A Few Items On The LSU Football Coaching Search

A conversation Friday with a Hayride source connected with influential donors of the Tiger Athletic Foundation netted several bits of information potentially of interest to readers following the saga of LSU’s football coaching situation.

ORGERON

Saturday’s game at Arkansas is of sizable importance to interim head coach Ed Orgeron, whose prospects of retaining the job on a permanent basis can’t survive a loss in that game. Orgeron can’t survive a loss in any of the three remaining games at this point – especially with the news that both Luke Del Rio at Florida and Trevor Knight at Texas A&M will be out against LSU. With those two starting quarterbacks out it becomes a bit harder to generate a shiny, signature victory with which to balance out LSU’s loss to Alabama last week; Arkansas on the road, at 6-3 and with more or less a full complement of key players healthy, is the best available at this point.

But unlike what some have reported, Orgeron isn’t “coaching for his job” in the sense people might think. There is no number of wins now at which he controls his destiny, and there really never has been. That might have been different had Orgeron beaten Alabama, or if the offense had shown anything to indicate Orgeron would offer a drastically different result against the Tide that Les Miles had, but doing so would have forced an alteration of LSU’s process rather than continuing it.

That’s not to say Ed Orgeron won’t be the coach at LSU next year. If he wins out he still could be. It’s just that other things would have to fall through in order for him to secure the job.

FISHER

If there is someone “on the clock” for the LSU job at this point it’s Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher, who our sources tell us has never ceased to be the favorite of the informal committee advising LSU athletic director Joe Alleva as he runs the hiring process. We’re also told that the interest in Fisher is just as mutual now as it was last year, and that if you’re wagering on the hire he’s where the smart money would go.

The issues with Fisher are really twofold, because in virtually every other respect he’s more or less a perfect fit. He’s the offensive-minded coach LSU has always needed, and perhaps the best quarterback guru in football. He’s at home in Baton Rouge, having spent seven years from 2000-06 as the offensive coordinator for Nick Saban and Les Miles. He’s an outstanding recruiter and an articulate CEO who brings an exciting and marketable brand of football, not to mention he went into Friday night’s game with Boston College with a 74-17 record in his seventh year as Florida State’s head coach and, prior to this season, six straight 1st or 2nd place finishes in the ACC’s Atlantic Division, including the national championship in 2013. And he’s 50 years old, which is a perfect age to start a tenure as LSU’s head coach; that’s right around the age at which both Nick Saban and Miles came to LSU.

Fisher will be expensive, though LSU has the money to meet his number. His contract pays him something on the order of $5 million per year, but he has a large amount of money sitting in a balloon payment due several years down the road should he stay at Florida State which would make his effective future compensation something on the other of $7 million per year. To match that number, Alleva will have to raise his base salary to something like $6 million per year over a contract relatively equivalent to what he has left at Florida State, say for six years, and then add in performance or loyalty bonuses to match what he could make at Florida State. Again, LSU has the money to take on such a contract, but it would mean a monster deal dwarfed only by Saban’s arrangement at Alabama.

The other issue with Fisher involves his family situation. He has an ex-wife and a special needs child, and facilities in Baton Rouge for such children are not what they are in Tallahassee. Something would need to be worked out in advantageous fashion or else it could be a sticking point in getting Fisher to LSU.

Our source says the powers that be are confident they can overcome those obstacles and Fisher is the likely hire.

HERMAN

If something were to fall through on hiring Fisher, the other name which has been connected to the LSU job is Houston’s Tom Herman. Herman’s stock has faded a bit over the course of this year though he’s still sporting a decent record at 7-2. Herman has two chances at impressive victories with games against Louisville and Memphis remaining; were he to win out and finish at 10-2, he’d go far to restore his status as the hottest young head coach in college football.

But Herman would in all likelihood be off the board before LSU could get to him depending on what happens at Texas. The word is that school’s administration wants to hold on to its current coach Charlie Strong for another year despite his 4-5 record. Strong has a huge game with West Virginia coming in this weekend; if he doesn’t win that game he’d have to win out to get to 6-6 and bowl eligibility, and a losing season will likely give the boosters who want to make a change the upper hand. If Strong goes, Herman is likely the hire in Austin; LSU won’t get in a bidding war with Texas, college football’s richest program, for his services.

HOLGORSEN

If Fisher falls through, Herman isn’t available and Orgeron hasn’t put himself in a position to satisfy as a fallback candidate by not winning out, then LSU is in deep trouble in looking for a coach, right?

Not necessarily. There is a “B-list” among the coaching candidates, and West Virginia’s Dana Holgorsen may be gaining steam as he ascends to the top of it. Holgorsen’s game at Texas this week could be significant to the LSU coaching search in multiple ways, because if his 7-1 club continues its winning ways in Austin a 10-2 or 11-1 season and a potential Big XII title is a real possibility. WVU has a home game with Oklahoma, a road game at 1-7 Iowa State and a home game with Baylor left on the schedule; all four are winnable. He’d be a marketable hire for LSU coming off a season like that and, say, Big XII coach of the year honors.

Holgorsen’s overall record at West Virginia could be the source of argument, but a case can be made that he’s done a remarkable job there. Holgorsen’s first year in Morgantown ┬áin 2011 resulted in a 10-3 record and an eye-popping 70-33 blowout of Clemson in the Orange Bowl; that was the year LSU took a road trip to West Virginia and had one of its tougher games of that SEC Championship season. Following 2011, though, Holgorsen’s team left the Big East, where they’d shared the championship, to the Big XII. Though his 2012 team featured a senior quarterback in Geno Smith, who would end up a 2nd round draft pick of the Jets following a prolific career, the talent level at WVU that Holgorsen inherited from predecessor Bill Stewart simply wasn’t strong enough to compete in the new league at the level of the old. West Virginia was 7-6 in 2012, including a loss in the Pinstripe Bowl, then 4-8 in 2013. Following those two difficult seasons of adjustment to the tougher competition, it’s become apparent he’s been building a winner. Holgorsen was 7-6 in 2014, losing in the Liberty Bowl, and 8-5 last year with a win in a shootout over Arizona State in the Cactus Bowl last year. Overall, heading into the Texas game he’s 43-29 at West Virginia. By comparison, Stewart was 28-12 as a member of the Big East and Stewart’s predecessor Rich Rodriguez was 60-26, also in the Big East.

Beyond Holgorsen’s successful adjustment to a more difficult conference than his program was prepared for, his X’s and O’s make him intriguing. His status as an offensive guru to match any in the country is fairly well known; between his time at West Virginia and stops as an assistant under Mike Leach at Texas Tech, Kevin Sumlin at Houston and Mike Gundy at Oklahoma State he had a hand in producing no less than four NFL quarterbacks – Smith, Brandon Weeden at Oklahoma State, Case Keenum at Houston and Graham Harrell at Texas Tech. He’s known as a master of the Hal Mumme/Mike Leach spread passing offense, and everywhere he’s gone he’s produced offenses ringing up video game-type numbers.

But interestingly enough, Holgorsen in the past two years has not put a pass-happy offense on the field. WVU successfully throws the football, mind you – this year they’re averaging 287.1 yards per game passing, good enough for 26th in the nation (LSU is 110th), and last year they were 42nd in the country at 251.5 yards per game. But in both years West Virginia has run the ball for more than 220 yards per game and in both years they’ve run the ball more than they threw it; in 2015 they averaged 48 rushes per game and 31 pass attempts, and this year the ratio is 43-34.

Watching Holgorsen’s teams play, their offense is not dissimilar to what Gus Malzahn’s teams do at Auburn. Holgorsen operates mostly out of a shotgun or a pistol formation, utilizing an offset fullback or H-back with three wide receivers in their base formation. He brings a receiver in motion and shows a lot of jet sweep action, and also runs a good deal of zone-read plays and other misdirection.

It’s a spread passing offense, but it utilizes some spread-option concepts. And Holgorsen is getting 500 yards and 35 points a game out of his offense despite playing a 5-11 quarterback in Skyler Howard, a plucky junior-college transfer who originally signed with Stephen F. Austin. Howard is competent, if a little limited; Holgorsen has him running a consistently productive offense anyway.

ARANDA

Another interesting item where Holgorsen is involved is that while it’s been endlessly reported Herman roomed with LSU’s “must-keep” defensive coordinator Dave Aranda for a semester in college at Cal Lutheran, Holgorsen is the only one of the coaches under heavy consideration who has actually worked with Aranda. The two spent three years, 2000-02, on Mike Leach’s staff at Texas Tech; Aranda was a graduate assistant at the time, while Holgorsen was the wide receivers coach. Concerns about Holgorsen as a Big XII coach whose teams can’t stop anybody (this year they’re actually not so bad; they’re well in the lead in scoring defense and second in total defense in the conference) would likely be alleviated if Aranda stuck around.

But let’s not kid ourselves – Dave Aranda will be a head coach, and soon. There is talk he’ll interview for the Purdue job this winter, though he might not quite be ready to land a Power 5 conference job just yet.

The talk around LSU is that while it’s generally considered bad etiquette to force an assistant on a new head coach, whoever LSU hires is going to keep Aranda as the defensive coordinator if at all possible. He’d be crazy not to. Aranda is the best young defensive coordinator in college football and everybody knows it – and other than Orgeron, LSU is talking exclusively to coaches with offensive backgrounds for whom a great defensive coordinator is a must. What’s a more interesting with respect to Aranda is what it’s going to take to keep him around for 2-3 more years, and he’s in for a sizable raise. Maybe as high as $2 million a year, because at that number it’s thought LSU can scare away some mid-major programs hoping to hire him as a head coach.

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