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Down the Bayou, Ed Orgeron’s Hometown Roots for an LSU Title

LSU plays Clemson on Monday in New Orleans for the college football national championship. About 60 miles away, at the southern tip of Louisiana, residents of Larose celebrate their native son.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s two weeks after Christmas, but Coco Orgeron’s “wish list” is still up. The vertical sign, propped up in the middle of her lawn in Larose, Louisiana, shows Santa unfurling a scroll with seven items. The first on the list—LSU head coach—was checked off on November 26, 2016, when her son Ed Jr. was officially named the coach of the Tigers’ football team. Health/happiness? Check. Heisman Trophy? Check. Seafood gumbo? Check. Beat BAMA? Check.

“P.S. I’ve been good most of the time,” reads the bottom of the sign in red print. The only two uncompleted items on the list: increase oil prices and national championship.

The former involves geopolitical and economic maneuvers best not addressed here. But the latter is within reach thanks to Coco’s eldest son. On Monday, Ed Orgeron will lead LSU onto the turf at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome to play Clemson in New Orleans, roughly 60 miles northeast of Larose, and try to cap an undefeated season with the program’s fourth national championship in its 127-year history.

At Gators Inn on the Bayou, a motel and bar 1 mile from Coco’s house across a drawbridge over the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, domestic beers will be $1 for every (LSU) touchdown, and it will be packed, bartender Donna LeBouef says, or at least as packed as a bar can get in a town of about 7,000. A photo of LSU’s Tiger Stadium in 1913 hangs on the wall behind the bar, and regulars introduce themselves with jokes like, “If you cross an armadillo with a squirrel, you get a betaille that can run across the water like a squirrel” (betaille being Cajun French for a kind of beast).

The Gators Inn is Jack Ledet’s neighborhood spot. Ledet, 78, lives just over the bridge near the Orgeron home, and has known the family for years; in southern Lafourche Parish, a county that acts as the dangling toe on the boot of Louisiana, dipping into the Gulf of Mexico, it’s not a question of whether you know someone, but how. Ledet pulls up photos on his phone of the ferry that used to shuttle students across the bayou to school, one of Julien Orgeron, Ed Orgeron’s grandfather, in front of his fruit stand, and another of the Joy Theater, where kids used to shoot the rats that ate the leftover popcorn with BB guns.

Ledet used to help Julien yank that barge across the bayou. He has known “Bébé,” as Orgeron is known around here, since he was any other boy on the water, shoveling shrimp during the summer and suiting up as defensive lineman and offensive tackle for South Lafourche High School in the fall. To Ledet and many others in the region, Orgeron is a hometown icon who represents, in spirit and drive, exactly what it means to be from “down the bayou.”

“It was his will and determination that did it,” he says. “That was Bébé. And his daddy was the same way. … That’s a different breed of person. He’s not going to give up. Which a lot of the locals, you can say what you want about them, but they will not give up.”

With his Cajun rasp and feverish intensity, Orgeron was reportedly deemed to be unsuitable for the USC head coaching job. The announcement of his hire as the Tigers’ head coach was met with raised eyebrows and smirks. Orgeron excelled as a recruiter and a motivator as an assistant, but many didn’t take him seriously as a head coach of a major program, even in his home state. But down the bayou, his unrefined mettle is appreciated and recognized.

And he’s always been like this, his former teammates and neighbors say. He exudes grit not just because that’s how he is, but because of where he’s from.

Larose is not a town you stumble upon. To get here from the Superdome, you start by heading west and parallel to the Mississippi River. Go past the new airport terminal, where United and American Airlines will offer direct flights from South Carolina’s Greenville-Spartanburg Airport for three days for visiting Clemson fans. Veer northeast and over the LaBranche Wetlands, a brackish marsh where cypress trees dangle green-gray Spanish moss from their lower branches. On U.S. Route 90 West, Subway and Family Dollar stores give way to billboards for boudin and cracklin, and then handwritten signs for fresh satsumas and “female crabs, full of eggs” from Guidry’s Seafood. As you turn onto LA 308, Bayou Lafourche emerges on the right side, still and muddy, dotted with weathered wooden docks, shrimping boats, and tugboats. It’s nicknamed the “longest main street in the world” for its diagonal slant across the southernmost part of the state, passing through 106 miles from Donaldsonville, Louisiana into the Gulf of Mexico, and running parallel to Louisiana Highway 1 and Highway 308.

People don’t pass through here accidentally, and people don’t often leave, says Gaye Cheramie, principal and alum of South Lafourche High School, Orgeron’s alma mater.

“I think it’s one thing that people don’t understand if you’re not from South Louisiana—people from South Louisiana stay in South Louisiana,” she says. The degrees of separation in this parish are small (“it’s more like a ‘family bush,’ not a family tree, and everyone’s related in some way”).

Residents are deeply tied to the land, and deeply tied to the state’s flagship university, even before Orgeron landed the top job in Baton Rouge. Louisiana doesn’t have the competing interests of Alabama, which might split allegiances between Tuscaloosa and Auburn, or Mississippi’s dichotomy between Starkville and Oxford. Rooting for LSU is almost as innate as rooting for the Saints. It doesn’t matter if you went to LSU or if you went to college at all, the Tigers are your team.

This is Cajun country, where cardinal directions are replaced with references to the bayou: You’re either up it, down it, on one side of it, or on the other.

Cajun history can be traced back to the 1600s. French families settled in Acadia, a part of eastern Canada now known as the Maritime Provinces. In 1755, they were exiled from the region after refusing an oath of allegiance to the Protestant King of England. So they scattered along the East Coast, returned to France, or sailed to south Louisiana, where their Catholicism, a shared religion with Spain, the territory’s ruler, was accepted.

Self-sufficiency along the bayou was key. This was a group of people expelled by their government and determined to live off the land and the water. They learned how to prepare alligator and planted okra. Every cooked meal started with the holy trinity: onions, celery, and bell pepper. Cypress trees were cut down and used for lumber. Spanish moss became stuffing for mattresses and pillows.

“A Cajun way of life was living off the land and being with family, which taught you the morals,” says Brenda Trosclair, 66, who is a travel counselor at the Cajun Bayou Visitor Center in Raceland, Louisiana, in the northern part of the parish. “You were taught to do things as a team, as a family and how each one is important to be in that unit … It wasn’t just one family that could provide everything. It took everybody to fulfill the needs for the Cajun way of life.”

“It’s not possible to live here and not be an LSU fan,” Cheramie says.

The area was so insular that, centuries later, Cajun French is still spoken, though it’s fading. Trosclair can speak it because it was her only method of communication with her grandparents. At Gators Inn, a regular named Jim shares a story about his teacher rapping on his hand when he spoke French in school instead of English. In the ’70s, when Cajun workers were hired to help with offshore oil operations in the North Sea, deals were negotiated with foreign clients, such as Italians, in French, their only common language. Orgeron’s generation may be the last to have a solid grasp on the nuances of the dialect. French is being taught in schools, but it’s textbook Parisian French, and not the Cajun strain. In the accent though, the past lingers—it sounds flatter than a country twang, but the lilt in vowels, such as in “Coach O” or “brother,” betrays a hint of Nova Scotia. The Canadian raising of vowels elevates a two-dimensional word into something that simmers with centuries of tradition.

One Cajun saying best describes how Orgeron connects so well with his players, says Josh Jambon, his former South Lafourche High School teammate. Orgeron’s father, Ed Sr., used to sit out on one of the two green rocking chairs on the family lawn, “one leg cranked out,” and pass the evening chatting with whoever walked by, says Jambon, and “make veiller.” The term, which is pronounced “vay-yay,” means to sit, usually in the evening, and pass the time by talking with friends and neighbors.

“Whenever you’d pass, and there were a number of us that would always pass, it didn’t matter what we had to talk about … we’d stop and talk to him,” Jambon says of “making veiller” with Ed Sr. “And he always had that ability, Mr. Bébé, to be able to sit down and talk to us.

“Coach O, that ability that he has to be able to talk to those young players, he got that from his dad.”

Residents of southern Lafourche Parish describe the tenets of the Cajun way of life with language that sounds like it was lifted from one of Coach Taylor’s motivational speeches from Friday Night Lights: family and community, hard work and ingenuity, grit and determination.

“There’s this underdog mentality,” Cheramie says, “that one way or another, it’s gonna get done no matter what. And I think [Orgeron] brings his scrappiness to his coaching.”

When Orgeron played for his South Lafourche Tarpons, they had been the assumed underdog in Louisiana high school football for years. But in 1977, Oregon and his teammates, including quarterback Bobby “Cajun Cannon” Hebert, won the school’s second and last state championship with a 21-20 win against Bonnabel High, led by Tommy Wilcox, who went on to win the 1979 national championship with Alabama. Everyone turned out for games—elderly folks with no family members still at the school, trappers who lived out in the marsh and came back into town just for Friday nights.

Cheramie was a sophomore when Orgeron was a senior, and she remembers that Coco would stand in the top of the stadium’s bleachers, cheering and screaming the whole night. On the night of the state final, the stadium was so packed they let fans gather on the track and stand beside the field to accommodate a crowd of 10,000-plus.

In December, I drove out to Galliano, Louisiana, to meet Andrew Martin, the president of the “Coach O Day Board of Directors,” the group behind a February 2017 banquet to salute Orgeron and commemorate the 40th anniversary of South Lafourche’s 1977 state championship. Martin, whose son played running back on the championship squad, was joined by three former players, Jambon, Mel Guidroz, and Kevin Gros, and a coach, Roe Pitre. LSU’s rout of Georgia in the SEC championship game and its blowout win over Oklahoma in the national semifinal were still to come, but it had been about a few weeks since the Tigers beat Alabama, their first defeat of the Crimson Tide since 2011, and Orgeron’s former teammates were still buzzing over the win.

It was “surreal,” says Guidroz.

“Not a dry eye on the bayou,” Jambon says.

“They had a flash flood warning Saturday night. Everybody was crying ... the rivers, the creeks …” Gros adds.

Their memories of their high school championship run remain sharp. There was the quarterfinal defeat of Archbishop Shaw and John Fourcade, who would go on to break Archie Manning’s passing record at Ole Miss. Then there was the 26-bus caravan to Ouachita, La., for a frigid semifinal win—the team was stranded when the brakes on the team bus froze. The bayou was empty that night, they said, because so much of the town made the six-hour drive to watch the Tarpons play.

Orgeron’s former high school teammates have followed his coaching career, which began as a graduate assistant at Northwestern State, where he played with Hebert, and continued on from Miami to Nicholls State, from USC to Ole Miss and back to USC—along every step, he has prioritized his hometown connections.

Gros, who played tailback and wingback on that South Lafourche championship team, went to upstate New York for his honeymoon—to see Niagara Falls, and to visit Orgeron during his stint as defensive line coach in Syracuse, where he says Orgeron wore plastic bags over his shoes to deal with the snow until someone convinced him to get boots.

Gros took exception when the public started to make fun of Orgeron’s gravelly accent, but said Orgeron told him not to worry about it. “‘Loook, let it go, let ’em talk, don’t worry about that,” Orgeron told Gros. “And I said, ‘OK, Coach.’”

Jambon called Orgeron up when he was in Los Angeles and got passes to a USC practice when Orgeron was an assistant. It was after the split 2003 USC-LSU championship, and Jambon’s son, then about 10 years old, couldn’t help but mention that it was rightfully LSU’s title. Orgeron, Jambon says, laughed it off.

When Orgeron was at Ole Miss, Pitre, a coach for the ’77 team, called him up about visiting spring practice with his staff. As they entered the facilities, Pitre spotted his old player, called out “Bébé,” and Orgeron immediately took off and tackled him in the hallway. Later, he introduced Pitre to star offensive tackle Michael Oher.

All of these men were at the 40th anniversary celebration for the 1977 team, and all of them remember the rising timbre in Orgeron’s voice as he gave his remarks to the crowd of nearly 1,600. The last minute of the speech, focused on how this area, these people, and Orgeron himself had to compete for everything.

“Don’t you never, never, never give up,” he said, his voice rising on the last syllable of “never,” shaking the walls of the Larose Civic Center.

“He’s not polished, but he’s not brass—he’s in between,” Martin says. “People down here, when they decide to do something, they do it. He had a vision, and it came true.”