Commentary

Orgeron brings fun back to USC

Trojans are a loose bunch under new coach and have grand time beating Arizona

Updated: October 11, 2013, 8:30 AM ET
By Arash Markazi | ESPNLosAngeles.com

LOS ANGELES -- Ed Orgeron's official title is "interim head coach." The first word, however, seems inconsequential to almost everyone at USC.

Orgeron had been the head coach for less than two weeks and hadn't even finished coaching his first game before the Trojan Marching Band broke out a new cheer for their new coach, "Coach O," which might get played more than "Tusk" if the Trojans continue winning as they did Thursday night in a 38-31 victory over Arizona.

Before the second half (with the Trojans leading 28-10), the USC student section performed a card stunt which spelled out "Coach O" in cardinal and gold, and after the game the loudest ovation for the coach came from a group of six students seated behind the USC bench who had each letter of "Coach O" painted on their chests.

[+] EnlargeEd Orgeron
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsEd Orgeron brought back smiles and enthusiasm to the USC sideline in his debut as coach, though things got a little tight at the end against Arizona.

The most positive reviews for Orgeron, however, came from his very own players after the game. The same ones who gathered around him at midfield two hours before the game in a circle as he spoke to them to play as one. And the same ones who gathered around him and gave him a group hug after giving him a Gatorade shower as the final seconds ticked off the clock.

"No disrespect to the coach who was here before and I'm not getting into that, but you want a coach that you will freaking just go to war for every time [like] this man here to my right," USC quarterback Cody Kessler said. "I don't only speak for myself. I speak for the whole team. We would go to war for this guy any day of the week. Any time he needed us we have his back 100 percent.

"When you have a coach that you can see and feel that he cares about you so much and wants you to be the best that you can be and succeed, that's love right there. I couldn't ask for a better head coach. All of us would go to war and put our lives on the line for this man any day of the week."

It was easily the most genuine and heartfelt quote any USC player has said about their head coach since Pete Carroll left the program in 2009.

Normally coaches leave after addressing the media after the game and leave the podium for their players. Orgeron, however, stayed. Perhaps he didn't know he didn't have to, but after each one of his players answered a question, he looked at them and smiled, slapped their knee and put his arm around them.

"These guys, it's for them," Orgeron said. "I watched them hurt. I just wanted a change for them. To see them happy and see the celebrating and see them feeling good about themselves and walking with a pep in their steps, that's all I wanted. I told the guys I'd treat them like my son and when you see your son hurting, you hurt for them, and I just wanted them to feel good."

Orgeron isn't so much a caretaker for the team over the final eight weeks of the season as he is a breath of fresh air into a program that was desperately gasping for air under Lane Kiffin's vice grip.

Kiffin had sucked the life out of his team, out of his players and out of his coaching staff before he was finally fired in an airport conference room moments after a blowout loss to Arizona State.

USC athletic director Pat Haden had seen and heard enough to know that Kiffin had lost the team. He didn't know how good USC could or would be this season, but he knew they were no longer going to get any better under Kiffin. The trajectory of the team under his watch had been pointing downward since last season, but Haden had waited, hoping for a turnaround that never came before pulling the plug.

When the decision was made, Haden, Orgeron and many players and coaches said the right things. They were sad to see Kiffin go, the team's struggles weren't entirely his fault and they would carry on as best as they could without him.

It was the equivalent of someone taking over a home and praising the job the architect did before razing it with a bulldozer. There's only so much an interim coach can change on a college football team under sanctions, midway through the season. Orgeron, however, changed as much as he possibly could.

Whatever Kiffin was doing before, Orgeron seemingly did the opposite. Practices were closed to the media under Kiffin; Orgeron opened them up. Injuries weren't discussed; Orgeron began rattling off the team's injury list daily. Sweets weren't allowed at the training table; he gave them cookies. Fatty foods were banned during team meals; he catered Roscoe's Chicken & Waffles. Game film was the lone team activity the night before games; he took the team to a private screening of "Captain Philips" at Sony Studios.

By the time Thursday came around, USC players were ready to run through a wall for Orgeron, and that's exactly what they did.

They looked unrecognizable compared to the team that had trudged through the first five games of the season. USC first scored on a one-play, nine-second scoring drive when Kessler connected with Nelson Agholor on a 62-yard touchdown. It was USC's longest pass play in more than 10 quarters.

They would top it about seven minutes later when Kessler connected with Tre Madden on a 63-yard touchdown pass. USC had only one pass play longer than 60 yards through its first five games; they had two within the first 10 minutes of Orgeron's first game as head coach.

USC had 38 points and 297 passing yards (546 total yards) on Thursday night without Marqise Lee, who missed the game because of a sprained left knee. The last time they were at the Coliseum, with Lee, playing a conference opponent, they had just seven points and 54 yards passing in a loss to Washington State.

USC viewed Thursday night as the start of their new season. Orgeron viewed it as that and a second chance to prove himself as a head coach. He was 10-25 in three seasons at Ole Miss and just 3-21 in the SEC. Orgeron, who was a successful defensive line coach at Miami and USC, never thought he'd get another head coaching chance, and certainly not at USC. He had become synonymous with USC over the past 15 years as the only man to be an assistant under Paul Hackett, Pete Carroll and Kiffin. He never expected to be the next coach in line, running up the Coliseum tunnel and pumping his fists after the game as fans gave him a standing ovation.

"I woke up happy for the first time in my life this morning besides the day I married my wife and had my kids," Orgeron said. "I'm not a happy guy, but today I was happy. I don't know why. I just had a feeling of happiness to represent USC."

It took Orgeron less than two weeks and one game to change the feeling around USC. The Trojans now hope the change, like Orgeron's title, isn't just on an interim basis.

Arash Markazi

ESPNLosAngeles.com

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