As one of the more divisive figures in Ole Miss history, the former head coach who oversaw only three SEC wins in 24 tries has often been coined a disaster or tireless worker, depending on your point of view.
Some will look to his track record as a renowned recruiter, while his critics claim he vacated the coaching helm with a razor-thin depth chart at numerous positions. But no matter which side is chosen, the reality of the tumultuous tenure of Coach ‘O' probably resides somewhere in the middle.
"Different people might think different ways about it, but everybody's excited," senior running back/wide receiver Dexter McCluster said of an 11 a.m. meeting with Tennessee Saturday.
"We want to go out and win. With him being our former coach, we've got a connection. It's emotional for everybody and we're eager to go out and show him what we've become."
After compiling an overall record of 10-25 in three seasons as head coach, including a winless SEC campaign in his final year of 2007, Orgeron was fired after a frustrating 17-14 loss to rival Mississippi State. Despite holding a 14-0 lead midway through the fourth quarter in Starkville, a failed conversion on fourth-and-1 at mid-field led to 17 unanswered points for the Bulldogs.
The loss proved to be the final blow of a turbulent three years for Orgeron, as he was let go the following day.
"As he would say, I'm fired up," said junior linebacker Jonathan Cornell of playing his former coach. "I know he's going to be fired up. It's going to be good to see him. I have no hard feelings toward him. I'll probably say ‘what's up' to him after the game. It's just another game, but he's a guy who used to coach here. It's part of the business."
To his credit, Orgeron was responsible for adding talent to a depleted roster over his short stay in Oxford. Among some of the core stalwarts he was able to land include McCluster, Jevan Snead, John Jerry, Kendrick Lewis, Marcus Tillman and Kentrell Lockett.
However, while Orgeron landed a collection of talented prospects, the victories were too few and far between. Further, the Rebels are currently suffering from gaping depth holes in the secondary, offensive line and linebacker.
"The guy just has a way with words," Lockett said of his recruitment under Orgeron. "I know he came to my house and was like, ‘Kentrell, just imagine. This time next year, you're going to be a Freshman All-American. You're going to get one and a half sacks a game and end the season with 18 and a half sacks as a freshman. You'll be a freak of nature.'
"I was so sold on Alabama, but I really didn't know. I came here and talked to Coach O and it was more of a fit for me. Then, I felt I had to play for this guy."
Lockett said you could count on a weekly phone call from Orgeron each Monday. The caveat, however, is he was never alone.
"When he calls you, it's not just him. You'll hear every coach in the background," he said. "It was a sense of family and how important you would be to the program. He showed how determined he was to get you into the program."
McCluster can relate.
As a smallish, three-star athlete from Largo, Fla., McCluster found the recruitment process to be relatively quiet. Scout.com rated him the 100th best running back for the class of 2006, as he possessed just two other offers in South Florida and West Virginia.
Many thought an opportunity to play for the nearby Florida Gators would be enough to keep McCluster in-state. However, Orgeron had other ideas.
"He recruited me and sat in my living room," McCluster said. "He's one of the reasons I came here. He just had so much energy. It's going to be fun to show him he did a good job of recruiting me and the player I've become."
Before a light workload against Northern Arizona a week ago, McCluster averaged 154.5 rushing yards and 231.5 all-purpose yards over a two-game span. With a career-high 22 carries each outing, he recorded his first two 100-yard rushing games.
And as McCluster's career has shown, Orgeron knew talent when he saw it.
"He took a liking to me," said McCluster. "He would always come to me and ask about my mom and dad all the time. The best thing is he came to work with a lot of energy every day. We didn't know what to expect. He was always fired up."
However, according to senior wide receiver Shay Hodge, Orgeron's relentless energy and arduous workouts weren't for everyone.
"Coach O never did anything to me, but the way I saw him treat some people, I know some guys are going to come out with a real fire in their belly (Saturday) and get after them pretty bad," he said.
In each coaching stop he's made, Orgeron has carried the unorthodox tradition of ripping his shirt off in the team's inaugural meeting. A motivational tactic if you will, Orgeron will then call on his players to do the same, before all are participating in what he deems "getting crazy."
When current Rebels recall their eccentric introduction to Orgeron, each tells a similar tale.
"I had never played with a coach who tore his shirt off before Coach O," senior center Daverin Geralds said. "I was a little skeptical. I was looking around and trying to see how everybody else was going to react to it. It was wild. I just saw it as my introduction to college."
"When we first met him, he had so much energy and was so fired up," added McCluster. "I know he does this at every school, but he ripped his shirt off, told us to rip our shirts off, and we got crazy. I didn't know what to think. There was so much energy. I thought it was going to be a one-time thing, but it was every day."
Throughout the week, Orgeron has declined media requests for interviews. It's certainly understandable, albeit predictable, as the underlying plot line of Saturday's matchup is sure to be discussed ad nauseum over the coming days.
But even amidst the useless exaggeration of Orgeron's return, his former players still offer appreciation for a chance to play for Ole Miss.
"The best was just getting me here. Really, I didn't think about Ole Miss until Coach O and Coach Frank (Wilson) came to my house and talked to my mom," Lockett said. "He got me hyped to the point that I had to be a Rebel. I had to put on this uniform. The worst was not winning as many games as you expected to."
"Of course, I didn't play underneath him," the Rebel quarterback said. "But as far as practicing, I was with the scout team the whole time. During that time, I was trying to do the best I could for our defense. I just tried to help out the team. He was always good to me and was one of the people that got me to Ole Miss. I'm grateful for that."
A Mixed Bag
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