Who is the next tiger king?

By George Somerville

The LSU Head Coaching job has been open since 17th October. Recent speculation suggests Orgeron’s successor will be announced imminently. George Somerville looks back on the recent demise of the LSU football program under Coach O, and forward to a new chapter in Tigers history:

Flash back to January 13th 2020 with confetti falling from the roof of the New Orleans Superdome. It was kismet that the boy from the Bayou, the roughly spoken Cajun Ed Orgeron would lead his Bayou Bengals to the ultimate prize in college athletics in his home state of Louisiana. If ever there was a fairytale, this was it.

As it turns out, this was the beginning of the end for Orgeron and this Tigers team. However, no-one can take away from the man they call Coach O that the 2019 LSU Tigers will go down as one of the greatest college football teams of all time. 

But only two years and nine months later, the Tigers had all but fallen to pieces and Orgeron was out. Well kind of. Orgeron is a man filled with pride and he knew this was his dream job. After an ill fated spell at Ole Miss, a role which he now openly admits he hated being in – the Head Coaching job at Louisiana State came up. And let’s be honest, Head Coach at LSU is one of the biggest roles in all ollcege athletics and a top job in US sports.

Time, Gentlemen Please!

Credit: Associated Press

When LSU Athletics Director Scott Woodward told Orgeron his time at LSU was up, Woodward also asked if Orgeron would stay until the end of the season to allow the administration time to search for O’s replacement. Orgeron didn’t have to think twice to say yes.

This says much about Orgeron but also a lot about the coaching staff he will be leaving behind. It screams there is no-one on the staff that Woodward feels could take control of the team and navigate them to the end of the season. 

Of course it is true that since the 2019 Championship win that the coaching staff at LSU has been something of a carousel. So it is perhaps no surprise then that there is no one of any consistency or longevity to take control of the ship. But still it is not a ringing endorsement of those left.

This seems why Woodward appearss reluctant to go back to the 2019 coaching staff for the next Head Coach. Given the qualities of Joe Brady and Dave Aranda, this is something significant. 

However, I am getting ahead of myself as we need to get back to why the Tigers find themselves in this position. 2021 was another tumultuous season – on the back of a terrible 2020 season where the 2019 National Champions made one of the worst defences of a title in living memory.

In fact, this period of underperformance and chaos can be traced back almost to the point that the Tigers lifted the National Championship trophy in NOLA. Think back to the pictures of Tigers alumni Odell Beckham Jr on the field and locker room handing out $100 dollar bills to college students. A red flag if ever there was one.

Those red flags kept coming. A woeful 2020 season plagued by poor coaching and terrible decision making ended with the shocking allegations of sexual assault and battery by running back Darius Guice. Further scrutiny of the program subsequently revealed a culture of cover ups and an inability to root out or even properly report the problems, ensuring that no appropriate action was taken. 

All of this led back to Orgeron, giving the impression of an athletics program in disarray with little guidance, direction or discipline. Orgeron admitted himself not being close enough to key decisions, including not conducting appropriate due diligence on his new coaching staff – even going as far to say that he didn’t speak directly to some hires, including defensive co-ordinator Bo Pelini. After the terrible 2020 season Orgeron admitted taking his eye off the ball. This came across loud and clear when Orgeron’s private life was exposed, clearly demonstrating the Head Coach had lost his focus. 

The Tigers were rudderless.

Borrowed Time

Which brings us back to today.

Now that Orgeron knows he is coaching on borrowed time, a steely focus has returned. Dare I say it he seems much more relaxed, I expect because the pressure is off. But this seems to have transferred to the players who are demonstrating why they were recruited by LSU in the first place. Take the fake punt play against Alabama. You could see the fire return to Orgeron’s eyes and even mid week after the game, he was still gleefully regaining the tale to the SEC media.

So perhaps a new coach isn’t inheriting the disaster that everyone thought Orgeron was leaving behind. But of course this is what Orgeron does. He is a great interim head coach – think USC, Ole Miss. He has been there and done it. He is comfortable in that situation.

What's Next?

What next for LSU football?

Well, let’s take a look at the LSU Athletic Director Scott Woodward for some clues. Woodward is a native of Baton Rouge and understands the demands placed upon the LSU Tigers from the Louisiana community.

Woodward was the Director of Athletics at the University of Washington from 2008 to 2016, and prior to taking the LSU job was the Athletics Director at Texas A&M where he hired Jimbo Fisher. 

So, it is unsurprisingly no shock that Jimbo Fisher tops the Tigers wishlist. Now, whether Fisher can be prised away from the Aggies is the big question. There is no doubt that Fisher has put himself in a good position to compete for the SEC West. We can only surmise what the Aggies might have achieved if QB Haines King been fit. But these are if, buts and maybes. What is indisputable is that Fisher has built a top 10 team in College Station and a formidable one at that. 

While this might seem an odd comment given that Fisher works in Texas, money is no object for LSU. Orgeron is currently the second best paid coach in the SEC and LSU would up this salary to get someone of Fisher’s calibre. 

Big Name Hire

Credit: Fansided

Fisher would be the splash hire – something LSU want. 

Such a hire would send shockwaves through the SEC and signal their intent that the 2019 National Championship wasn’t the lightning in a bottle that we think it was. Woodward knows Fisher better than most, having taken Jimbo to College Station from Tallahassee and could set a compelling vision as to what a reunion could achieve at one of the biggest schools in the country. 

Of course Fisher is no stranger to LSU, having been offensive co-ordinator under both Nick Saban and Les Miles from 2000-2006. So Fisher is well placed to understand what can be achieved in Louisiana.

Fisher has been vocal about his intent to stay in College Station. So let’s take that at face value for now. Although of course every coach doesn’t want to jump to the next job publicly….until they do want to jump to the next job.

However it is clear that he is first choice for LSU and as such his name never seems to fade into the background even after he said,

“I want to be at A&M, I plan on being at A&M, I ain’t going nowhere,” Fisher continued. “I don’t want to be nowhere else. I love being right here. Is that clean enough?”

Who else?

Who would be the next round of candidates?

Luke Fickell is the current golden boy of college football and the name on everyone’s lips when a vacancy arises. Fickell has taken his Cincinnati Bearcats from being a force in the Group of Five context to a top 4 team nationally in the College Football Playoff rankings. The question I have, is can Fickell realistically take this Bearcats team any higher? But there is no denying that they are an impressive team.

Surprisingly, as reported by CBS Denis Dodd, it would appear that Fickell has decided to stay at Cincinnati. In a year where Head Coaching jobs at USC, Florida, Virginia Tech as well as LSU are available, this sends a strong message from Fickell.

Billy Napier has the benefit of already coaching in the state of Louisiana with the Ragin’ Cajuns at the University of Louisiana. Like Fickell, Napier has taken his team on to a national stage and has received the recognition for this. Napier would not be the national name that Fickell is, but would certainly be a home run in Louisiana. Napier has an  advantage over Fickle in so far that he is already recruiting in state, and will know many of the key recruits. Louisiana is a fertile recruiting state – up there with the best – meaning recruitment has to be central to your strategy. Napier, like Fickell, doesn’t have the experience of running a huge program like LSU, so an experienced coaching staff around him would be key.

I find it interesting that Napier is being aggressively pursued by Florida since they released Dan Mullen. Florida seem to have moved quickly to talk to the Ragin’ Cajuns Head Coach. However the suggestion in and around Baton Rouge is that Scott Woodward does not think that Napier is a big enough name for the LSU job. In that respect, Napier is seen as Plan B. If all else fails. 

Everyone seems to think that James Franklin is a dead cert to be the next USC coach. While USC, a top 5 coaching job in the US, fits the profile of what Franklin wants, so too would the LSU job. And what many are forgetting is that Franklin has previously coached in the SEC with Vanderbilt. At Vandy Franklin made them a hard to team beat, something you cannot accuse of them being now (although I reckon Clark Lea will turn this ship around), which gives him credibility in the conference. It also means Franklin would know what he is getting himself into.

But as we know now, Franklin has joined the list of Head Coaches to improve and extend their existing contracts. Franklin is staying in Pennsylvania.

The Name On Everybody's Lips

Credit: Steve Mitchell (USA Today Sports)

A name which has come out of nowhere but is now on everyone’s lips is Lincoln Riley.

Riley has regularly been liked with a move away from Norman, Oklahoma – although consistently with him being lured by the bright lights of the NFL. Mostly to the Dallas Cowboys.

So, perhaps interesting to see Riley linked with amove to the SEC – a conference he is scheduled to join once Oklahoma moves across from the BIGXII.

This moves makes sense on a lot of levels:

– LSU, I expect want an offensive mind. Riley certainly fits this brief

– Riley would make a big splash, so ticks that box

– Riley recruits in the South from Oklahoma into Texas and down into Louisiana. He knows the patch.

– Will Oklahoma challenge in the SEC when they join? Likely not in the first few years until recruitment catches up. LSU gives Riley entry into the SEC on the second floor, not at basement level.

So in this respect, Lincoln Riley would be a great hire for the Tigers. And to be honest as every day passes, he seems to be becoming more and more of a favourite.

Credit: Joshua McCoy (Ole MIss Athletics)

Kiffin and Campbell

When I started to write this article I wrote down the names of coaches that I thought could step into this role. That list had seventeen names on it, which shows the quality of coaches operating in the college game right now.

Aside from the names I have already mentioned, there  are two more names that jump out – Kiffin and Campbell.

It seems every job, perhaps with the exception of the USC job, have been linked to Lane Kiffin. There is no doubt that Kiffin has resurrected his career, principally due to his “rehabilitation” at Alabama, but he is doing a fantastic job at Ole Miss. In fact such a good job that Kiffin has just led the Ole Miss Rebels to their first 10 win season in school history.

Could I see Kiffin in Baton Rouge? Well, yes, the mercurial Kiffin never seems to stay in one place for too long. And a move to the behemoth that is Tiger Stadium would be appealing. I just wonder if the timing isn’t quite right for Lane. But I could be wrong.

Matt Campbell is another name linked with every job going. However Campbell is from Ohio and has no obvious links to the SEC. While Auburn sought to recruit outside of the SEC with Bryan Harsin (from Boise), it is unusual and I really don’t expect Matt Campbell to move South. USC or the NFL seem more likely destinations for the Iowa State Head Coach.

The Finishing Line

So how does this play out? It would appear that LSU is letting very little out of the bag at this stage. There is no doubt LSU will want their next head coach in place to be able to hit the recruiting trail running. With Orgeron still in situ and a coaching staff very unsure about their futures, there is little they can do to appease the fears of recruits. So the quicker this is resolved the better.

The rumour mill has it that LSU will look to name a replacement soon, perhaps as early as this weekend. Could Woodward’s hand be forced by the vacancy in Gainesville? Almost certainly. So time is of the essence.

However, as appealing as the head coaching job at LSU is, it is no slam dunk. With NCAA sanctions brewing and the perception of an ill disciplined program and culture this job has the potential to sink a career unprepared for it. It takes a brave man to take on a program which will be impacted by sanctions. Just ask Orgeron about his time at Ole Miss and USC.

When Woodward held the press conference announcing the end of O’s tenure he finished with these words,

“The search for LSU’s next championship coach begins today”.

This is the lofty expectation for the next LSU Head Coach. This story has got a bit to run but it will be fascinating to see how it unfolds.

Mock Draft

george somerville

College football writer