USC football: What if the Trojans had hired Ed Orgeron in 2013?


What if USC football had hired Ed Orgeron as the permanent head coach in 2013? Would the Trojans be better off or in the same position?

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There have been plenty of “what ifs” in USC football history. But few in recent memory stand out quite as clearly as the head coaching what if from the 2013 season.

What if USC had promoted interim head coach Ed Orgeron to permanent head coach?

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The fates of Orgeron and the man USC did hire, Steve Sarkisian, were intertwined from the moment athletic director Pat Haden made his decision.

And the verdict on that decision is pretty clear-cut. It was a mistake.

Sarkisian was fired in the middle of his second season on the job after a string of misconducts fueled by alcoholism. Regardless of his 9-4 record in Year 1, the chaos of the end of his tenure simply wasn’t worth the trouble.

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Orgeron wouldn’t have come with the personal baggage, and recent developments suggest he might have a reasonable claim to real head coaching chops.

After becoming LSU’s defensive line coach, Orgeron was once again made an interim coach when the Tigers parted ways with Les Miles in 2016. For the second time in his career, Orgeron guided a team to a 6-2 record, only this time LSU rewarded his efforts with an offer to take charge permanently.

In two seasons at the helm, Orgeron has managed a 19-7 record.

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Meanwhile at USC, Haden’s decisions continued to tie Orgeron to the program, linking his progress at LSU to Clay Helton’s with the Trojans.

After all, Helton was in Orgeron’s position in 2015, taking over for Sarkisian and leading USC to a string of victories. Unlike before, Haden opted to promote the interim head coach.

That’s why this hypothetical is particularly interesting, because USC and LSU are walking parallel paths with interconnected figures.

Coming into the 2019 season, it would be easy to say the Tigers got the better end of that deal. Orgeron has a 73 percent win rate and has his team trending up after a Fiesta Bowl victory.

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Helton, on the other hand, is coming off a 5-7 season which ended with angry fans flying a banner over the Coliseum calling for Lynn Swann to make a change.

Let’s be fair to Helton though. Orgeron isn’t where Helton is coming into the 2019 season because in terms of his coaching tenure, he’s actually a year behind.

At the same stage, after two seasons of football were played, Helton and Orgeron have nearly identical records. Orgeron went 19-7 in his first two seasons. Helton went 21-6. Both went 1-1 in bowl games.

As Helton proved, the true direction of the Orgeron era is yet to be determined. His 10-25 record at Ole Miss still weighs heavily.

Orgeron gets to prove he has fully moved past his Ole Miss days and can avoid Helton’s Year 3 pitfalls in the upcoming campaign. Helton will get to show he can or can’t turn things around this fall as well.

But when it comes down to it, both coaches still sit in the same category: Unlikely to win a national title any time soon.

Chris Graythen/Getty Images
Chris Graythen/Getty Images /

As far as USC and this “what if” are concerned, that’s where the problem lies.

The framing of the conversation is too often Helton or Orgeron. It shouldn’t be.

Orgeron might have been a better choice than Sarkisian in hindsight, but that’s because Sarkisian had personal issues get in the way, not because Orgeron would have been the one to bring USC back to national prominence.

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And maybe Orgeron is a better head coach than Helton, but that doesn’t mean he would have been the right head coach to bring a national title back to USC.

Orgeron and Helton were the wrong hires for the same reason. Neither were on the level USC should be targeting. The Trojans are one of the elite programs in college football and they should aim much higher than a failed Ole Miss head coach and an unproven offensive coordinator, especially when the best claim to the job for both was that they knew the fight song and were liked by players.

The fact that Haden made the wrong decision on an interim coach in the second instance doesn’t mean the first instance of avoiding the interim was also wrong.

So really, what if USC had hired Ed Orgeron back in 2013? The last few years in Troy might have gone very differently. But in the grand scheme of things, the Trojans would likely still be where they are now: still searching for the right head coach. Preferably one who is not an interim.