Ed Orgeron’s eventual departure became a reality Sunday, and the opening of one of the best jobs in college football sets up the most compelling theater in the sport.
LSU athletic director Scott Woodward agreed to separate with Orgeron after this season, which was first reported by Sports Illustrated and confirmed by Yahoo Sports.
The reason for the ouster coming after a win was two-fold — things were falling apart behind the scenes, and LSU didn’t want to entertain the slim hopes of the Tigers coming together as they did in the Florida win on Saturday and make it more difficult to separate.
Woodward wants his own coach after Oregeron sputtered to a 9-8 record since winning the 2019 national title. Woodward has always wanted his own coach, and the star-kissed 2019 national title proved just a speed bump in that happening.
Here’s where the theater comes in: Woodward’s defining trait as an athletic director is that he has hired buzzy names, offered paradigm-changing salaries and brokers deals that will assuredly win the news conference. He has done it with Chris Petersen (Washington), Jimbo Fisher (Texas A&M), Buzz Williams (Texas A&M) and Kim Mulkey (LSU).
Anyone who knows Woodward would know that his preference would be to hire Fisher, his longtime friend. The two worked together at LSU when both were young up-and-comers in the business. Woodward lured him to Texas A&M for a historic 10-year, $75 million contract that was fully guaranteed if A&M fired Fisher. It also wouldn’t cost Fisher a penny to leave. And even after Texas A&M athletic director Ross Bjork extended Fisher earlier this season — a move widely regarded as a way to fend off LSU — there’s still no cost for Fisher to walk away.
Imagine this scenario: An athletic director hires someone for more than $10 million year at a new school because of a one-sided contract he initially authored at the previous school that allowed the coach to walk away for free. That’s something that even the most creative SEC fiction writers couldn’t have authored.
Expect rounds of denials, but any list of names at LSU begins with Fisher because of Woodward’s long and strong relationship with him. Expect A&M’s game in Baton Rouge to break all records for awkwardness, and every A&M media availability from this point to be dissected more closely than a presidential address.
Here’s the field that Woodward will be choosing from at LSU. The last three LSU coaches have won national titles — Orgeron, Les Miles and Nick Saban. Woodward will be big-game hunting to make sure that a fourth does the same.
1. Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M: He solves two issues for LSU, which other than 2019 has been perpetually tortured on offense. Fisher will bring consistent and quality quarterback play and development. He also has shown the capability to counter Nick Saban, as the upset in College Station showed last weekend. Fisher brings the confidence, maturity and decision-making inherent to a coach who has been at a high-profile job for 12 years and won a national title at Florida State in 2013. The list starts here.
2. James Franklin, Penn State: He’ll be among the most coveted coaches in this market, as Franklin is also believed to be high up on USC’s wish list. Franklin has SEC experience from his miraculous resuscitation of Vanderbilt. He’d bring a similar profile of experience as Fisher as Franklin has 11 seasons at a high-profile job. It will be interesting to see how pro-active Penn State gets with Franklin, as he’s going to be the buzz of this coaching carousel.
3. Lane Kiffin, Ole Miss: The spotlight tends to find Lane, and they’ll be a lot of eyeballs this week on what he says about his close friend, Orgeron. Woodward is a straight-laced guy who came from politics, so Kiffin’s aversion to convention may be too much. But LSU would run a high-octane offense and wouldn’t flinch at competing with Saban, which are critical for this job.
4. Luke Fickell, Cincinnati: The idea of Fickell leaving the Midwest is still a stretch. But there are only a handful of jobs where you are nearly guaranteed to win a title if you run a competent program, and LSU is one of them. If Fickell leads Cincinnati to the College Football Playoff — same as Franklin, too — it could eliminate the chances for him leaving because of timing. They’ll be strong USC interest here, too.
5. Dave Aranda, Baylor: He was the unsung hero of keeping LSU together during Orgeron’s tenure, as he served as the capable defensive coordinator from 2016-2019. Aranda is everything Orgeron isn’t — calm, cerebral and a deep thinker who could maximize the program. It’s unlikely LSU will get this far down the list, but Aranda’s 5-1 start at Baylor this year certainly has juiced up his candidacy.
6. Mel Tucker, Michigan State: He’s a veteran SEC assistant who has launched out as a head coach with a breakthrough 7-0 start and a place in the Top 10. Tucker knows his way around the SEC corridor from his time under Nick Saban and Kirby Smart. He’s elite connecting with players and it has shown this season by managing the transfer portal with savvy. He has built his team with care and he’s on an arc for a promising head coaching career.