The lasting lessons that helped LSU’s Ed Orgeron become Louisiana’s favorite son

NEW ORLEANS — When LSU coach Ed Orgeron accepted Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year Award on Saturday — presented by the Football Writers Association of America — he was quick to point out the lasting lesson he learned from the Grambling coaching icon.

“You try to mold yourself to emulate guys like this,” Orgeron said while motioning to the Robinson bust at a presentation at the Sazerac House. “In order for you to have success, your players have to know that you love them. You have to treat them like your sons. That’s our No. 1 philosophy — the No. 1 philosophy at LSU.”

That explains how the native of Larose, La., has emerged as the state’s favorite son this season. He leads No. 1 LSU (14-0) into a matchup with No. 3 Clemson (14-0) in a battle of undefeated teams in the College Football Playoff championship game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Monday. It’s a big game, but for Orgeron it is more than that.

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He played at Northwestern State. He coaches at LSU. Eddie Robinson III, the grandson of the coach who won 408 games at Grambling from 1941-97, pointed out a long line of coaching and family ties among the three schools that exist at LSU today. That is Orgeron’s doing.

“From the top of the state to the bottom to the middle, his success at LSU speaks volumes,” Robinson III said. “He’s not only touching lives with his student-athletes; in a sense, he’s unifying the state.”

At College Football Playoff Championship Media Day, Orgeron was asked what winning a national championship for LSU would mean. He used the same word three times.

“Everything. Everything,” he said. “Everything that we’ve done up until now is good, but it’s not great. We want to be great. To finish the season strong with a win is our goal, and that’s going to be a tough task. But we didn’t look at it as, ‘Hey, man, we’ve got to go down there and win the national championship; it’s going to be bigger than ever.’ We’ve got to play well enough to beat Clemson, and that’s been our focus.”

Orgeron represents all things Louisiana. He’s a college football Popeye with an unmistakable voice that emanates a culture only those who live in the Bayou can truly understand. Take Orgeron’s assessment of his success with in-state recruiting:

“It’s not an official home visit, it’s a party,” he said. “There’s 30, 40 people there, there’s jambalaya, there’s gumbo, food, music and it’s just a festivity. That’s the great part about being in Louisiana.”

Orgeron isn’t the first LSU coach to enjoy high-level success. Nick Saban and Les Miles won national championships with the Tigers in 2003 and 2007, respectively, in the Bowl Championship Series era. But it was Saban who kept Miles from tacking on more in a one-sided rivalry between the Alabama and LSU, which spilled into the College Football Playoff era. The Crimson Tide won eight straight games against the Tigers starting with the 2012 BCS championship game in New Orleans.

Orgeron took over in 2016 as the interim coach with a 16-27 career record after a head coaching stint at Ole Miss and an interim stint at USC. What was perceived as a questionable hire turned out to be the perfect fit over time. After all, this is a sport where fit means everything, too.

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He set the tone for that after a 24-10 loss to Alabama on Nov. 4, 2017. Orgeron simply said, “We’re coming. We’re coming, and we aren’t backing down.”

It’s the message LSU players — such as All-American safety Grant Delpit, himself a New Orleans native — have absorbed and parroted.

“I tend to start repeating stuff he says,” Delpit said. “Just stuff that he always says during practice, the meetings, stuff like that. Block out the noise and stuff that he preaches. It’s definitely huge.”

That brevity is the soul of the GIFs Orgeron generates, even if he’s the first to admit he won’t be on social media. They are the mantras that helped LSU pile up six victories against top-10 teams this season — none bigger than the 46-41 shootout win over Alabama at Bryant-Denny Stadium on Nov. 9. That came with a viral postgame speech Orgeron needlessly had to address afterward.

For Orgeron, that was a “family moment at the dinner table.”

It wasn’t the moment that defined this season, however. Orgeron repeatedly pointed out one play — a 61-yard touchdown pass from Joe Burrow to Justin Jefferson — that clinched LSU’s 45-38 victory over Texas on Sept. 7. Offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger told Orgeron the Tigers were going to throw the ball on third-and-17. Orgeron said, “Have at it.”

“That third-and-17 against Texas was the defining play in my mind in our season,” Orgeron said. “It goes to show you that we have some big-time players, especially at the quarterback position and the receiver position, along with the protection that can make plays in tight quarters, in a tight spot in the game. … If they get the ball back, no telling what happens.”

Instead, everything happened.

Ensminger and Joe Brady crafted an offense that has averaged an FBS-best 48.9 points per game. Burrow won the Heisman Trophy and a host of other postseason awards, including Sporting News’ Player of the Year. “It seemed like we got every award in the country,” Orgeron said.

And while Clemson’s Dabo Swinney and Ohio State’s Ryan Day stumped for which of their undefeated teams should be No. 1 in the final Playoff rankings, Orgeron said simply, “We’ll be ready. Any place, anytime.”

That’s what championship teams do.

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LSU scored 100 points combined in blowouts of Georgia in the SEC championship game and Oklahoma in the Peach Bowl semifinal. Now, Orgeron is on the big stage with a no-frills philosophy that contrasts the always-quotable Swinney, who turned to the standard “Rocky IV” analogy complete with Clemson being Rocky and LSU being Ivan Drago.

Orgeron’s response?

“I couldn’t even tell you who those two guys are, to be honest with you, but I just know this: that it’s going to be an emotional night when we do run out of the tunnel. I believe it’s going to be a home-field advantage, but we have to take care of it. We have to use it to our advantage, and as you know, those fans are going to be fired up.”

So will Northwestern State fans. And Grambling fans. That is what Orgeron has accomplished. Robinson III assured that his grandfather is “up in heaven smiling down.”

“It comes full circle Monday,” Robinson III said. “Coach O and this LSU Tiger program; it’s the best. I like them to bring home the win.”

That opportunity was made possible by Orgeron, who spent the weekend in his natural habitat. He will have a chance to join that exclusive club of active coaches with a national championship. That group consists of Saban, Swinney, Miles, Jimbo Fisher and Mack Brown. Saban and Swinney are the only ones at their current schools, but Orgeron is the only one who is coaching in his native state.

Before Orgeron held up Robinson’s bust, he shared a promise he made to his family:

“I promised my mama one thing,” he said. “I was going to go to college. I was the first in my family to get an education. It allowed me to do what I love to do, and that’s coaching.”

Football and family. In Louisiana, that’s all you need to know.

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