BATON ROUGE, La. — The boos cascaded down from Tiger Stadium on Saturday night in the waning minutes of LSU’s inexplicable loss to Auburn. They began after yet another squandered LSU timeout — this one before the first play of a drive — but they represented something deeper.
For LSU fans, the boos signified a release of pent-up frustration for a team’s continual spiral to mediocrity — too many losses to mediocre underdogs, the abject failure to recreate that elusive Brady-Burrow magic and a potential breaking point for the tenure of Ed Orgeron.
The program that put together perhaps the greatest offensive season in college football history two years ago can’t even get off snaps consistently. And after clearing out coordinators on both sides of the ball in the offseason, there’s no one left to blame but the head coach.
The gap behind Alabama and Georgia to the rest of the SEC is growing, and LSU has reverted back to the program it was far too often before the magical 2019 season — offensively dysfunctional, poorly coached and teetering on the brink of falling apart. LSU is 8-7 since winning the national title with losses to unranked Missouri, Mississippi State, Auburn (2020) and UCLA, leaving a distinct U-turn needed for Orgeron to keep his job.
“The obvious is the obvious,” said James Carville, a longtime political strategist and former LSU faculty member with deep ties in the state. “It’s not complicated. I don’t think that’s news to anyone.”
Around the college sports industry, the LSU job opening has evolved from a possibility to a near inevitability.
LSU is an underdog at No. 16 Kentucky this weekend, the start of games against four straight ranked opponents. After Kentucky, LSU plays No. 20 Florida at home then at No. 17 Ole Miss and at No. 1 Alabama.
There are few signs the Tigers can turn things around, as they rank No. 128 in rushing offense, No. 93 in passing yards allowed and have one of the SEC’s worst offensive lines. If Orgeron survives and keeps his job for 2022, it’d be one of the best comebacks in a career hallmarked by them.
The boos reverberating through Tiger Stadium on Saturday night portend another sound throughout the sport — the ringing of cash registers. If there’s one thing that an opening at LSU signifies, it’s an economic stimulus to the sport. (And a competitor in the job market for USC, as there’s an argument both are top 5 jobs.)
LSU athletic director Scott Woodward thinks big, spends big
How good is the LSU job? Both Les Miles and Orgeron, the last two coaches, have won national titles there. And there aren’t a lot of coaches who respect Miles or Orgeron as strategists or leaders. Big characters? Sure. One chews grass and the other runs through campus with his shirt off. Big personalities, definitely. Few are more fun to do impressions of.
But as far as high-end football coaches go, Miles and Orgeron aren’t in the same sphere as the other title-winning coaches of this generation: Nick Saban, Urban Meyer or Dabo Swinney.
The real star in Baton Rouge has always been the LSU job itself — the local talent so rich and the fan base so passionate that even Miles and Orgeron could overcome their coaching shortcomings and win at the highest levels.
LSU athletic director Scott Woodward has always been a star chaser.
He chased the one star he always wanted — the LSU AD job — and finally found it after stints at Washington and Texas A&M. Woodward graduated from LSU, hails from Baton Rouge and Mark Emmert hired him there nearly two decades ago.
Woodward’s distinct reputation as an athletic director is as a leader who covets the biggest names. If Woodward was a shopper, he’d frequent Hermes. Not Marshalls. He’s into big names, not Big Lots.
Woodward’s refined taste transcends to his coaching hires. Price doesn’t matter. Experience, wins and buzzy news conferences are his flavors. If there’s a problem, Woodward won’t flinch at throwing money at it.
And as much as Woodward embraced the magic of 2019, there’s little sentimentality in Woodward from it. He didn’t hire Orgeron. And he’s not going to hesitate to hire his own coach if LSU's slide continues.
At Washington, Woodward lured away Chris Petersen from the blue turf of Boise State after many — including USC — had tried. At Texas A&M, he brought in his old friend Jimbo Fisher from Florida State — more on him later — and then Buzz Williams from Virginia Tech.
When the pearl clutchers balked at Fisher’s gaudy $75 million deal, Woodward chuckled that he paid market value for a national title-winning coach. Expect him to do the same again, as Woodward won’t be Wal-Mart shopping for a hot assistant or a trendy Group of Five up-and-comer.
Already at LSU, he hired three-time national title winner Kim Mulkey in women's basketball. Big game hunting is his only hunting.
Potential LSU candidates include James Franklin and Lane Kiffin
Who would Woodward target? The list will be short, as there aren't many coaches who have the credentials, personality and coaching chops to handle LSU.
Expect Woodward to go after Fisher, Penn State’s James Franklin or Ole Miss head coach Lane Kiffin. The prevailing thought on former assistant Joe Brady is that he’s going to continue life in the NFL, as he has always enjoyed finding a schematic advantage more than recruiting.
Franklin had a star turn in the SEC, breathing life into Vanderbilt after a century of bad football. He’s also going to be atop USC’s wish list, and there could be hours of calls into "The Paul Finebaum Show" about which is a better job.
Woodward’s lopsided deal in favor of Fisher at Texas A&M sets up a potential exit to Baton Rouge. The initial deal had no buyout money for him to leave for another job. Texas A&M just extended him on the same terms with the understanding that, essentially, the Aggies are daring anyone to pay Fisher now more than $9 million annually. Any courtship of Fisher would presumably crack the $10 million barrier, but the good news for Woodward is that another reunion with his old friend Jimbo wouldn’t cost any buyout money because he left it coach-friendly up front.
Kiffin in Baton Rouge would be a fascinating stage for his offense and penchant for popcorn-popping antics. While LSU fans may cringe at some of the tweets and narcissism, they’ve also cringed at a lot of neanderthal offenses the past 15 years. Kiffin may bring baggage, but his teams can snap the ball and are fun to watch.
As for Orgeron’s departure, how LSU positions itself to save on a buyout of nearly $17 million may be more interesting than watching the Tigers on the field this season. All buyouts in modern college athletics are negotiating points. But LSU will be dealing with a stubborn coach who likely wouldn’t get another shot at a high-end pay day. If you think Orgeron will go quietly, remember he quit on USC as the interim and threw a temper tantrum when he didn’t get the full-time job. Orgeron knows only bull rushing.
There are other factors swirling around Orgeron’s buyout, including getting named in a Title IX lawsuit about allegedly mishandling a rape allegation.
The backdrop of any Orgeron buyout discussion is that LSU’s administration is also dealing with its own alleged failings in a series of ugly sexual misconduct cases. There could be a high-stakes staredown between numerous flawed factions, none of who would particularly want to be deposed.
Perhaps things will turn around for Orgeron. The snaps will come on time, the boos will stop and Orgeron can pull off another comeback. But right now, the most audible noise is the jockeying behind the scenes for one of the best jobs in college football to come open.
A starry job that’s quickly dimmed under Orgeron is about to become the brightest object of an entire industry’s intrigue.