identity he’d forged, having gone from the interim coach few people believed was qualified for the job to the leader of one of the most accomplished teams in the history of college football who would soon be rewarded with a lucrative six-year contract extension.

Gone was the control freak who once struggled to delegate and the screamer who would often chug cans of energy drinks and work his staff to the bone. That guy, he said, “broke people” and “broke the team.”

It took getting fired at Ole Miss in 2007 and not getting the job at USC in 2013, but Orgeron said he’d learned the hard way to loosen his grip.

It was a process, he explained, in which “I had to learn to be a head coach.”

Three years into his time at LSU, Orgeron said he finally had the staff to win. He had convinced Dave Aranda, a widely respected defensive coordinator who was originally hired by Les Miles, to stay on. And he’d found a diamond in the rough in New Orleans Saints assistant Joe Brady to come on as passing game coordinator, finally installing the kind of new-age, up-tempo, spread offense Orgeron said he wanted all along.

“It took some work,” Orgeron said at the time. “I had to get lucky. We got Joe Burrow. We got Joe Brady. There’s a lot of things that fell into place.”

But as quickly as everything came together and Orgeron hoisted a championship trophy, it all began to unravel behind the scenes.

Less than two years later, the zen-like CEO with a Midas touch was nowhere to be found.

When Orgeron lost his wunderkind coordinator, Brady, to the NFL’s Carolina Panthers, he inexplicably replaced him with a veteran pro-style coordinator in Scott Linehan. When he lost his methodical leader of the defense, Aranda, to Baylor, he wound up hiring the notoriously mercurial Bo Pelini without ever actually conducting an interview. The Tigers allowed 492 yards per game — fourth worst in the FBS — and Pelini would be fired after just one season, pocketing a $4 million buyout for his troubles.

When Burrow and 13 other players left for the NFL draft, it created a leadership vacuum on the team, which was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and nationwide protests against police violence. Orgeron, sources said, was ill-equipped to step into that void and lead — unable to handle difficult conversations and unskilled in the diplomacy needed to pull together a locker room with a wide range of backgrounds and experiences.

In late August 2020, for instance, Orgeron wasn’t even aware his players were planning to march through LSU’s campus as part of nationwide protests for social justice. Orgeron and Woodward later met the players at the president’s office. Orgeron said he had been preparing for a practice that his players never showed up for. “I didn’t even know they were doing it,” he said at the time.

“It’s easy to be even-keel and calm when you’re 15-0,” a source close to the program said. But when the chips were down and Orgeron had to do more than just coach the X’s and O’s, “You had horrible leadership across the board.”

Players like star receiver Ja’Marr Chase opted out, and others transferred. LSU lost the 2020 season opener to Mississippi State, and needed back-to-back wins at the end of the season just to finish at .500. Arik Gilbert, a freshman All-American-caliber tight end, left the team because of personal issues, along with another talented freshman, quarterback TJ Finley.

Sources said Orgeron never stopped the bleeding in 2020, which carried over into this season.

That was evident in the Tigers’ opener at UCLA on Sept. 4, when Orgeron confronted a heckling Bruins fan while walking into the Rose Bowl. He was caught on camera telling the man, “Bring your ass on in your little sissy blue shirt.” It was probably nothing more than a quip, but the fact the face of the LSU program was making a crass comment to a fan alarmed Woodward and new university president William Tate IV, who had arrived from South Carolina this past summer.

The Bruins manhandled the Tigers in a 38-27 victory, piling up 470 yards of offense, including 210 rushing, while limiting LSU to just 48 yards on the ground.

As the Tigers’ on-field struggles continued this season, Orgeron became prone to tantrums, throwing chairs and cursing out players. He lost the respect of the team, sources said.

“There are guys that will run through a wall for their coach,” one source said. “They wouldn’t run to the bathroom for him.”

The national championship happened, but looking back it’s easy to see it for what it was.

The source described it succinctly: “He caught lightning in a bottle.”

EVEN AS LSU was celebrating its national title following a 42-25 victory against Clemson in the Big Easy on Jan. 13, 2020, the off-field problems for Orgeron’s team were becoming difficult to ignore.

Video captured former LSU star receiver Odell Beckham Jr., at the time an NFL player, handing out cash to Tigers players on the field after the game, prompting an investigation by the NCAA, which already was looking into improper benefits in both the football and men’s basketball programs.

In December, with the Tigers floundering with a 3-5 record during the coronavirus-delayed 2020 season, the administration announced a one-year bowl ban. That was on top of self-imposed sanctions that included the loss of eight scholarships over two years; reduced recruiting visits, evaluations and communication; and a two-year ban from LSU’s football facilities for Beckham Jr., now a star with the Cleveland Browns. The NCAA enforcement staff charged the Tigers with a Level II violation for Beckham’s actions.

Then on June 2, LSU abruptly fired offensive line coach James Cregg, whose unit won the Joe Moore Award as the country’s best during the championship season in 2019. Cregg sued the school in August, alleging it fired him for cause after he admitted to NCAA enforcement staff that he had visited a prospect and provided him with gear during a COVID-19 dead period. He sued the school for breach of contract arguing it prematurely terminated him before the NCAA had actually ruled whether he “committed a Level I or Level II violation, or repeated Level III and/or Level IV violations.”

More troubling, in the past eight months, Orgeron had twice been accused of improperly handling allegations of sexual misconduct by a player. Both allegations involved former star running back Derrius Guice. In March, a 74-year-old woman testified to a Louisiana Senate select committee that Guice approached her while she was working as a security guard at the New Orleans Superdome in December 2017. According to the woman, Guice told her, “I like having sex with older women like you” and “I want your body.”

The woman, Gloria Scott, told lawmakers that Orgeron called her offering to have Guice apologize and allegedly said, “Please forgive [Guice] because he’s a troubled child.”

Orgeron submitted a written statement to the committee, in lieu of testifying in person, and denied ever speaking to Scott directly about the matter. Scott said she told Orgeron that she wanted Guice suspended from playing in the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1, 2018. He was allowed to play.

In the letter to the committee, Orgeron wrote that whether he spoke to Scott directly “does not change the fact that what happened to Ms. Scott in 2017 is unequivocally wrong.”

“As a leader, and as a father, son, and grandson, I want to emphasize that it is heartbreaking Ms. Scott was subjected to such crude remarks by Mr. Guice, and she should be respected for her bravery and resolve to provide her statements to the Committee,” Orgeron wrote. “She, along with this Committee, has my word that I will continue to be vigilant in ensuring that the LSU football program maintains a culture of integrity and compliance.”

Then in June, Orgeron was added as a defendant in an amended Title IX lawsuit against LSU that accused him of failing to properly report an allegation of rape against Guice. In the fall of 2016, according to the complaint, Ashlyn Robertson told her new boyfriend, who had been recruited to play for LSU, that Guice had raped her.

According to the lawsuit, Robertson’s boyfriend disclosed the alleged rape to Orgeron, who purportedly responded by telling Robertson’s boyfriend not to be upset because “everybody’s girlfriend sleeps with other people.”

At the time, Orgeron issued a statement denying he said that and “credibly denied” being told about the incident, according to the law firm Husch Blackwell’s investigation into the university’s handling of sexual misconduct cases. The amended lawsuit states Orgeron never reported the rape to the Title IX office or any other office at LSU.

A USA Today investigation last November found that at least nine LSU football players had been reported to police for accusations of sexual misconduct and dating violence since Orgeron was promoted to interim coach in 2016. The report said the university had disciplined two of them, and former wide receiver Drake Davis was not kicked out of school until four months after he was convicted of physically abusing his former girlfriend, an LSU tennis player.

Asked to describe the current culture of the program, a source close to the program told ESPN on Sunday, “It’s broken.”

TY DAVIS-PRICE, the father of LSU running back Tyrion, sat at a corner of the bar and nursed a drink as the radio show got going. On the one hand, he was proud of his son rushing for a career-high 147 yards against Kentucky the previous Saturday. But the Tigers lost 42-21 and it was hard to feel good about much of anything with a record of 3-3.

During the commercial break, Davis-Price said he was trying to keep his son’s spirits up and keep him focused. Only that was getting more difficult.

On Monday, Orgeron announced that star receiver Kayshon Boutte, a lone bright spot on the team who was tied for the most touchdowns in the FBS, would miss the rest of the season with a leg injury. Then, on Wednesday morning, Orgeron said All-American cornerback Eli Ricks would have season-ending shoulder surgery.

Defensive back Derek Stingley Jr., defensive tackle Joseph Evans, linebacker Jared Small and defensive ends Andre Anthony and Ali Gaye were out with injuries, as well.

“It’s just one thing after another after another after another,” Davis-Price said.

Even with the rash of injuries, LSU was one of the most talented teams in the SEC, a longtime coach in the conference said. The problem, an LSU source said, was all the finger-pointing going on behind the scenes.

Orgeron tried to walk the tightrope of making sense of the team’s struggles without being seen as making excuses, but he wasn’t always successful. During his radio show on Wednesday, he wound up questioning offensive coordinator Jake Peetz on two separate occasions.

But Orgeron was the one who wanted younger and more pliable assistants, replacing Pelini with 42-year-old Daronte Jones, and Linehan with 38-year-old Peetz. Neither had experience as coordinators in college, and it showed. Peetz in particular struggled with the basic task of calling plays in a timely manner.

The criticism of Orgeron has been withering at times, even bleeding into the radio show where screeners do their best to filter out combative callers.

During one show earlier this season, Charlie from Lafayette called in with a wicked backhanded compliment, telling Orgeron, “For the first time since you walked out of the Superdome in January of 2020 you are actually above .500. So congratulations on that.”

Two weeks later, a caller who identified himself as J-Boy told Orgeron he had a little sister in the audience and asked that he please not make a pass at her. “Come on, man. Really?” Orgeron responded to the caller.

Host Chris Blair tried to change the topic, but Orgeron wasn’t finished.

“You know, down in the bayou, we’ve got a nice little fishing hole for people like that,” he said.

Tensions have been running high for a while.

During the most recent show, a woman identified as Fritzy called in with some advice. She had three points to make, laying them out one at a time, before leaving Orgeron with an emphatic message.

“Let’s get that W and make everyone shut the hell up!” she said.

Orgeron grinned.

Three days later, LSU beat Florida in a nail-biter 49-42. Afterward, Orgeron proudly spoke about his team’s fight. He said it was a reflection of their motto: “One day at a time. One game at a time.”

But with rumors swirling, he stopped short of calling the game a personal victory. He said nothing of shutting up the chorus of calls for his firing.

By that point, of course, it was already too late.

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