ATHENS — There are a lot of reasons to root for LSU when it plays host to Alabama this Saturday, but two of them wear caps on the Tigers’ sideline.
One of them is, of course, Ed Orgeron. The interim head coach, affectionately known to the locals as Bébé but as Coach O to the rest of the college football world, has led LSU to a 3-0 record since taking over for the ousted Les Miles. He’s still considered a long shot for permanently succeeding Miles – the names Jimbo Fisher and Tom Herman still top the Tigers’ wish list – but if Orgeron finds a way to knock off the No. 1-ranked Crimson Tide, he might be hard to pass over. He’s already a Cajun rock star.
But Coach O is not who we’re here to talk about today. We’re here to discuss Steve Ensminger, a name that should ring a bell with Georgia fans and really anybody who has followed the SEC for any length of time. The man certainly has been all over the league in different stints over the years, making stops at Texas A&M (before it was in the SEC) and Auburn before hooking back up with LSU, his alma mater, in 2010.
Those are just a few of the coaching incarnations Ensminger has undergone since leaving LSU as a part-time starting quarterback in the late 1970s. Included in there are stretches as a high school coach at Central and West Monroe in Louisiana in the early 2000s and at Smiths Station in Alabama in 2009. Also on Ensminger’s resumé are stops at such exotic locales as Nicholls State, McNeese State and Louisiana Tech. It is believed that between them Ensminger and Orgeron have coached at every college in Louisiana.
So it’s not like Ensminger has been a kept man in this good-old-boy industry. This is guy who has been knocked down a peg more than a few times in what can be a cutthroat business. Which is what makes the 58-year-old Ensminger fun to root for right now.
“The game of coaching can be a painful one,” says Eric Zeier, who played quarterback for Ensminger at Georgia from 1991-93. “Everybody always sees the guy who gets elevated to a head coaching position where their careers are skyrocketing. But for every one of those you’ve got 50 other guys who go through the system the way Coach Ensminger has. It is challenging. You have to have your teams win, you have to hook up with a hot guy or be with the right guy. One misstep along the way and you can get into coaching purgatory pretty quickly. Just the fact he has made his way back into this spot is a testament to how good of a football coach he is.”
At LSU, Ensminger has been tight ends coach since 2010 and the lowest-paid member of the staff at $300,000 a year. That is, he was until late September, when Miles was fired shortly after losing to Auburn 18-13.
LSU Athletics Director Joe Alleva turned to Orgeron to step in as interim head coach. And Orgeron then turned to Ensminger, his old co-worker at McNeese State and best buddy on the LSU staff, to take over the Tigers’ offense. It was in need of a resurrection, which is why LSU got not only got rid of Miles, but also booted offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and his $1.2 million salary.
And a resurgence Ensminger has provided. While it has helped facing some not-so-ferocious defenses and, more recently, the return of a healthy Leonard Fournette, the Tigers are averaging 41.3 points in the three games since Ensminger’s promotion, an improvement of 20.33 points per contest. In the process, LSU beat Missouri, Southern Miss and Ole Miss by an average of 29 points apiece.
It’s not like Ensminger is new to this assignment. He was instrumental to opening up Georgia’s offense way back in 1990 when former head coach Ray Goff plucked him away from Louisiana Tech and brought him back to Athens as passing game coordinator. That move was instrumental to getting Zeier, the No. 1 quarterback recruit in the nation, to sign with the Bulldogs that year.
The Bulldogs went from 390 yards a game in 1991, to 450 in 1992 and Zeier threw for 323 yards a game in ’93. Zeier would go on to set every SEC passing record before he left Georgia. Ensminger parlayed his time into his first big-time coordinator gig at Texas A&M in 1994.
“He was one of the big reasons I went to Georgia, him and Wayne McDuffie,” said Zeier, who’s now a mortgage banker and does color commentary on Georgia radio broadcasts. “They were both coming in there to open up the offense. Steve and I hit it off as soon as we met. I think he is tremendous offensive mind. I obviously enjoyed my time with him and we had some success together. But he’s always been a great offensive mind. It’s just funny how the game takes you to different spots and who gets hot and doesn’t get as a coach.”
Ensminger, like Orgeron, has been trying to get back to LSU for years. He grew up in Baton Rouge and became known as “Slinger” when he starred at quarterback at Central High and later played for Charlie McClendon as LSU’s “passing quarterback” in a rotation with Don Woodley. Finally back there, word is Ensminger was resigned to play out the string with the Tigers until retirement came calling.
But now he’s OC again and he has the Tigers on the move and suddenly everything seems possible again, especially if LSU can pull off the upset of Bama. So Ensminger, ever the grinder, has poured himself into the job. He hasn’t granted interview requests since accepting the position and often sleeps on a makeshift mattress in his office at LSU.
“I don’t know if he’s gone home since he’s been the coordinator,” Orgeron told reporters last week.
Said Zeier: “That’s what makes him so good. He’s locked in. … We would work on drops and footwork until you were so sick and tired of it you couldn’t do it anymore. Those are the things he just preaches and preaches, all that kind of stuff.”
And, once again, it appears to be paying off for Ensminger.