Pat Haden has little choice now.
Ed Orgeron, Andre Heidari and the football gods have conspired to make his decision for him. Barring a complete meltdown in Colorado or an uncharacteristic lopsided loss against UCLA, the USC athletic director has to remove the interim title from Orgeron and name him the Trojans’ new coach.
Either that, or face a full-fledged cardinal and gold revolt.
Heidari’s clutch 48-yard field goal in the pulsating 20-17 upset of fourth-ranked Stanford was the clincher. It released a torrent of USC emotion matched only by the thousands of giddy fans who stormed the floor of the Coliseum on Saturday night, making it look like New Year’s Eve in November.
It was an unabashed Orgeron love-fest. The fans love him. The student body loves him. The players love him. And maybe most importantly, all those star-struck recruits who were standing on the sidelines seemed ready to fall in love with him.
What has happened here is that Orgeron has ignited some kind of visceral reaction from USC supporters, exacerbated perhaps because he has become, in so many ways, the anti Lane Kiffin.
Orgeron doesn’t stand there impassively on the sidelines staring down at a laminated play card that looks more like a restaurant menu. He waves his arms and punches the air and wildly interacts with all the players. The same team that once reflected Kiffin’s introverted personality now has taken on Orgeron’s bounding, extroverted enthusiasm.
And the people who jammed the Coliseum for the first sellout in a couple of seasons love it. If they hadn’t fully embraced this large bear of a man with the Cajun accent before Saturday night, they certainly do now.
It’s impossible to not be won over by a coach who stared down at his own big decision, the biggest decision of his career, in the waning minutes of that game. USC had a fourth-and-two at the Stanford 48-yard line with 1:23 remaining, and Orgeron had to decide if he wanted to gamble.
The stakes couldn’t have been any higher. The game, the Trojans’ season and Orgeron’s future all hung in the balance. Would he try for the first down and play for the win in regulation, or punt and hope for a tie and overtime?
John McKay would have been proud. I remember a Rose Bowl game against Purdue when McKay went for a two-point conversion and missed, losing the game by one point. Asked about it afterwards, the Hall of Fame coach snapped: “I didn’t come here for a tie. I came to win.”
Same with Orgeron. How different was his bold gamble for the win compared to Kiffin’s reticent play-calling that led to a still hard-to-believe 10-7 loss to Washington State in the Pac-12 opener?
That’s why so many people have fallen for Coach O. He has brought old-fashioned USC football back. He wants to play the tough, physical style that made this program so unique under McKay, John Robinson and Pete Carroll. He might not have all the components yet, as you may have noticed as Stanford dominated the line of scrimmage most of the night, but he fully intends to get the kind of players to make it happen.
One thing that seems to have been forgotten through the early weeks of the USC coaching search is that Orgeron long has been recognized as one of the top recruiters in the country. And if he could carve out that kind of recruiting reputation as an assistant, there is no telling how good he could be as the head guy.
Let’s be fair here. In the midst of the crazy celebration, it should be remembered that Stanford was impressive in its own right in this game. You had to marvel at some of its talent. Senior David Yankey is as dominant an offensive guard as the Pac-12 has seen in more than a decade. Tailback Tyler Gaffney runs as hard as anybody in the conference. And linebackers Shayne Skov and Trent Murphy and safety Ed Reynolds are sure-fire NFL players.
But shockingly, if the Cardinal was more physical, USC was more poised. Kessler was sacked and fumbled once, but he clearly outplayed Stanford’s Kevin Hogan, who made the biggest mistake of the night when, with Trojans defenders draped over him, he threw a terrible pass that was tipped and then intercepted by Su’a Cravens in the fourth quarter.
Afterward, whenever Orgeron’s status came up, USC’s players sounded like love-struck teenagers talking about their first girlfriend. The kids on this team just can’t say enough good things about the coach who has come in and not only turned their season around but made it fun to play football again.
Add it all up and Haden has to know he would become the most unpopular guy in Los Angeles if he opted to sign someone else as the head coach at this point.
The students in the stands were all forming giant Os with their hands and arms whenever Orgeron’s image flashed on the Coliseum’s giant video screen Saturday night. That could be an omen for Haden. The big O should serve as a symbol for the AD’s choice.
O, as in Obvious.