NEW ORLEANS — The coaching lifer with the booming voice right out of the bayou was standing beside a bust of the man who defined coaching in these parts, and the nation, for decades. Ed Orgeron of Louisiana State was accepting the Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year award from the Football Writers Association. “I met a lot of people that were coached by Coach Robinson that coached me,” Orgeron said. “ . . . So I feel like I’m from that tree.”
As a perfect LSU season led to the College Football Playoff championship game and the possibility of a fourth national title, Orgeron has come to represent the link between a 21st Century celebration and the world of the immortal coach whose bust rested a foot or two away.
The personal and professional connections between Orgeron and Robinson, coaches who lived and taught in such different circumstances, had developed for years, one relationship at a time.
“Two Louisiana guys,” said Rashard Lawrence, a LSU senior defensive end. “Two flagship guys.”
Rashard, from Monroe, was one of the leading recruits in the nation in 2015. Orgeron had become an assistant coach at LSU after a 6-2 record as interim coach at USC in 2013 did not lead to the permanent job.
“I remember him coming to my house and saying, ‘You’re going to be a team captain on a national championship team,’” Lawrence said. “I kind of looked like him like he was crazy. How can he see into the future?”
Lawrence’s father, Ronald, played quarterback for Robinson at Grambling. Lawrence was a child when his father introduced him to the man Eddie Robinson III calls Grandpops.
Robinson III remembered the family stories he had heard years earlier about the days when his grandfather, growing up in Baton Rouge, was not allowed to see LSU games.
“He wasn’t allowed to attend as a spectator, because of the Jim Crow laws,” Robinson III said. The young Eddie Robinson was still determined to see the Fighting Tigers despite knowing the punishment he would face at home in the event he was caught and turned away.
“When you’re in walking distance or a bike ride from the LSU campus, you can’t stand it,” Robinson III said. “He knew he’d get in trouble.”
The type of trouble Robinson III heard described by his grandfather had less to do with the authorities and more to do with what happened when he arrived at home. The grandson said of Eddie Robinson’s father: “He had one of the fastest belts in Baton Rouge.”
But eventually, Eddie Robinson heard about a solution. “A couple of his friends told him you can work as a laborer to help them prepare for the game and take a peek at the game,” Robinson III said.
That is how a child who became one of the most admired coaches in the history of college football found a way to see his favorite team.
As Robinson III followed the LSU success, he discovered a link between the way his grandfather coached and Orgeron’s approach.
“Just like my grandfather, he believes in nurturing, teaching, guiding his young men,” Robinson said.
The difference could be found in their professional paths. Robinson coached at Grambling for 57 years, with his teams winning or sharing 17 Southwestern Athletic Conference championships and claiming nine Black College football titles among 408 victories.
Orgeron learned from bosses that included Jimmy Johnson at Miami and Pete Carroll at USC. But a head coaching opportunity at Ole Miss ended after three losing seasons and the interim success at USC was not considered successful enough to continue. When Orgeron thanked the family members and others there to honor him, his voice wavered when he arrived at one, Brian Kennedy, a USC supporter who had mentored him. He gently curled his right hand and tapped the podium three times as he struggled to control his emotions.
“And here’s what he told me: He said, ‘Ed, don’t write the script. You’ll shortchange yourself.’”
A very different script led to a championship stage Monday night, with a coach guided by Eddie Robinson’s philosophy that Orgeron never forgot:
“He said, ‘In order for you to have success, your players have to know that you love them.’”