When newly appointed interim USC head coach Ed Orgeron took the podium for last Sunday’s press conference, he didn’t promise a Rose Bowl berth. He didn’t guarantee USC would beat a certain conference rival. What he did say, though, was telling.
“I’m gonna have some energy, some excitement. High-fiving guys, having fun,” Orgeron said.
But Orgeron’s definition of the word “fun” is a little different from the layperson’s definition of “fun.”
When I covered spring practices last semester, I got to know (at least by proxy) Mr. Edward Orgeron Jr.
It’s a sunny, but cool spring evening at Howard Jones field. Orgeron stands like a man of authority on the field. His boulder-like belly protrudes from his waist, draped with a baggy cardinal polo that is tucked into his shorts. He issues some instructions to the defensive linemen prior to a drill. For this drill, the linemen will crouch and run underneath a three-foot trampoline. The defensive linemen line up about five yards behind the trampolines. A piercing shriek of a whistle, then — “Coach O” comes out.
His gravelly drill sergeant’s yell is at once frightening and reassuring at the same time. His usually straight back curves. Orgeron bends over and cups his hands around his mouth and imparts his wisdom.
“Keep those heads up, boys! Keep your head up! Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go! KEEP YOUR HEAD UP, KENNY! MOVE YOUR A–, KENNY!” Orgeron screams. He’s referring to freshman defensive tackle Kenny Bigelow, who sprints, ducks under the trampoline and comes out on the other side looking like he just finished a marathon.
If there was a spiritual equivalent of Ed Orgeron, it would be Gunnery Sergeant Hartmann from Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. Except Orgeron is more of a man. And on the USC football team, there are no Gomer Pyles.
Which is necessary, if you think about it. Football is the sport that most easily serves as a metaphor for war. And like war, the head coach, the “general,” if you will, plays an integral role.
As generals go, former USC head coach Lane Kiffin was a pure strategist — a bit of a control freak, if you will. He meticulously trafficked the disbursal of information, to the point where practices were closed and injury information was kept under wraps. Recruiting the best players was a must. To Kiffin, the details and the strategy of the meta-game ware more pressing concerns than the tactics of football, much of which he left to his (very able) coordinators.
Except that approach backfired during the heat of the game. Kiffin’s inexperience with the tactics of the actual game of football reared its ugly head earlier this season, as he was unable to master the one aspect of coaching that the world could actually see: calling plays.
By comparison, Orgeron takes a far more hands-on approach. He is on the ground floor, communicating with his players. For lack of a better comparison, he is on the frontline with his soldiers, barking orders, turning boys into men. Orgeron is the Sergeant Hartmann to Kiffin’s General Petraeus. And though Orgeron’s ability to manage a game remains to be seen, his animated brand of coaching and (ironically) more relaxed demeanor towards his players (desserts after practice? Where do I sign up to play?) is a refreshing change of pace from the austere atmosphere engineered by Kiffin’s strategic designs.
Whether the Trojans will win games is uncertain; they will still be without junior wide receiver Marqise Lee, and the monstrous defensive front seven still belies a thinned-out rear flank — the secondary that gave up 351 passing yards and three TD’s last week against Arizona State. The Trojan faithful will undoubtedly want to think of better days, back when Matt Barkley, Robert Woods and Lee were making it rain touchdowns like dollar bills at the club. But with those touchdowns came a kind of dispassionate arrogance, the expectation that “this is what’s supposed to happen.”
The Trojans are now at a crossroads where there simply are no expectations. It’s a bye week for USC, so that means Orgeron gets a little extra time to shift the coaching mentality from blue-blooded to blue collar. The Trojans will enter the weekend preparing for eight games of war, and in all eight of those games, the outcome is uncertain.
If you’re a fan of college football, there’s only one certainty now: compared to watching Lane Kiffin calmly lose games, watching Ed Orgeron get worked up on the sideline is going to be a hell of a lot of fun.
Follow Euno on Twitter @eunowhat