THE FRONT ROW with MARK NELKE: Orgeron: From assistant under Erickson to potential national champion

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Long before he was a head coach of a football team playing for a national championship, Ed Orgeron was a young graduate assistant at the University of Miami.

The head coach was Dennis Erickson.

“He was an outstanding coach, boy,” Erickson recalled earlier this week. “He is what he is. He is what you see on TV — very intense, very detail-oriented.”

Now 58, Orgeron is in his fourth season as head coach at LSU, which plays defending champion Clemson in the national championship game Monday night in New Orleans.

BACK THEN, he was a 28-year-old grad assistant at Miami in 1989, when Erickson took over for Jimmie Johnson. Orgeron was a grad assistant for Johnson in ’88, and a grad assistant for Erickson the following year. Erickson then hired him full-time as defensive line coach.

“I was around him three years, and got to know him real well,” said Erickson, who spends most of his time these days at his lake home south of Coeur d’Alene. “He was a great coach; it was just a matter of him getting an opportunity. The defensive linemen loved him; obviously he had some pretty good players there. He was very upbeat, very motivated, and that’s how his players played. They played with great passion; he’s got a great passion for the game.”

Orgeron bounced around as an assistant coach, including seven seasons at USC when Pete Carroll was head coach. He got his first head coaching job at Ole Miss, where he went 16-27 from 2005-07.

A few years later, he was back at USC, taking over as interim head coach in 2013 when the Trojans fired Lane Kiffin. USC went on to win the Las Vegas Bowl and finished 10-4.

But USC passed on the down-home Orgeron, with the deep, engaging, gravelly voice for its head coaching job, choosing Steve Sarkisian instead. The Trojans have gone 51-28 in the six seasons since.

“I know USC regrets it,” Erickson said of not choosing Orgeron. “Sometimes it’s fit, too. I don’t know that they felt the fit with him in Southern California, what the so-called ‘USC people’ wanted. But the LSU people, he was a perfect fit. But he can coach anyplace.

“I think he would have done a great job at USC.”

After two seasons as defensive line coach at LSU, Orgeron was named head coach in 2016, replacing Les Miles.

He has gone 39-9 in Baton Rouge.

“He’s a perfect fit for LSU; he’s a Louisiana guy,” Erickson said.

Erickson recalled a story from the early 1990s, when they were coaching together in Miami, and attended a coaching convention in New Orleans. They took a side trip to Lafourche Parish, La., some 60 miles from the Big Easy, where Orgeron was raised, for a day of fishing and meeting his family.

After seasons of 9-4 and 10-3, Orgeron and LSU are 14-0 this year, with a high-octane offense led by Heisman-winning quarterback Joe Burrow to go with the usual athletic SEC defense.

“He did at LSU what I often thought they needed to do, because they have such great skill (players) in the state of Louisiana — they’ve got speed all over the place,” Erickson said. “And at times, before, offensively in particular, they were trying to be physical ... and what he’s done, with the guys he’s hired, they’ve spread ‘em out and that’s made a huge difference. They have great receivers, that quarterback’s a great player. They’ve become really good on offense. And defensively, they play a lot like we did at Miami — he’s got great speed on defense. So he’s identified what needs to be done personnel wise at LSU, and it’s obviously worked out for him.”

YOU NEVER know whether being a good assistant coach will translate into success as a head coach.

“I think the qualities (of being a good coach) are intensity, understanding the game, having a passion for the game,” said Erickson, who has coached for some 50 years at the high school, college and professional level. “He knew the game really well, and he learned at our place. He learned when he was with Pete Carroll at USC ... ”

When Erickson was honored in Atlanta recently as part of the 2019 induction class for the College Football Hall of Fame, he was able to go into the locker room and say ‘Hi’ to his former grad assistant, then marveled over the play of Burrow as LSU crushed Oklahoma 63-28 in the College Football Playoff semifinal.

Erickson knew Burrow’s dad, Jimmy, when he was secondary coach at Washington State under Jim Walden in the early 1980s, and Erickson was head coach at Idaho.

As for Monday’s title game against Clemson and its star quarterback, Trevor Lawrence ...

“It’s going to be a battle, man,” Erickson said. “You’ve got guys that can run all over that field. You’ve got two really good quarterbacks.”

Mark Nelke is sports editor of The Press. He can be reached at 664-8176, Ext. 2019, or via email at mnelke@cdapress.com. Follow him on Twitter@CdAPressSports.

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