A couple of conversations with people “in the know” since yesterday’s post on the LSU football coaching search have presented an interesting question.
Before we ask it, though, let’s set this up.
At this point it’s beginning to look like LSU will have more or less a binary choice for its next football coach: either a big-money hire of Jimbo Fisher to steal him away from Florida State, or elevating interim coach Ed Orgeron to the permanent head coaching position.
Which is strangely similar to the situation the school found itself in a year ago, when there was more or less a binary choice between making a big-money hire of Fisher or holding on to Les Miles.
Obviously, LSU chose the latter and it didn’t work out. And clearly Orgeron, since taking over the job, has the team playing considerably better than it did when Miles was the coach – though outside of the Alabama game it ought to be pointed out the opposition LSU has faced since the coaching change simply isn’t as good as it was before the change; Wisconsin is on pace to win their division and play in the Big 10 championship game, Auburn is ranked No. 15 in the college playoff standings, Jacksonville State is 9-1 and ranked No. 2 in the FCS standings and Mississippi State, who is struggling greatly this year, did upset Texas A&M two weeks ago.
As we said yesterday Orgeron’s opportunity to really nail down the LSU job isn’t as strong as expected, since Ole Miss is merely a .500 team, Arkansas was blown out 56-3 just two weeks before LSU took them down last Saturday, Florida is missing seven starters, including the quarterback and A&M is also missing a quarterback and just lost to both Mississippi teams in the last two weeks. And looking back on his first two games, Missouri is atrocious and Southern Miss is a mediocre 5-5 in the unimpressive Conference USA this year. Orgeron has looked good, but his team is a great deal better talent-wise than every opponent Orgeron has played or will play other than Alabama. Blowing out those opponents is something LSU is supposed to do.
So we won’t know whether Orgeron is really capable of being top-flight competition until he’s hired full-time at LSU. That’s not a shot at his fitness for the job; it’s just an observation that we have very little evidence to go on that he can perform in a fashion considerably better than he did when he was 10-25 as Ole Miss’ head coach from 2005-07.
Clearly Orgeron won’t be 10-25 at LSU. How much better would he be? 20-15? 25-10? 30-5? Alleva’s charge is to find a 30-5 coach. Fisher, at his best, could be 30-5. Is Orgeron?
And who else is available?
The Times-Picayune piece yesterday by Jimmy Smith which said Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy and North Carolina’s Larry Fedora have also been contacted for the job perked up the antennae of one of our sources, who noted that Gundy and Fedora are down the list of potential hires – and wondered if those names were mentioned, rather than Houston’s Tom Herman, West Virginia’s Dana Holgorsen or a few others who would be more marketable, in order to get fan support for the binary choice.
A quality coaching search wouldn’t be down to two names at this point, the source opined. Something’s going on here.
Part of it is Orgeron has done everything possible, short of beating Alabama, to get the job. He made the media happy by opening practices and truthfully answering questions, things Miles was notorious for not doing. He romanced the former players by inviting them to come to practice and make the Tiger Walk with the team. And he’s calling the money people one by one and lining them up as potential supporters.
It turns out Orgeron is a very good politician. As a Louisianan he’s got it in his blood, and he’s among the home folks. And though the competition has been turning to mush before he can get to them, his product on the field looks marketable on a resume so far. If he wins out and ends up playing in the Sugar Bowl, which at this point could even be considered likely, he becomes especially marketable.
Orgeron’s fan support is also clearly growing, and he’s got a good down-home personal comeback story to tell.
But if Alleva wants to make a big-splash hire, you’d think he would at least have a Herman lined up between Fisher and Orgeron, and at this point it appears LSU has conceded Herman to Texas when it’s not a sure thing the Texas job will even be open.
And our source said part of this is nobody really trusts Joe Alleva to make this hire. Fisher, if he can be had, is a home run hire from a resume standpoint and he’s connected to LSU from the seven years he spent as the offensive coordinator for Nick Saban and Miles. Orgeron would continue, hopefully, the positives of the current staff and perhaps bring someone in to improve and modernize LSU’s offense. Beyond those two, you’re trusting Alleva to identify the next great head coach, form a relationship with him, make the right offer and close the sale.
Our source says nobody thinks Alleva can do that, and they’re terrified of letting him try. Which is why Orgeron’s calls to the money people are getting a good reception. He might be the fallback hire if Fisher doesn’t take the job, and nobody seems to really know whether Fisher actually will take it – there is reason to believe he will, but it’s not a done deal at this point we’re told – but right now Orgeron is as far back as these people are willing to fall.
We’re told if it does end up being Ed Orgeron’s job, the changes to the program from where it is today won’t be overly pronounced. We’re told that Orgeron would come in at somewhere between $3 million and $3.5 million per year in salary, and the savings in his salary from the $4.3 million Miles was paid would get plowed largely into the coordinators.
Dave Aranda is about to be made a rich man as the defensive coordinator, with a raise above $2 million per year, and Orgeron would make a move immediately upon getting the job to reel in Steve Sarkisian, with whom he worked as an assistant at USC for Pete Carroll, as the offensive coordinator with a salary similar to the $1.5 million Cam Cameron was making before the coaching change in September at LSU. Sarkisian is on Alabama’s staff as a consultant with the understanding that he would move up to offensive coordinator when Lane Kiffin gets a head coaching job, but Orgeron can offer him similar money to Kiffin’s current salary with no further wait and in fact he could coach the bowl game. Current offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger would return to coach tight ends next year.
Otherwise the staff wouldn’t change a whole lot. Two coaches likely headed elsewhere would be special teams coach Bradley Dale Peveto and offensive line coach Jeff Grimes; Orgeron has a good relationship with Art Kehoe, who he worked with when Kehoe was on Orgeron’s staff at Ole Miss, and that’s his likely replacement for Grimes. Kehoe’s career has mostly been spent at Miami; he was there for 31 years of the 36 years he’s been a coach and put multiple players from the Hurricanes offensive line into the NFL. He was let go when Mark Richt got the job there last year.
It also wouldn’t be a surprise if Orgeron were to hire Chris Kiffin, the brother of Lane, away from Ole Miss to replace Peveto. Kiffin, who was an administrative assistant for the USC defense when Orgeron was the defensive line coach in 2010, currently coaches the defensive line for the Rebels; he’s done a pretty good job developing players like Robert Nkemdiche and Marquis Haynes there, and he’s known as a fantastic recruiter. Whether he’d come to LSU to coach the defensive line, given that it would be expected for Pete Jenkins to remain at LSU in that capacity, or something like the outside linebackers and special teams, would be a bit up in the air. Kiffin hasn’t coached special teams before. In July, though, the NCAA is expected to allow college teams a 10th assistant on the staff, which would open up the possibility for Orgeron to hire a full-blown special teams coach. Orgeron is a long-time friend of Bobby April, a Chalmette native who has coached special teams for eight different NFL teams including the Saints, and April came in as a consultant to work with LSU’s special teams earlier this year. It wouldn’t be a shock if April joined the LSU staff, or at least recommended someone who did.
With all of those pieces potentially coming together Orgeron can present LSU with a perfectly acceptable picture, one which might be competitive with what other coaches who could be brought in would offer. But one reason he could have a good opportunity to do it is the current athletic director isn’t trusted with an outside hire by many of the more influential boosters.
Exit question: while it could all work out fairly well for the football hire, how is that lack of confidence going to play if Johnny Jones’ basketball team finishes 12th in the SEC as they’re predicted to? Will the people worried about Alleva hiring a football coach allow him a third crack at hiring a men’s basketball coach?