HOOVER, Ala. – Ronnie Estay was a Cajun kid from tiny Larose, La., way down in the heavy air of the bayou where the Gulf of Mexico melts into the state southwest of New Orleans. He wound up as an undersized defensive tackle at LSU and on a November night in 1971, he almost single-handedly destroyed Notre Dame’s offense with 17 tackles.
An impressionable young kid from Larose was watching that night, inspired to life-changing levels by the heroics.
“The whole city of Larose, the whole state of Louisiana, was cheering for the Tigers that night, and it was just magic,” he recalled.
The kid, now well into adulthood, added, “Ever since then, I wanted to be in the purple and gold.”
Ed Orgeron, that kid from Larose, is now the head football coach at LSU.
It’s magic – in that an awful lot of magic requires disappearing.
The kid left Larose to become a defensive lineman himself, at Northwestern (La.) State. That led to a coaching career with more stops than a Greyhound local route. Northwestern. McNeese State. Arkansas. Miami. Nicholls State. Syracuse. Southern Cal.
Along the way, Orgeron built a reputation. The man with a voice like pea gravel in a blender, with his relentless enthusiasm, was a topflight recruiter – at least when some poor high school senior didn’t need an interpreter. He was pretty good with the X’s and O’s, too.
He helped put together a national championship-winning defense at Southern Cal when Ole Miss offered Orgeron a head coaching job in 2005. On the eve of the BCS championship game, he stood on the sidelines in Miami and entertained three of us writers who regularly covered the SEC. We were given an open invitation to visit his office in Oxford, where a fridge would await and we’d kick out feet back and shoot the breeze.
He may have been ready to be a head coach. That kind of personality, he wasn’t ready for the SEC.
And it blew up. Orgeron disappeared and so did much of the good will – poof! – after three years and a 3-21 record in conference play.
“I had a great job, a job in the SEC,” he said Monday at SEC Media Days. “(I) was given a great chance. I wasn't ready. I went there as defensive line coach. I did the things that I did at the defensive line coach and was very successful over the years. It didn't work at Ole Miss.”
Magic’s done with mirrors, too, right? Orgeron looked closely into his. He examined what he did wrong and right. He called mentors, like Jimmy Johnson and Pete Carroll.
“Here's two things I came up with; number one, I was going to treat the team exactly how I treat my sons, no different. And I was going to treat every coach … with respect and let him coach his position as he knew it. Ever since those two minor changes, we've been 12-4, so that's the difference,” he said.
Six of those wins came as interim head coach at Southern Cal, when the ever-reappearing Lane Kiffin was told to disappear by USC athletics director Pat Haden in a Los Angeles airport.
Haden then chose to hire Steve Sarkisian, late of Alabama’s staff (and, albeit briefly, once again in Kiffin’s footsteps), rather than Orgeron.
So he found himself in that purple and gold, as LSU’s defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator. When LSU jettisoned Les Miles last year, for the second time, Orgeron took an interim job and went 6-2 down the stretch.
Joe Alleva, the LSU athletics director, learned from Haden’s mistake. He deleted “interim” from Orgeron’s title last November.
Orgeron knows about the doubters. He flopped as a head coach. He’s succeeded as an interim guy for a pair of teams starving for fresh leadership.
“I feel that I'm ready to be the head coach at LSU,” he said. “My players feel that. There's a need to me to prove the perimeter. I don't feel the pressure from that. I know this, I understand the expectations of LSU.”
It’s time to work some magic. An entire state waits eagerly to stand and cheer.
Mark McCarter, a four-time Alabama Sports Writer of the Year and a reporter and columnist for 35-plus years, is a special contributor for WHNT.com at the 2017 SEC Media Days. Follow his columns and live blogs this week on WHNT.com.