Just Desserts: How Ed Orgeron’s Open Eyes Turned LSU Into A Title Contender And What We Can Learn About Pivoting
Going into this weekends’ biggest college football game, I asked my friends who they were taking: the LSU Tigers or the Alabama Crimson Tide? While the margin was closer than I expected, most people were like me.
When it comes to big games, you take Nick Saban and the Tide to roll, baby. Alabama had won eight straight in the series and this game was in Tuscaloosa.
Well, on Saturday, we watched as the tide turned—and LSU, under the coaching of Louisiana native Ed Orgeron, not only won but won in style as they beat Bama 46-41. While the Tide made it close with some gritty second-half play, the story of the game was told in the first half when LSU rolled up 33 points for a sizeable halftime lead.
Led by now-Heisman favorite quarterback Joe Burrow, the Bayou Tigers strafed Alabama’s defense through the air and on the ground. Running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire scored a rushing and receiving touchdown and Burrow threw for two other scores.
As I watched the teams run into the tunnel, the narrative was all about how LSU transformed into a formidable team with an offense, unlike anything they’d ever had. Pundits discussed offensive coordinator Joe Brady’s connection to the powerful New Orleans Saints offense. Writers waxed poetic about the marriage of Burrow and LSU’s skill players. People raved about Orgeron’s willingness to bring the SEC into the new millennium.
But thanks to an article I read on Bleacher Report in 2013, all I could think about was dessert.
If it sounds funny to you that I would remember a random article from six years ago, well, that’s the life of a leadership junkie who made his living as a reporter, someone with an insatiable curiosity about what makes the Great Ones great. That story told me a lot about Ed Orgeron.
You see, in 2013 he was a defensive line coach at the University of Southern California working for then-head coach Lane Kiffin. Then, late in that 2013 season, Kiffin was fired and Orgeron was promoted to interim head coach, and one of the first things he did was change a small policy that Kiffin had instituted.
Coach O brought back dessert to the players’ training table.
“It’s a change,” Orgeron told reporters at the time. “I wanted to have a change. I think if we would have went the same direction, and we kept on doing the same [things], nothing changes.”
Under Kiffin, the USC players had a strict nutritional policy that included no desserts at the team table. Orgeron decided that the health benefits of the policy were offset by what he saw as a “lack of joy” within the team. Coach O knew that he needed to bring back the fun of football, and part of that fun was the ability to enjoy a sweet treat with teammates after a hard day’s work. He believed that the small change would get the player’s to spend a little more time together around the table and that would be a good thing.
“You feed a lineman a cookie, he’s happy,” Orgeron quipped.
The change worked. USC went out and beat Arizona in Orgeron’s first game as head coach, and would finish the year winning six of eight games, including three victories over ranked opponents. When USC announced that they would hire Steve Sarkisian as head coach for the 2014 season, Orgeron resigned.
He ended up at LSU as a defensive line coach in 2015 and was promoted to interim head coach when the school fired Les Miles in September 2016. Once again, Orgeron’s attention to detail paid big dividends for his team.
He committed to “flipping the script” at LSU, changing things like practice times, film room sessions, and offensive philosophies. Even after LSU removed the interim title in 2017, Coach O has continued to make the necessary changes and tweaks to keep his Tigers relevant.
Now, it has them at number one in the country.
The Great Ones know how and when to adjust, and they hone that skill by constantly looking for which adjustments to make. No matter where you find yourself, there are always opportunities to get better—you are surrounded daily by windows of growth that can transform your life.
You just have to see them (and maybe be open to a little snack along the way).
Ed Orgeron keeps his eyes open for the details that make a difference, whether it’s running a spread offense in the conservative SEC or it’s bringing back cake to the training table. And then he seizes what he sees—he takes action and makes changes that produce a return in the locker room and on the field.
There’s still a lot of football to be played. Ohio State looks tough, Alabama’s not dead yet, and there’s always reigning national champs Clemson. As we wrap up the college football regular season over the next few weeks, we’ll see how things shake out.
Whether or not LSU ends the year with a national title I can’t say, But the magic of Coach O’s Tigers seems strong—so like him, I’m keeping my eyes open for anything.