You won’t convince me otherwise: Ed Orgeron, the 58-year-old head football coach at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, is at this moment the most interesting person in American sports.
Doug Ireland, recently retired as the longtime sports information director at Northwestern State in Natchitoches, La., said, “Outside perception is, ‘That guy can’t be real.’ But he is very real.’’
Ireland gave that assurance in September 2016, after Les Miles was fired following a loss to Auburn (putting LSU at 2-2) and Orgeron was promoted from defensive line coach to interim head coach.
A joyous celebration erupted along the Bayou Lafourche, the middle peninsula of three at the bottom of Louisiana. A true Cajun, a two-way star lineman for the South Lafourche High Tarpons, 1977 Class 4A state champions, was going to be coaching the LSU Tigers.
Not everyone who lives and dies with the Tigers shared in the excitement. Orgeron had been a head coach in the SEC, and he went 10-25 from 2005-07 at Ole Miss.
Big personality, Louisiana roots as deep as the Lafourche live oaks, but was likable Ed really “beat-Alabama, win-the-SEC West’’ material?
It looked iffy after the Tigers were shut out 10-0 by Alabama in early November in Tiger Stadium, but his post-Miles record was 5-2 in the regular season, and athletic director Joe Alleva decided to give him a shot.
Three seasons later, unbeaten LSU is a 5 ½-point favorite over Clemson, with its 29-game winning streak, in Monday night’s national championship.
Orgeron has become such a gigantic presence, with his exuberance, with his bearish stature and growl, that Bobby Hebert, his high school and college quarterback, has described him as the “last hope’’ for the survival of Cajun French, a version of French that included Spanish, African and Native American phrasing, and was developed by Bayou settlers.
You want a chuckle? Find the video of Orgeron in a hookup with his mother, Coco, and then exchanging a couple of sentences of Cajun French as a salute to each other.
Coco still lives on the Bayou in Larose. Her husband, Ed Sr., died from cancer five years ago. Ed Sr. was the youngest of 13 children and was termed “Bebe’’ — baby, although pronounced with a rapid bay-bay.
Senior eventually became “Baba’’ and Ed Jr. took over as “Bebe.’’ That’s what Orgeron still is called by the people who knew him back when.
Bryan Arceneaux is near the top of that list. They grew up a quarter-mile apart in Larose, ate meals at the home they happened to occupy, laughed with a 5-foot-10 Coco, and tried to stay on the best side of Arceneaux’s mother, known as “Fury.’’
Arceneaux said: “Bebe’s dad, Ed Sr., actually gave my mom the nickname.’’
“Because my mom could go from zero to 100 faster than anyone,’’ Bryan said, laughing. “Still can, even as a two-time cancer survivor.’’
Orgeron was given a chance to live his dream after high school: to put on a uniform for the LSU Tigers. He lasted for two weeks in Baton Rouge, became homesick, and returned to Larose.
“Ed Sr. worked for the telephone company,’’ Arceneaux said. “He put Bebe to work 12 hours a day, digging holes in ditches. Everybody who drove past shouted out the window, ‘Bebe, why aren’t you in Baton Rouge?’ ”
Homesick turned a strong need to get back to football. And when Hebert, a year ahead of Orgeron at South Lafourche, called from Northwestern State and said, “Get on up here,’’ Ed did exactly that in January 1980.
Arceneaux — “Butch’’ to Orgeron — came a year later. Butch and Bebe went home in the summer and earned $5 an hour shoveling shrimp brought in on boats around Grand Isle.
“We shoveled shrimp for 12-14 hours a day, went out to a faucet, hosed off as best we could, and slept on benches in the shed,’’ Arceneaux said. “We didn’t smell good all summer.
“Our friend Ricky would pick us up some nights and we’d go to the bar. There was one condition: We had to sit in the trunk.’’
Orgeron proved his amazing loyalty to Arceneaux after a midseason “State Fair Game’’ in Shreveport against archrival Louisiana Tech.
“I broke my leg in the game and they were going to take me to the hospital,’’ Arceneaux said. “But Bebe — he was so persistent, he always could talk me into anything.
“He said, ‘No, Butch, don’t go to the hospital. They might keep you there, and we’re going out tonight.’
“So Bebe carried me around on his back from bar to bar that night, when I had to go to the restroom, he carried me in there.’’
Arceneaux paused, even on the phone you could see “Butch’’ smiling, and said:
“I’m not surprised at all by what he’s doing now at LSU. Bebe quit drinking quite a few years ago, but that persistence … he ain’t ever changed.
“Habits changed, but not Bebe.’’
How about that low, growling voice that makes his strong accent even more puzzling for non-Cajuns?
“He’s had that growl since he was about 8,’’ Arceneaux said.
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