Is LSU Football Falling Back Into The Dark Ages As The T-P’s Ron Higgins Suggests?

If you didn’t see it yesterday, New Orleans Times-Picayune sports columnist Ron Higgins penned a quite interesting piece titled, “The Dark Ages of LSU football again on the horizon.” An excerpt…

News broke Monday LSU coach Ed Orgeron is naming a current staff member who hasn’t been a full-time offensive coordinator in 20 years as offensive coordinator and is hiring a 73-year old wide receivers coach.

After watching fellow SEC members Alabama and Georgia battle toe-to-toe in the national championship game Monday night using true freshmen quarterbacks and an army of elite running backs, it suddenly hit me.

The dark ages of LSU football, when game day partying in the parking lot numbed the pain of the proceeding three and a half hours, might again be upon us.

Four of the five SEC head coaches who have been hired since the end of the regular season – Arkansas’ Chad Morris, Florida’s Dan Mullen, Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher and Mississippi State’s Joe Moorhead – are known for their progressive offensive philosophies.

Then, review Orgeron’s questionable coaching hires since he was promoted from interim to head coach two days after the 2016 regular season finale.

It’s hard to shake a feeling of impending doom.

Higgins goes on to note that Ensminger’s track record against quality SEC defenses (namely, Alabama and Florida, against whom his 2016 interim LSU offense scored a total of 10 points) isn’t good, and that Orgeron’s statements indicate a lack of knowledge about what sort of offensive scheme he wants. Then he looks at the 2018 schedule, which features games against brutal opponents like Miami, Alabama, Auburn and Georgia – against whom Higgins doesn’t think wins are likely – and concludes that in the short term LSU fans can abandon their usual expectations of competing for a conference championship.

Is his gloom and doom over the top?

It just depends on your perspective, and obviously time will tell.

If you’re a glass-half-full type, you can look at the fact LSU played more than 20 freshmen in 2017, and managed to win nine games despite that youth. You can look at the Matt Canada experiment and the rocky relationship Canada had with Orgeron and note that as bad as things got in the first half of the season, punctuated by an ignominious home loss to Troy around which time Orgeron and his offensive coordinator got into a heated row which may or may not have gotten physical, in the second half LSU played about as well as any team in the country.

You can say that happened despite LSU’s depth on both side of the line of scrimmage was lacking, something Orgeron addressed in recruiting – and in 2018 both the offensive and defensive lines should be significant strengths. You can also say that with the transfer additions of kicker Cole Tracy, defensive end Breiden Fehoko and wide receiver Johnathan Giles, not to mention JC transfer offensive tackle Badara Traore, Orgeron has addressed a number of LSU’s needs as well as they could be addressed – and by doing that Orgeron will be able to field a more veteran team in the fall, on balance.

And you could say no coach can really be evaluated until he’s had a chance to put his program in place. With Orgeron’s expected staff additions – Ensminger as the offensive coordinator, Sullivan as the wide receivers coach, James Cregg as the new offensive line coach and Greg McMahon as the special teams coach, not to mention the possible addition of Daronte Jones as the safeties coach on defense at Aranda’s request, Orgeron is putting together a coaching staff that he’s comfortable with, four of whom carry NFL experience.

Until we see how all of that shakes out, nobody can judge with any certainty that the above signals an impending Dark Age.

But nobody can say the opposite, either. And that’s the problem.

After all, the process which produced Orgeron as the head coach was as bush-league as you’ll find – essentially, athletic director Joe Alleva conducted a “search” which consisted of a pair of half-assed semi-public negotiations with Jimbo Fisher and Tom Herman before rushing to a press conference to name Orgeron the coach, when there were a good dozen other potentially very good coaches available to interview. And it’s rare, though not impossible, for such a process to be rewarded with a productive hire.

And let’s not kid ourselves – Orgeron’s decision-making since taking the LSU job has been highly questionable. His doublespeak about what kind of offense he’d like to run very nearly cost him the commitments of Myles Brennan and Lowell Narcisse last year, and it appears he thought he’d have Lane Kiffin as his offensive coordinator and was blindsided when Kiffin took the head coaching job at Florida Atlantic (why that should have been a surprise is puzzling; Kiffin has always wanted to be a head coach). Orgeron was unprepared to lose Kiffin and essentially hired Canada sight unseen, and the workplace debacle that followed cost LSU $1.7 million in buyout money. That followed the firing of running backs coach Jabbar Juluke and wide receivers coach Dameyune Craig under strange circumstances; the rumor mill spat out that Craig had actually been funneling recruits to Alabama in hopes that he’d be rewarded with a job on Nick Saban’s staff, which is particularly puzzling because if that was true one wonders (1) why he would have been retained through National Signing Day and (2) why he wasn’t fired for cause in order to save $575,000 in buyout money paid to him. You’d conclude that rumor is false, but how would it have gotten out in the first place?

There seem to be lots of things which percolate in the rumor mill to Orgeron’s benefit, or the discredit of either his critics or opponents. Canada’s behavior was a constant source of some of that, the cheating of opposing schools in recruiting to explain players LSU lost is a common meme, and so on. That’s not to say the coach is the source of these self-serving stories, but then again Orgeron is the first LSU head football coach who has on staff someone who’s been described as a spin doctor.

Which is the context out of which this interesting tweet comes…

All coaches attempt to control media coverage of their program. This one seems to emphasize it more than most – which is in keeping with the political nature of his hiring.

The successful coaches at LSU historically don’t give a damn about the political aspects. They just win, and then the politics go away. Nick Saban was the best example of that.

We’re not even going to get into some of the on-field issues. The Troy loss was the most obvious of those, but what sticks in lots of minds was the inexplicable decision to kick a field goal from the two-inch line late in the fourth quarter of a tied Citrus Bowl game with Notre Dame; most people think you give Derrius Guice a chance to put the game away with a touchdown there, and if he doesn’t get in you’re turning the ball over to the Irish at their goal line. We’ve talked to more than a few LSU fans since New Year’s Day who saw that decision as a harbinger of bad things to come under the current regime.

Something else the pessimists might look at is a pattern which might indicate Orgeron’s turning the football program into an old-boy’s club. His hires, though many of them carry qualified resumes, definitely indicate a preference for coaches with whom he’s worked in the past. Cregg was with him on Lane Kiffin’s Tennessee and USC staffs. Running backs coach Tommie Robinson was with him at USC. Defensive line coach Dennis Johnson was his graduate assistant when Orgeron was the defensive line coach at LSU. Sullivan, whom Orgeron hasn’t worked with, is an old friend of Orgeron’s mentor Pete Jenkins from the time both served under Bill Arnsparger at LSU in the 1980’s. And so on.

Add to that the decision to hire former Mandeville High School head coach Guy LeCompte as an analyst for the football program this week. It’s not that LeCompte is manifestly unqualified, or that analysts and other “shadow staff” coaches constitute make-or-break positions on a college football coaching staff. It’s that LeCompte was the coach Orgeron’s sons played for in high school, and this past fall when LeCompte abruptly quit as Mandeville’s football coach less than a week before the season started and immediately sued the school over health effects of unremediated black mold at its field house, he was represented by an attorney named Corey Orgeron – who we’re told is a cousin or nephew of Ed’s. Again – there isn’t a smoking gun with respect to the hire, but it is a bit cozy, and the doom-and-gloom crowd is seeing that as evidence of a program not being run in a manner consistent with a commitment to excellence.

But time will tell. It would be foolish to dismiss recent events as potential warning signs for things about to take a bad turn, and it’s without question appropriate for LSU donors, fans and other supporters to seek accountability among the school’s higher-ups for the recurrent drama affecting not just football but all aspects of the university’s operations; that accountability is the only guarantee anyone has that problems will be addressed rather than allowed to fester.

But at the same time it’s not appropriate to shout “The End Is Near!” from rooftops just yet. Things might just work out fine, and if they do Orgeron might well be cooking up a pot of crow gumbo for Higgins and the rest of his detractors over the next year.

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