The Read-Option: The curious case of Ed Orgeron and the next head coach at USC
Considering the negativity that surrounded the USC program earlier this season, the Trojans have put together a remarkable turnaround under interim head coach Ed Orgeron. Once considered nothing more than a placeholder, the coach is suddenly gaining support as a candidate for USC’s full-time job. Now Trojans athletic director Pat Haden could be faced with a unique dilemma. Has Orgeron, once considered little more than a placeholder, done enough to earn the head coaching job at USC? If not, how does Haden handle the delicate situation of sending Orgeron packing and bringing in another guy?
Zac Ellis and Martin Rickman discuss the topic in this week’s Read-Option:
Zac Ellis: Pat Haden has an interesting situation on his hands. The USC athletic director oversees a football program that has won five of six games and is suddenly worthy of people’s attention in the Pac-12. That doesn’t sound like a problem, but all of this has occurred under the reign of Ed Orgeron, the program’s interim head coach. USC was 3-2 when he took over after Lane Kiffin was fired, yet suddenly the Trojans look like they’ve turned things around in just a few short weeks under a coach who probably wasn’t expected to rally the troops and the fans in this manner. Now emails are filling up Haden’s inbox in support of Orgeron as the program’s next full-time head coach. How surprised are you at what’s occurred in Los Angeles?
Martin Rickman: If you’d have asked me this a few weeks ago, I’d have said extremely surprised. But the change in tone and energy with that USC team seemed evident right away, and it seems like it just keeps on going. The players are responding to the moves Orgeron has made, and his instinct to do everything the opposite of how he did it at Ole Miss has worked. That said, we have seen this in the past, although maybe not to this extent. Players see change, they embrace it, they play hard, and then the school is in limbo. The key for USC is not this year — it’s the future. Do you think Orgeron could usher in that future and continue to build a program, or is he doomed to the same shortcomings that did him in at Ole Miss?
ZE: It’s hard not to love the energy radiating from the USC program right now, especially when you consider the atmosphere during the last few months of Kiffin’s tenure. That’s why it’s hard to take away from what Orgeron has done there. The question, like you said, is whether or not he can realistically sustain it. If he truly has reversed his coaching style from his days at Ole Miss, then perhaps that’s working. But it’s so hard for me to sit here and imagine Orgeron four or five seasons down the road as the successful head coach of USC just because of the debacle that was his tenure at Ole Miss. It could be argued that USC would be an easier place to win, with the recruiting base, the recent championships, etc. But you’d also have to think the expectations are that much higher with the Trojans. I’d like to see what Orgeron could do with his first recruiting class before making any real judgments about his abilities as a future coach. He’s been known to be a heck of a recruiter for most of his career.
MR: It’s an impossible situation to be in if you’re Pat Haden because the fans like what Coach O is doing, and obviously Haden has to, too — it kept the season from being lost — but you have to think long term. Cutting ties with Orgeron and hoping for a home run could lead to a missed hire rather than trusting the devil you know. Or Haden could swing and miss on his top candidates and be left with a guy who isn’t all that different from Orgeron in the first place. That said, what if you stick with him and it doesn’t work? That could effectively sink the USC legacy, with recruits at that time having just learned to read when the Trojans were a national power. So what do you look for down the stretch? How does Haden approach this opening?
ZE: I think what Haden said earlier this week is exactly right: His job is to plan the program’s future years down the road. Every athletics administrator should care what fans think to a point, but Haden’s job, first and foremost, is to protect the program. If I’m Haden, I don’t nix the option of keeping Orgeron on full-time. I’d hold that card close to the chest but keep an eye on what else is out there. Orgeron isn’t stupid; he knows this is a business first. If Haden can lure in someone huge like Kevin Sumlin (hypothetically), Orgeron doesn’t stand a chance of keeping his job, right? And nor should he from a business perspective, in my opinion. That’s why Haden’s current situation could actually work in his favor. He can openly search for a coach as the season progresses and see what plays out. The moral question, of course, is whether Haden or USC owe Orgeron anything for the job he’s done this year. Does it look bad as a program if you show the guy the door after this impressive turnaround?
MR: I think you’re right. Orgeron knows exactly what’s happening, and he’s not going to be hurt over it. Heck, he just made himself a lot of money one way or the other by caring about his players. If anything, that’s inspiring. He’ll get a job, whether it’s at USC or not, and he’ll have just as much of a chance to interview as any other coach. If they go out and hire Jack Del Rio instead of Orgeron, that’s probably a problem. But if they get Sumlin or another established coach, it makes sense. And no, it doesn’t look bad at all to hire someone else. That’s the thing about interim coaches, they’re never supposed to be the long term guy. It’s like being thrown into your boss’s job unexpectedly. If you do the job well enough to be considered and you get hired, awesome. If not, the experience is still valuable, and you probably deserve a pay raise. This revitalized Orgeron no matter what, and he can carry this into whatever his future holds. Reclamation projects are always some of the best stories.
ZE: I’ll be interested to see if and when he gets hired anywhere else, and by whom. I don’t want to take anything away from Orgeron, but he still has that Ole Miss line on his résumé that sticks out like a sore thumb. I just wonder if that period alone would be considered an outlier by a school looking at Orgeron, or perhaps this season is considered an outlier since he’s won with Kiffin’s staff and players. I tend to agree with you, though. This might have been just what Orgeron needed to get another shot in the head coaching circles.
MR: People make mistakes and take all kinds of crazy steps on their journey. When you interview for a job, it’s not what happened before, it’s how you grew from it that matters most. And it’s looking more and more like Orgeron will have plenty to say when he auditions for his next job, at USC or somewhere else.