GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Ed Orgeron fought to hold his emotions in check as he looked into a purple-and-gold section of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium moments after LSU beat Florida 17-16 on Saturday night. The man so proud to be their head coach -- proud to have been born and raised in Louisiana, and proud to have finally earned his dream job -- held his held high, but would not cry.
He felt it, though: the inexplicable loss a week earlier to Troy and the soul-searching that followed; the pair of players-only meetings to clear the air; how he and athletic director Joe Alleva felt compelled to call both coordinators into the office to sort things out; the former players wondering aloud, What's going on?; the constant wailing from fans and the media. Ten months after Alleva removed his interim tag and named Orgeron head coach, the honeymoon was over. Orgeron was fighting for his job again. "I earned it, whether you like it or not," he told one zealous caller during his weekly radio show Wednesday.
He promised, "We're ready to show the type of team we really are."
And after grinding out a win in Gainesville, it's clear that what they are is a work in progress. Playing with a sense of purpose again, the offense overcame key injuries and the defense racked up five sacks, beating a similarly short-handed Florida thanks to a missed extra point. Orgeron rallied the troops, but the mixture of relief and celebration afterward felt beyond the scope of the game: a pair of teams fighting to see who was fourth-best in the SEC.
Outside the locker room, Orgeron and Alleva locked eyes.
"What do you say, Joe?!" Orgeron shouted.
"What do you say?!" Alleva responded.
The men embraced, embattled coach and embattled athletic director surviving one game at a time. By beating rival Florida, they might not have to hear about Orgeron's $12 million buyout -- neither the feasibility of paying it nor the reason it was given to him in the first place.
"I thought we got close as a football team and a staff this week," Orgeron said. "I think Joe Alleva did a tremendous job of supporting us."
Sophomore linebacker Devin White had never been on a team with so many meetings, but he said it was worth it. After playing "soft" against Troy, leaders stepped up.
"Everybody knew what was at stake," White said.
"It wasn't pretty," said quarterback Danny Etling, "but it was a hard-fought win."
Etling, a popular piñata among fans, completed just 9 of 16 passes for 125 yards. After his lone touchdown -- a play-action pass to tight end Tory Carter -- he let his emotions show, pumping his fist wildly as he exited the field.
"Last week we lost some pride," Etling said. "There was no energy on the sideline and I think when you try to create your team off energy and all those things we try to do here, if you have a lack of energy on the field, that starts with the players. That's something we took upon ourselves -- to have fun, be up on the sidelines, be upbeat, have each other's back no matter what."
Therein lies the rub. With all due respect to Etling, it doesn't start with the players; they're not making millions of dollars to lead the program. It starts and ends with Orgeron, who is charged with setting the tone for everyone in the building.
Read what Etling said again: a team built off energy. Think about that. Is that what a team should be? That's ... combustible.
Beating Florida might have taken some heat off Orgeron and Alleva for the moment, but it was also Exhibit A for why Interim Coach O is the only kind of Coach O that has a track record of success. If there's chaos and uncertainty and a locker room on the brink of self-destruction, he's great. If players think they're fighting for his job, they've shown that they'll walk through fire for him. They did at LSU last season when he took over for a fired Les Miles and went 6-2, and they did at USC in 2013 when he took over for a fired Lane Kiffin and went 6-2. When White said that players knew what was at stake this week, it was their coach's job security.
When the moment doesn't call for fiery speeches and us-against-the-world rhetoric -- like, say, an early nonconference game against a seemingly overmatched Sun Belt team -- Orgeron hasn't shown that he's the man for the job yet. Those moments in between are the makings of a quality Power 5 head coach. It is maintaining an even temperament, a consistent message and a well-defined scheme. Look at Orgeron's brief tenure at LSU or his earlier stint as head coach at Ole Miss, and those things don't come to mind. His three seasons at Ole Miss began with him famously ripping his shirt off and challenging players to fight him, and ended with a 10-25 record. Currently, the Tigers lead the SEC in penalty yards, which shows a lack of discipline.
The win at Florida was nice, but it didn't speak to overarching improvement. Although the defense played well, that unit was never the real issue. The offense, on the other hand, continued to struggle, scoring just 17 points and racking up fewer yards and first downs than it did against Troy. Halfway through the season, we're still waiting on Orgeron to fulfill the unspoken mandate of ushering in a new offensive era under coordinator Matt Canada.
Is Orgeron a motivational speaker or a head coach? He can rally the troops, but can he build a program? If it's going to be fire and brimstone all the time, it's going to be one heck of a roller coaster at LSU for the foreseeable future, and weeks like last week will be more the norm than the exception to the rule.
"I can't have a bad day as long as I'm the head coach at LSU," Orgeron said late Saturday night. "I refuse."
He was sincere. If there's one thing that's true about Orgeron, it's his love for LSU. For him, it's personal.
If you're Alleva and you're on the hook for whatever happens next, what do you say?
Can you hang your hat on a program that's built on emotion rather than facts?
Interim Coach O can get the job done. When the chips are down, he can rally the troops with the best of them.
Head coach Ed Orgeron, he of the five-year contract and the hefty $12 million buyout, still has some things left to prove.