For L.S.U., Not Winning Enough Is the Biggest Scandal
It was less than two years ago, in the wee hours of the morning in New Orleans after the Louisiana State football team had capped a perfect …
It was less than two years ago, in the wee hours of the morning in New Orleans after the Louisiana State football team had capped a perfect season and the party had moved onto Bourbon Street, that Ed Orgeron walked alone with his wife, Kelly, across a Superdome field littered with confetti.
It made for a poignant scene: Orgeron, raised on the bayou, fired as coach by Mississippi and passed over by Southern California, returning to his roots for a most redemptive turn after his team vanquished Clemson to win a national championship that few saw coming.
It also turned out to be a mirage.
In a matter of weeks, Orgeron filed for divorce, which was the first jolt in a steady 20-month drumbeat of trouble — a raft of sexual assault charges against players, a rift with the team over the racial justice movement, disastrous coaching hires, unfortunate injuries and a stack of bad losses — that culminated Sunday with his firing, effective at the end of the season.
For his trouble, Orgeron will get $16.9 million to go away.
“I’m going to have enough money to buy me a hamburger,” Orgeron, 60, said Sunday night at an awkward news conference as he sat alongside Scott Woodward, the athletic director who fired him.
If there were forced smiles and eye-rolling proclamations that began with Woodward calling Orgeron a friend, there was also a kernel of truth: wins and losses did Orgeron in.
It is probably true that at most schools, you can’t show up drunk on the job — as Steve Sarkisian did at U.S.C. before he was fired. Or make calls to an escort service on your school-issued phone — as Hugh Freeze did at Mississippi. Or lead a program with 19 players accused of sexual assault — as Art Briles did at Baylor.
But at L.S.U., about the only unpardonable peccadillo is failing to win.
And make sure you don’t lose to Auburn. Or Kentucky. Or U.C.L.A.
Still, Orgeron — who last year was seen in a photo shirtless in bed with a consenting woman — had much more working against him than defeats on the field. Sports Illustrated and The Athletic have published reports portraying the program in turmoil and stewing with resentment over his praise of Donald J. Trump on Fox News when he was president.
All this played out amid a series of reports by USA Today that have prompted a wide-ranging federal investigation into L.S.U.’s mishandling of sexual assault investigations. In the fallout of those reports, the university suspended two administrators, its former football coach Les Miles was forced out at Kansas and its former president F. King Alexander resigned from Oregon State. Two women have accused Orgeron of failing to report sexual assault accusations, which he has denied.
When Orgeron was asked Sunday night about the resentment Black players had expressed over his lack of support for last summer’s antiracism protests, Woodward cut him off.
“I can clear it up,” Woodward said. “It had nothing to do with this decision. It was wins and losses on the field and where the program was going.”
Orgeron did not offer much introspection. There were no mea culpas, as there were after he was fired at Mississippi, when he admitted that he couldn’t run a team like a defensive line coach — all fire and four-letter words. Nor was there any ruminating about a culture that seemed to have turned toxic.
“I’m not the one to evaluate myself,” he said, seeming to grit his teeth through a grin. “I’ll let you all do that. You all do it enough. I could care less about it.”
Asked what advice he would give the next coach, Orgeron said: “Not my job.”
But for another two months it will be — at least until Nov. 27, when the Tigers (4-3) play host to Texas A&M, and quite possibly their next coach, the former L.S.U. assistant Jimbo Fisher, whom Woodward had hired as the Aggies’ coach. Or perhaps until a bowl game.
The slow decoupling is a puzzling coda to the negotiations that began last week after the Tigers, who opened the season with a desultory loss to U.C.L.A. and blew a late lead against Auburn, were routed by Kentucky. If Orgeron thought that an upset win over Florida last Saturday might be enough to change the tenor of the negotiations, he quickly learned otherwise.
The first game on his farewell tour will be, fittingly enough, at Ole Miss, where he began his head coaching career and where he will oppose Lane Kiffin, whom he replaced as the interim coach at U.S.C. His departure from Los Angeles was far from the picture of equanimity — forced or not — that was on display Sunday. When U.S.C. hired Sarkisian, Orgeron quit on the spot, leaving another interim coach, Clay Helton, to coach a bowl game.
That experience was a formative one, he said the night of the championship game.
Stung by U.S.C.’s rejection, Orgeron returned to his home just north of Lake Pontchartrain, spent the year watching his twin boys play high school football and pined for a chance to compete in the Southeastern Conference.
For now, Orgeron said, he will hold onto the memories of that championship season. Over a pile of crawfish and an Xs and Os session on the dry-erase board, he had lured quarterback Joe Burrow, a castoff at Ohio State, with promises to open up the offense. Who knew how it would unfold?
Everything that a difference-making quarterback wrought — a record-setting offense, a 15-0 record, a Heisman Trophy and a national title — obscured all the turmoil that lurked below the surface.
If only Orgeron had one now.