A Cajun, a dream and the SEC's most bizarre rivalry

No. 12 LSU vs. No. 7 Auburn could be make or break (2:03)

SEC Now's Jordan Rodgers and D.J. Shockley highlight the importance of the marquee matchup on The Plains this week. (2:03)

BATON ROUGE, La. -- On Saturday night, Nov. 20, 1971, Baton Rouge was cool, sticky and whitened by wisps of fog. Throughout the nation, television sets came alive with color (!) imagery of the evening broadcast from LSU's Tiger Stadium via the bulky cameras of ABC Sports. Even bulkier was the offensive line of Notre Dame, the No. 7 team in the nation, pushing the 14th-ranked LSU Tigers to the brink of their own goal line, the Irish seemingly set to push their way into the end zone for a game-tying score.

One of those flickering TV sets was in a living room in Larose, a town that hangs onto the lower edges of Louisiana, where the map becomes more blue than green and the next town to the south is named Cut Off.

That's where a 10-year-old bayou kid named Edward Jim Orgeron Jr., son of Bé Bé and Co Co, stood in a den, hollering like only a true Cajun can.

"I remember Ronnie Estay, who was from my hometown, made 13 tackles, and three of those tackles won the goal line," Orgeron said this week, recalling Estay's stuffing of Notre Dame fullback Andy Huff on fourth down at the 4-inch line, growling and grinning all at once. "I just remember the whole town watching that game. I wanted to be a part of that. That was such a special night. And to think that a boy from the rurals could dominate that football game, dominate Notre Dame on national television ... from then on, I wanted to be a part of LSU football."

Nearly four decades later, Ed Jr. is Coach O, not only a part of LSU football, but the leader of LSU football. By way of the map, it's exactly 100 miles from the center of Larose to the football offices that overlook Death Valley. The trip takes about two hours. It took Orgeron 53 years. From Northwestern State to McNeese State to Miami, Nicholls State, Syracuse, USC, Ole Miss, the New Orleans Saints, Tennessee, back to USC again and, finally, to Baton Rouge, one of the few places no one's first instinct is to ask him about his accent, because they sound just like him.

Especially when they're talking ball.

"The people of Louisiana, especially the people of rural Louisiana, they love that they can relate," Orgeron said. "They know I can relate to them. But they got no problem letting me know what's up. They say to me, 'Coach, we're happy with the job you're doing. We love. But you better make sure you beat Bama.'"

He laughed. Then he didn't.

"We share the same accent," he said, "but we also share the same expectations. Win our championship. They expect me to bring that championship to Louisiana."

His is the dream job, located in a conference suddenly packed with more fulfilled wishes than an episode of "The Price Is Right." Barry Odom, a former Missouri star linebacker, now leads his alma mater. Kirby Smart, Georgia's all-time interceptions leader, is now top Dawg. Ole Miss legacy Matt Luke is in charge of the Rebels. It is not a short list.

But no one has taken a longer route to fulfilling his childhood football fantasy than Orgeron. His playing career actually started at LSU in 1979 but ended after one season when he transferred to Northwestern State. Less than eight years later, he was coaching the most legendary unit of one of college football's most timeless -- and notorious -- teams, the 1988-92 Miami Hurricanes defensive line. He was the kid on a defensive staff that included future NFL head coaches Dave Wannstedt, Butch Davis and Dave Campo. He started as one of two graduate assistants. The other was fellow future SEC head coach Tommy Tuberville. Their players included, among many others, Cortez Kennedy, Warren Sapp and Russell Maryland.

But he blew it, undone by legal trouble involving a restraining order filed by a Miami woman and a bar fight back in Baton Rouge. He left the program and retreated back to Larose to live with Bé Bé and Co Co. Eventually he split with wife Colleen.

He was 31 and feared his career was over.

Hat in hand, he returned after year in exile to coach at Nicholls State and then Syracuse, where he credits then-head coach Paul Pasqualoni with resuscitating his career and "hireability." When the then-Orangemen squandered a chance to earn a 1996 Orange Bowl berth (via a loss to his old friends at Miami) and had to settle for a trip to the Liberty Bowl, Orgeron ended up meeting his future wife, Kelly, in Memphis on a blind date during the trip. They eloped two months later. She had a 3-year-old son at the time and soon they had twins of their own. In the middle of it all, he earned a pair of national title rings under Pete Carroll at USC.

"I changed a lot," Orgeron said. "I had to. I was a man now."

He was also a head coach, hired in 2005 to take over at Ole Miss.

But he blew that, too, undone by an inability to let people do their jobs.

"Man, I was all up in the middle of everything, what everyone was doing all the time," he remembered. "I tried to run the offense, defense, special teams, recruiting ... all of it. You just can't do it. No way. I know. I tried."

After a 10-25 record over three seasons, he took jobs with the Saints and Tennessee Volunteers before eventually finding his way back to USC to work for an old friend, Lane Kiffin. When Kiffin was dismissed before the end of their fourth season, Orgeron found himself standing on the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum sideline as interim head coach to close out 2013.

"At Miami, I learned how to coach, but didn't know how to act as a man," Orgeron said. "At Ole Miss, I learned how not to be a head coach, but I also figured out that along the way I'd figured out how to be a better man. At USC, even though they didn't keep me on as head coach, over eight games I saw, 'Hey, I think I can do this job now.' In the beginning, I was just trying to hold everything together. And then all of the sudden we beat Oregon State, we won five in a row, and I said, 'Wait a minute here. I think I can do this. I think I'm ready.'"

Orgeron would have to wait another season and a half to confirm those beliefs. He left USC with a 6-2 record, including a stunning upset over Stanford, and was finally given the chance to wear purple and gold, as LSU's defensive line coach under Les Miles. But no sooner than he'd walked into the doors of Death Valley had he realized that Miles was making familiar mistakes. The Mad Hatter, rightfully feeling like he was in a daily fight to keep his job, was micromanaging every facet of the Tigers. In an effort to gain a tighter grip on his beloved program, he was choking it to death.

The breaking point came in the fourth game of the 2016 season, perhaps the most bizarre moment of the SEC's most bizarre rivalry.

Georgia vs. Auburn is The Deep South's Oldest Rivalry. Florida vs. Georgia is The World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party (at least to some it still is). Tennessee vs. Alabama is The Third Saturday in October. The Egg Bowl, The Iron Bowl ... SEC rivalry games have more nicknames than a fraternity house.

But LSU vs. Auburn is just weird.

The two have played games that triggered two natural disasters. The Death Valley crowd was so loud in '88 it registered as an earthquake in nearby geology labs. In '96 the game played on while Auburn's old gymnasium burned down in a raging inferno that sent flames sailing into the skies above Jordan-Hare Stadium. The gym was known as "The Barn," so the game, naturally, is known as "The Barnburner." This is a series that has produced five interceptions in one fourth quarter and five missed field goals in one game. However, none of that matches what happened on Sept. 24, 2016.

"The history of this series, when you really go back and study it, particularly over the last 20 years, it's like something out of the 'Twilight Zone,'" Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn explained. "I've been on both sides of it, good and bad. But I guess if you're involved in that game more than once, that's how it's going to be, good and bad. In 2016, it was both at once."

Auburn's home crowd entered the game screaming for Malzahn's head after a 1-2 start. Miles could relate, sitting 2-1, but having fallen from a preseason ranking of fifth all the way to 20th. When LSU threw a dramatic TD pass as time expired to win 19-18, those angry demands only grew louder. Then the officials ruled that the Tigers hadn't gotten the snap off before time expired. The touchdown was called back. Malzahn was called back off the plank. Miles replaced him.

The flight from Auburn back to Baton Rouge only takes an hour. On this night, it felt transcontinental.

"It was long, man," Orgeron recalled. "Coach Miles had been so good to everyone on that plane. He had taken me after I'd left USC and was angry about leaving USC, and then he had made my childhood dream come true, to be a part of LSU football. We all had an idea of what might happen when we got back home. No one felt good about it."

The following day, Miles was out. His replacement -- on an interim basis -- was Ed Orgeron.

"That interim thing, it didn't work out at USC and I wasn't happy about it. But now I know why. Because that allowed me to come to LSU," Orgeron said. "At USC I always felt like the interim. At LSU, I was the head coach and I was going to be the head coach. There is a difference there. So I treated every day the same that I would as the head football coach and no different. There was no hesitation. None."

The players, long wary of the Miles vs. the administration soap opera, ate Coach O up like a bowl of jambalaya.

"One thing I learned at USC was my approach to my players," he said. "I found strength in treating these boys like they were my sons. That was different. I wasn't drill sergeant all the time. That worked out for me at USC, second time 'round. So I promised myself to do the same at LSU."

The fans embraced him, too. They saw themselves in the new coach. One of their own was leading the Tigers out of the tunnel and into Death Valley. The applause from his people built over the course of his four games as interim, all played at home. The most thunderous response came after the only loss among those four games, a tank duel of a 10-0 loss to top-ranked Alabama, after which the 102,321 in attendance gave Coach O a standing O as he left the field.

"I will never forget that noise," said former LSU running back Leonard Fournette, who one game earlier set a school record with 284 yards against Ole Miss but struggled against the Tide. "We lost, but the crowd knew how hard we'd worked and how close we'd come. They loved Coach O for that."

"I loved that, but I also hated it," Orgeron recalled. "I appreciated the support. But we also lost."

That was on Nov. 5. At month's end, riding the wave of good vibes, the interim was taken from Orgeron's title. The kid from Larose was now the officially the man in charge. The team finished 8-4 (5-3 SEC) under Coach O, and as happy as many were for the local boy done good, the hiring didn't come without questions.

Concerns grew louder in 2017 after a 9-4 record that included a loss at home to Troy. He was denied a full-circle moment in the season's final game when Notre Dame, the team he'd watched lose to the '71 Tigers, defeated his edition of the team in the closing minutes of the Citrus Bowl.

The brightest spot in the 2017 season? The Auburn game, naturally, as LSU erased a 20-0 deficit to upset the 10th-ranked "other Tigers."

This season began with a new offensive coordinator (and Orgeron's former LSU teammate), Steve Ensminger, and a renewed pledge to step back and let that coordinator do his job, especially as he integrates Ohio State transfer quarterback Joe Burrow. So far so good. Though one shouldn't mistake stepping back for uninvolved.

"I'm doing the best I can," Orgeron confessed with a smile. "Every Sunday we watch the film and I make suggestions. That's my job. I have all the answers, just like everybody does, right? I watch all the tape. I watch everybody's practice tape. I watch everybody's individual tape, all the offense, all the special teams. If something's broke, I demand we fix it. I don't tell the offense what to run, but if it's broke I want to fix it."

After two games, there is certainly fixing to do, but after two wins, LSU doesn't seem to need as much repair as most would have predicted at this point, especially after manhandling Miami in the season opener. But the real measurement of the 2018 Tigers, and ultimately the future of Orgeron's continuing dream come true, begins this weekend. It is, of course, a trip to Auburn. The attitude toward this latest edition of the SEC's most eccentric rivalry doesn't feel as desperate as it has in recent years. But it certainly feels urgent.

There are four men standing in the parking lot of Mike Anderson's Seafood in Baton Rouge. They are taking ball. Specifically, their ball coach.

"The way people 'round here are gonna look at Coach O is, 'OK, how'd he do against those two teams over in Alabama? Plain 'n' simple."

They've just had lunch, during which they watched Orgeron's pre-Auburn Monday morning news conference, televised from the stadium that sits only 2 miles away. They sound like Coach O and they are all as tan as Coach O. One of them is even named Ed. The others are Jimmy, Bobby and Bobby.

Bobby No. 1 makes his point. Bobby No. 2 follows up.

"There ain't nobody 'round here that ain't rooting for Coach O. Nobody," Bobby No. 2 says. "Issa great story, right? He's one of us. He's more Cajun than that gumbo I ate in there just now. But if he don't figure outta way to beat Auburn on Saturday or Alabama in November, people ain't gonna give a damn where he's from."

Bobby No. 2 looks at Bobby No. 1: "Where was Les Miles from?"

"I dunno."

Bobby No. 2 looks at Jimmy: "Where was Nick Saban from?"

"I dunno."

All four men nod. Bobby No. 2 spits some tobacco juice onto the steaming asphalt. "See?" he says. "Being hometown only gets you so far. We'll always love Ed Orgeron because he's from Louisiana. But we're gonna love him a helluva lot more if he wins on Saturday."