Memphis Commercial Appeal – Jul 29, 2007 – Scott Cacciola – Ole Miss coach Ed Orgeron’s voice boomed inside a large conference room at the Memphis Botanic Garden, where he addressed more than 500 fans and alumni at the annual summer meeting for the Rebel Club of Memphis on July 19. He launched into a story about incoming linebacker Tony Fein, who fought for the U.S. Army in Iraq.
“I’ve already said it, and I’ll say it again,” Orgeron said. “He’s 24 years old. He’s spent time in Baghdad. So one day, I said, ‘Tony, come over here. When the ball is snapped, get into the backfield and do what they taught you to do in Baghdad!'”
His audience laughed and cheered, and Orgeron’s face lit up.
“The only difference is,” he continued, “when the whistle blows, you have to come back!”
His punchline was met by the sort of deafening applause that was largely absent from Vaught-Hemingway Stadium the past two seasons. And for some members of his audience, who had only known Orgeron from his terse interactions with reporters, they found him to be charismatic and charming. In other words, nothing like what they expected.
“Everybody I talked to, they loved his speech,” said Kelly Lomax, outgoing president of the Rebel Club of Memphis.
As Orgeron heads into his third season at Ole Miss, the pressure to win — and endear himself to the public — is mounting. After guiding the Rebels to a 3-8 record his first year, Orgeron saw his team lose a pair of overtime games last year (to LSU and Alabama, both on the road) en route to a 4-8 season. On the surface, the Rebels showed marginal improvement. But the team was far more competitive, losing four games by less than a touchdown, a statistic Orgeron emphasizes whenever he speaks to audiences.
“Those games could have went either way, and you have a winning season,” he said. “Just looking at our program, I think we have a lot better team this year.”
With that in mind, Orgeron said the focus throughout preseason camp will be on “finishing” games. Greater depth, he said, should help.
His imprint is all over this team. Just two of the team’s 22 projected starters are holdovers from the last coaching staff, so if he had ample margin for error during his first two seasons — everyone from the administration to the team’s fans were aware that Orgeron was “rebuilding” — that cushion has lost some of its bounce.
Athlon, CBSSportsline, Lindy’s and Phil Steele all predict Ole Miss to finish last in the SEC West this season. On the bright side, Blue Ribbon, Street & Smith’s, The Sporting News and College Football News forecast the Rebels to wind up fifth, ahead of Mississippi State.
Orgeron said he pays no attention to preseason polls, but there seems to be greater optimism about the 2008 season. Quarterback Jevan Snead, who has to sit out the 2007 season after transferring from Texas, will be eligible, and Orgeron should benefit from an additional year of growth. He played 17 freshmen last season.
Athletic director Pete Boone said Orgeron has his support. Boone was asked if this is a make-or-break season for Orgeron.
“Oh, absolutely not,” said Boone, who signed Orgeron to a contract extension over the winter. “He’s the right guy for our program. We have to look at fundamental issues of how they’re developing, and I think he’s done a great job. And I think that you’ll see a lot from the team this year, next year.”
High-profile coaches face so much scrutiny these days, many often withdraw from public view when they struggle to achieve immediate success, according to Dr. John F. Murray, a Florida-based sports psychologist. Murray referred to this tendency as “distraction control” –eliminating elements that create additional anxiety. Murray said a primordial aspect is at work here. He likened it to “retreating back to the cave” or “throwing up sandbags” when problems arise.
And Orgeron has, in some ways, isolated himself. During his first year at Ole Miss, reporters could wander through the football offices and chat with members of his staff. Practices were open. But after a season rife with turmoil — Orgeron was annoyed that Internet-based reporters were posting detailed practice reports online, and he also dealt with dissension among his coaching staff — he closed practices and limited access to his staff. In other words, he constructed a wall.
“Perception is everything,” Murray said, “and the community will give you a longer leash if you’re able to articulate your struggles and fans perceive that they’re part of the team and involved in the process.”
Orgeron has faced obstacles during his tenure in Oxford. Critics questioned his readiness when he was hired– he had never been a head coach — and he has been easy fodder for satirists who poke fun at his thick Louisiana accent. To wit, “Colonel Reb Is Crying,” the popular product of Memphis-based sports-radio host Chris Vernon, has been viewed 285,434 times on YouTube.com. Orgeron’s gruff image has been hard to shake.
Like Alabama coach Nick Saban, who also has a topsy-turvy relationship with the media, Orgeron sometimes lacks the sort of charisma that ingratiates other coaches with the general public. Saban said he has never quite adjusted to his high-profile position. At SEC Media Days last week, he explained how he was “just a country boy” who grew up in West Virginia pumping gas. Sure, now he makes $4 million per year, but he said once made $1 an hour cleaning windows, checking oil and changing tires.
“To me, I’m still that way,” Saban said, “but maybe sometimes I don’t realize that. Sometimes the things I say mean a lot more than what I would intend them to be. Sometimes, because I’m a little bit shy, maybe that’s misinterpreted as not being outgoing. But I try my best, and I’m getting better and I’m trying to improve every day.”
When Orgeron is surrounded by people with whom he feels comfortable, he can be lively and funny. That much was obvious at the Rebel Club of Memphis meeting, where he averaged rousing applause every 15 seconds or so. He captivated the crowd with stories about meeting his wife, having baseball coach Mike Bianco as a neighbor and offering former linebacker Patrick Willis life lessons.
“I remember last year, right around this time, he told me about how one of his friends who had just graduated had gotten a job making $100,000 a year,” Orgeron said. “And Patrick goes, ‘Can you imagine making that much money a year?’ And I said, ‘Oh, my God. Patrick, we need to talk.'”
(Willis, who was selected by the San Francisco 49ers with the 11th pick in the recent NFL Draft, is negotiating a multi-year, multi-million dollar contract.)
But when Orgeron tried out the Tony Fein story at SEC Media Days, his delivery was flat, his language stilted. Nobody laughed. Still, there were times when he allowed some candor to seep past his steely expression. When prodded about his decision to name Brent Schaeffer his starting quarterback months before he even arrived on campus last year, Orgeron conceded he had made errors born of inexperience.
“You learn,” he said. “I made some mistakes … and hopefully I’m correcting those things.”
The grand tour of: Ole Miss
Rewind: During coach Ed Orgeron’s second year at the helm, the Rebels went 4-8, but four of their losses were by less than a touchdown. They struggled at quarterback, where junior starter Brent Schaeffer was inconsistent at best (47.1-percent completion rate) and woeful at worst. Things got so bad, Orgeron benched him in favor of former walk-on Seth Adams during the second half of each of the team’s final two games. A bright spot was the play of senior Patrick Willis, who won the Butkus Award as the nation’s most outstanding linebacker. He was selected 11th overall by the San Francisco 49ers in the recent NFL Draft.
Fast forward: The Rebels will have to figure out how to replace Willis and fellow linebacker Rory Johnson, both of whom are in the NFL. Their defense is thin and largely inexperienced, and Orgeron also has to unearth some solid play at quarterback. Adams seems a likely choice to start the season opener against Memphis on Sept. 1. Orgeron has praised his decision-making and solid work ethic while, at the same time, criticizing Schaeffer’s “lifestyle.” Pundits are not favoring Ole Miss to be very competitive this season. Eight major publications, such as The Sporting News and College Football News, tabbed the Rebels to finish fifth or sixth in the six-team SEC West division.
Dr. John F. Murray is a sports psychologist and clinical psychologist providing sports psychology and counseling services based in Palm Beach, Florida.