ATLANTA — John Robinson settles into a leather chair in a hotel lobby and jokes how little he’s needed.
Oh yes, his official title sounds salient and swanky — Senior Consultant to Head Coach Ed Orgeron — but how do you consult the coach who seems to be doing everything right?
It’s the night before the Southeastern Conference Championship Game, a contest the LSU Tigers will win by torching Georgia 37-10 with a new age offense and a quarterback who will secure the program’s second Heisman Trophy in school history.
What does Orgeron need to know from an 84-year-old who retired from coaching 15 years ago, whose Hall of Fame coaching career sufficed of handing the ball off to Marcus Allen and Eric Dickerson out of the I-formation?
“He sure as hell doesn’t need me right now,” says Robinson, who coached at Southern Cal (1976-82; 1993-97) and the Los Angeles Rams (1983-91). “He’s making all the right moves. I just say, ‘That’s good! Keep doing that!'”
Orgeron, expectedly, has said the opposite. To the fourth-year LSU coach, Robinson is the mentor with valuable perspective, the sagacious sounding board who gives Orgeron a “state of the union” every Monday morning with up to eight separate notes.
Orgeron has known Robinson since he was hired as USC’s defensive line coach in 1998. So when Robinson told Orgeron earlier this year that he and his wife, Beverly (an LSU grad), were considering moving closer to her hometown of New Orleans, Orgeron replied simply: OK, come help.
“I respect him,” Orgeron has said, “and I’m happy that I have him there.”
But Robinson won’t kid himself. He knows he walked into a “damn good team,” a program that had a sense of itself and where it was going.
It’s little surprise to him that No. 1 LSU (13-0) is playing No. 4 Oklahoma (12-1) in the Peach Bowl semifinal, one game away from the program’s first national championship appearance since 2011.
Funny enough, that knowledge alone is proof of why Orgeron needs Robinson here: if anyone would know there was something wrong with the bigger picture, it would be John Robinson.
And it’s hard to find anyone who’s observed Orgeron more closely. Robinson has driven to campus for every pre-sunrise coach’s meeting. He’s attended every practice and every game. He’s been around long enough to conclude Orgeron’s built something special, a program he believes will be successful for several years to come.
Robinson says he and his wife toured the College Football Hall of Fame in downtown Atlanta, an institution that inducted Robinson in 2009.
“Ed’ll be in the Hall of Fame,” Robinson says. “I’m convinced what he’s doing is unique.”
‘The culture is Ed Orgeron’
So just what is the “Big Picture” according to John Robinson?
It’s establishing the culture of a program. It’s the ability to sense your team’s mood. It’s maintaining a constant morale across dozens of assistant coaches and support staff, over a hundred players, and nearly as many recruits and their families.
“The big picture is hard,” Robinson says. You’re constantly nurturing it. One minute you’re watching film and thinking, How do we block this guy?, and then you get a call about a player who’s struggling in class or you have to check in on a prized recruit.
And through it all, everyone seems to be constantly asking, “Hey Coach, you got a minute?”
Robinson admits he’s one of those people who asks Orgeron that question every once in a while, and he says you can kind of see his eyes go, “Oh s***.”
Yet Orgeron’s still able to take over any room with an energy that seems to have a source beyond his infamously consumed energy drinks — “damned if I know,” Robinson says.
And Orgeron uses his gregarious personality to reflect toward the LSU program, shunning personal attention, like a conductor ceding applause to his orchestra.
Every team meeting, Robinson says, Orgeron will walk in, point to the big screen on the wall and say, “LSU. It’s all about LSU.”
“Really good programs have that: an identity, a culture,” Robinson says. “And the culture is Ed Orgeron. It really is.”
And as the months have gone by, Robinson’s realized he’s already known Orgeron: he’s just like John Madden — the Hall of Fame former NFL coach Robinson has known since they became lifelong friends in the third grade at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Daly City, California.
Orgeron and Madden both have an enthusiasm about them, Robinson says, “a willingness to be close to somebody and not lose their place in terms of being in charge.”
They easily connected with every player of every background, winning them over without losing the respect and command as the head guy, the father of the football family, the boss.
They both were former linemen who wouldn’t hold back from getting physical as coaches on the practice field to teach or prove a point. “He and Ed would have been out there blocking each other,” Robinson says. “That’s just how it is.”
And if the video game NCAA Football were to make a comeback, couldn’t you see Orgeron being the host — BOOM! — just like Madden was in his famous franchise?
“If you got Ed on TV he would be a riot,” Robinson says.
‘I got your back’
The “Big Picture” seems easy to maintain when a team has yet to lose.
There hasn’t really been a “crisis” in LSU’s undefeated season, Robinson says, but there were the hard parts that happened before the season even began.
Orgeron understood where his team’s knowledge was lacking, Robinson says, when he hired an up-and-coming offensive coach, Joe Brady, to revamp the offense in tandem with offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger.
And then there were a bevy of departures in the NCAA transfer portal in offseason, plus suspensions that happened in preseason camp and others that trickled into the season.
Former wide receiver Dee Anderson was suspended for the year in the preseason due to what Orgeron called “conditioning” reasons.
Starters like wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase and tight end Thaddeus Moss missed the Northwestern game for what Orgeron each called a “coach’s decision” — the same term Orgeron used to define left tackle Saahdiq Charles’ six-game absence and the nine games linebacker Michael Divinity will have missed before he’s eligible to play in a potential national championship.
Robinson didn’t address any of those incidents specifically, but as someone who dealt with similar issues in five decades of coaching, he was impressed with how Orgeron handles disciplinary actions.
“He manages them decisively,” Robinson says, “I mean, it’s taken care of. He doesn’t wait a day. He doesn’t get everybody involved. He makes decisive decisions. He gets input from those he wants to, and he makes a decision. I find that very impressive, and if you’re not involved in that, you wouldn’t know anything about it.”
Orgeron doesn’t air dirty laundry to the media. He doesn’t belittle players in front of teammates. He keeps it compartmentalized — “in-house” as he’s explained in interviews — behind closed doors where the message to the player is clear.
“He uses the words, ‘I got your back,'” Robinson says. “I’ve heard him say it many times. You might be disciplined, but ‘I got your back.'”
So loyalty begets loyalty in return, Robinson agrees.
He’s seen the players respond from the pre-game speeches to the playing field.
“If he were in the Second World War, he would be a colonel leading a battalion up the hill,” Robinson says. “He would have been running up there first. That’s who he is.”
‘Thrill of a lifetime’
What is Ed Orgeron feeling right now?
He’s the Larose native leading LSU to a possible national championship.
He’s also the Louisianan who will respond in some variation of, “it’s not about me,” if you ask him that question.
“Exhilaration,” Robinson says. “Determination. Determined to keep and do things the same way. Hasn’t changed. hasn’t changed. Talks to the team the same way every day. I’m sure there’s anxiety. Big-time stuff.”
Winning a national championship is the greatest thing, Robinson says, but the process of winning it almost becomes the most important thing.
It’s a draining grind that leaves you nearly empty by the time it’s over.
Robinson remembers someone coming into his office at USC in 1978, telling him the Coaches Poll had voted the Trojans national champions after they beat Michigan 17-10 in the Rose Bowl.
“I remember feeling great and going home, feeling good, and the next day, boy, I was like that,” Robinson says, slumping over. “You get over that pretty fast. But I think that’s probably what would happen to anybody.”
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. There’s still another game — the kind of pressure that still gives Robinson that “scared to death” nervousness that he always had as a coach, that anxious feeling you get right before torquing down the slope of a roller coaster, your mind screaming out, “Oh s***!”
Who knows how much longer Robinson will be a consultant to Orgeron? He jokes that he’s 84 and “might not be around much longer” anyway.
“But the process of this, being here?” Robinson says, “Thrill of a lifetime. It’s a thrill for me. I’ve got a little one half of 1% of this and I’m thrilled. I’m just so excited about this whole thing.”