SEC MEDIA DAYS: Orgeron Changing Perceptions

HOOVER, ALABAMA — It is Thursday morning and Ed Orgeron is explaining how there is a plan in place if Brent Schaeffer somehow doesn’t get into school on time at Ole Miss. In that Orgeron named Schaeffer the starter the moment he signed his Ole Miss scholarship back in February, this is a rather critical issue but Orgeron handles things with the same cool you would expect of his former boss.

Of course, his former boss was Pete Carroll and at Southern Cal, they don’t name their starters on signing day and when a quarterback graduates, they simply replace him with another quarterback of equal or greater skill. When Carson Palmer won the Heisman Trophy and graduated, they simply replaced him with Matt Leinhart, who won one Heisman and finished third in the voting for the second one that teammate Reggie Bush won.

They don’t do things quite the same way at Ole Miss. At Ole Miss, when an outstanding quarterback like Eli Manning graduates and goes on to the No Fun League, you pray to all the saints that someway and somehow, some poor misguided soul with greatness in his arms and feet will find Oxford and Vaught-Hemingway Stadium more charming than Gainesville or Athens or Baton Rouge. You pray for that but what you get more often than not is a Michael Spurlock who can’t throw a lick or a Robert Lane who discovers his junior year that he should have been playing tight end all along.

It’s admirable that Orgeron can sound so confident about his quarterback situation. He should be doing his best imitation of Bruce Pearl, sweating through his suit and looking like he just ran through a monsoon, but instead he acts like it’s not such a big deal that his starting quarterback, who wasn’t there for spring practice and hasn’t made it in for a single summer workout, is still taking courses to get himself graduated from this place called College of the Sequoias. He was back home in Deerfield Beach taking correspondence courses when someone in Oxford figured out there was no way he could finish his coursework in time to get his A.A. degree and enrolled in Ole Miss by the time the season starts.

When they figured that out, they got Schaeffer on the first available flight back to California where he somehow got himself enrolled in real classes in the middle of an already begun semester. As of Thursday morning, Orgeron was doing his best to sound confident that his all the eggs in one basket quarterback will wade through this academic quagmire to play quarterback at Ole Miss this fall.

No big deal here, right? Just a bunch of folks making a big deal out of nothing at all, right?

Well, it is a big deal what’s happening with Schaeffer but it’s also a big deal that Orgeron acts like it’s not a big deal. You expect a school like Ole Miss to do a Chicken Little the sky is falling when something like this happens because in reality, if Schaeffer doesn’t make it in, not only has the sky fallen but huge cracks have appeared in the face of the earth in Oxford, Mississippi.

That’s what you expect at Ole Miss because Ole Miss is … well, Ole Miss. Every school in the SEC West has made it to at least one SEC championship game, the one being Ole Miss. There was a time when Ole Miss was a national power, but Johnny Vaught was the coach and they played single-platoon football in those days.

Now Orgeron is the coach, trying to change the perceptions of a school wearing the cement shoes of mediocrity. So here he is facing a few hundred writers and broadcasters on SEC Media Days acting like it’s not a big deal about Schaeffer and that no matter what happens, the stars and planets will still align.

“We have a plan in effect,” he said. “We think it’s going to work but if something happens that he can’t finish on time, if something happens that he doesn’t do well in the class or something like that, that could prolong his reporting day.”

There you go. There’s a plan. Exactly what the plan is, we’re not quite sure but at least there is a plan.

“I don’t expect, if he [Schaeffer] doesn’t show up on time, for it to be much later than a couple of practices,” said Orgeron. “You just can’t tell. If he prolongs, we may have to go with someone else. We have a backup plan.”

Backup plans tend to work at the Southern Cals and Ohio States and Floridas and Miamis of the college football world because these schools are well enough known and have good enough facilities, traditions, recruiting bases, etc., to stay in perpetual reload. You expect Ole Miss to have a backup plan, too. You just don’t expect them to have one that works.

That sounds pretty harsh, doesn’t it? Well, that’s the perception that’s been bred by years and years and years of the reward for good seasons being a trip to Shreveport for the Weedwacker Bowl. You know the Weedwacker. You win and you only spend one week in Shreveport. You lose and you have to stay another week.

Changing the perception of Ole Miss from a school that aspires to be named the permanent host team of the Weedwacker to a school that is capable of going toe-to-toe with LSU and Florida and Alabama is Orgeron’s sworn and solemn duty.

He says he’ll do it. His plan for a total program makeover is, “Persistence, having a plan, believing in Ole Miss, believing in myself. My goal is to outwork my opponents in recruiting. I don’t know if we do that or not but that’s my goal.”

That was also Tommy Tuberville’s goal. He was the coach at Ole Miss before David Cutcliffe. Tuberville bolted to Auburn first chance he got. Cutcliffe got fired one year after winning 10 games and taking Ole Miss to the Cotton Bowl. Tuberville said he could win championships at Auburn. He’s won the SEC and come about as close as you can to winning a national title without actually doing it at the loveliest village on the plains. He never has said you can’t win championships at Ole Miss but he really didn’t have to. His actions spoke much louder than words.

Orgeron has been a bundle of recruiting energy and he’s bringing in better athletes at Ole Miss than Cutcliffe or Tuberville ever did. So he’s succeeding on that front. He’s also changing perceptions with the kind of assistant coaches he’s bringing in.

He’s fired a ton of assistants already which would be a negative in most places except that Orgeron has found suitable replacement killers in guys like Art Kehoe and Dan Werner, most recently of the staff at the University of Miami, where they were unceremoniously dumped in a staff shakeup by Larry Coker. At Ole Miss, nobody worries that Kehoe and Werner were canned by Coker. That’s because everyone figures Coker will be gone in a couple of years anyway and that his staff shakeup was an attempt to buy some time. At Ole Miss, Kehoe and Werner bring the credibility of having coached national championship teams. The fact that Kehoe has five national championship rings from his days at Miami, Werner has one and Orgeron has a couple from his days at Southern Cal are all important billboards on this all roads lead to Oxford map for success.

Of course, that map for success will have a much greater chance of actually getting somewhere other than Shreveport if the aforementioned Mr. Schaeffer has the good form to actually graduate from the College of the Sequoias. Ed Orgeron isn’t sweating visibly like the Sultan of Sweat Bruce Pearl, but next week if it’s not looking good for Schaeffer, the first beads of perspiration might start appearing on Orgeron’s eyebrow. The battle for perception at Ole Miss will take a major hit if Schaeffer doesn’t make it.

If he does get in, however, then one of the cornerstones in a new foundation for Ole Miss will be in place. Schaeffer definitely has the kind of talent that normally doesn’t show up at Ole Miss. If he can get in school then chalk it up as another opportunity for Ed Orgeron to permanently alter perceptions. He’s convinced he can get it done at a place that’s been a graveyard for coaches over the last thirty-plus years. He’s convinced that if can just turn the corner Ole Miss can and will compete for championships.

It sounds ludicrous considering this is Ole Miss, but somehow watching Orgeron handle things with such cool and confidence, you get the feeling that it could actually happen someday.

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Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.