It started around 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, roughly two hours before kickoff. USC coaches, players and players’ family members gathered around midfield at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for a pregame prayer and pep talk, led by interim head coach Ed Orgeron. The purpose, players said, was to emphasize the overarching theme that will drive this year’s Trojans to wherever they end up: family.
“It was a great feeling. The team that prays together stays together,” redshirt junior linebacker Hayes Pullard said after USC’s 38-31 victory over Arizona. “We are one big family and we wanted to bring the parents in and all pray together. Coach O emphasized that we are a unit, so it was great to bring everyone together.”
In the two weeks since he’s taken over as leader of the program, Orgeron has preached three things to his players: be physical up front, play with enthusiasm and have fun. All three attributes have been tenets of Orgeron’s coaching philosophy throughout his career, and players seem rejuvenated by the sudden infusion of energy following the dismissal of former head coach Lane Kiffin.
“He’s the definition of ‘Fight On’ and being a Trojan,” redshirt senior outside linebacker Devon Kennard said of Orgeron. “You can’t do anything but love him. He’ll get after you when you do something wrong, but once you start doing things right, there’s nobody that [will] be more excited for you than him. We’ll go through a wall for Coach O.”
To call Orgeron the anti-Kiffin would be fairly accurate. Kiffin was renowned for his knowledge of the Xs and Os and had total control over the Trojans’ offense during his three-plus seasons at USC. In his first game as interim head coach, what input did Orgeron give to offensive coordinator Clay Helton, who called the plays against Arizona?
“I didn’t have to say a word on the headsets, except ‘Atta boy, good job Cody, good job Clay,’” Orgeron said.
Where Kiffin was reserved on the sidelines during games, Orgeron was anything but on Thursday. Not only was he fired up himself, but he implored his players to join in on the high-fives and chest bumps, and the players by and large embraced this drastic change in sideline behavior.
“[Defensive linemen] know how Coach O is, so it’s funny seeing other guys getting hyped up now by some of the things he’s doing,” Kennard said. “It’s awesome seeing how infectious he can be to an entire team.”
Orgeron’s tactics have been effective, at least for one week, because his rah-rah persona seems 100 percent sincere, just as Kiffin’s stoicism was an indelible part of his identity.
Neither approach is inherently better or worse than the other; coaches such as Kansas State’s Bill Snyder and Stanford’s David Shaw have experienced tremendous success throughout their careers while maintaining a certain level of calm on the sidelines. But Orgeron’s style has certainly been effective in motivating this current group of players and has earned him the respect of the athletic administration.
“Ed is a very iconic figure around here. What impresses me is that he brings it every day,” USC Athletic Director Pat Haden said. “This is not a fake thing with him. He brings the energy every day, and I think our guys really appreciate it. He’s a great coach, and people like Ed. He’s a very likeable guy, and that’s a good thing right now.”
Haden is unquestionably a very smart man, and he chooses his words carefully. When speaking about Orgeron, the phrase “right now” seems most appropriate in discussing his suitableness as USC’s next head coach, sans the “interim” prefix.
I don’t know that Orgeron is the best candidate to become USC’s permanent head coach, and I don’t know that he isn’t. At this point, it’s far too early to make that kind of judgment, and Haden is very aware of this.
But Orgeron is the perfect coach for USC “right now.” At this juncture, USC does not need a coach; it needs a leader. This is not to say that Kiffin could not lead, but Orgeron is much better suited to pilot the team in a time of crisis. He’s the ideal candidate for the “break glass in case of emergency” situation the USC football program currently finds itself in.
After the win against Arizona, it seemed as though players were fighting among themselves to see who could give Orgeron the best compliment. Positive energy is always a good thing, but USC won’t be able to reach its goals this season based on good morale alone. There are still many issues the team has to deal with, such as its pass defense and lack of depth at wide receiver. Those areas must be fixed for the wins to start piling up.
But that doesn’t seem to be of much concern for USC players, who are merely happy to see their beloved Coach O enjoy success. In the competition for praising Orgeron, redshirt sophomore quarterback Cody Kessler might have finished in first place:
“You want a coach that you would go to war for every time,” Kessler said. “[With Orgeron], and I don’t just speak for myself, I speak for the whole team, we would go to war for this guy any day of the week. When you can not only see but feel that he cares about you so much, that’s love right there. I couldn’t ask for a better head coach right now.”
And as of right now, how could it get any better than that?
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