Updated: Jun 21
By LONN PHILLIPS SULLIVAN
On the cusp of 2020, what do we hear from many heading towards this precariously poised collegiate season???
CAN LSU MAKE IT WITHOUT JOE BRADY??
The real question should be:
CAN LSU MAKE IT WITHOUT STEVE ENSMINGER???
We've appeared in 2 title games with the man on our staff, won 2 SEC Championships, he was just in charge of the greatest offensive institution of ritualistic destruction, and LSU currently ride a 16 game winning streak...so how could he suddenly be considered an average coordinator at best?
When Ensminger runs our offense, LSU are 31-5, scoring 518 points vs ranked opponents (220 before 2019's 298), hoisting Fiesta & Peach Bowl trophies, an SEC title game mummification of Georgia, a National title won against the defending champions (still high on the fumes of their 29-0 winning streak); Now, possessing our own undefeated season, Stevey finds himself in rarefied status: he's already become the most successful offensive coordinator in LSU history.
If Ensminger can't get the love from the mainstream sports media, then I'll be fixin to supply the tribute:
And there's no better place to start than where his love for coaching truly began:
One of the events which shaped the former LSU quarterback's career arrived when the Slinger's NFL career concluded. At the start of the 1981 season, the Tiger Legend was cut from the Philadelphia Eagles by then-coach and future Hall of Famer Dick Vermeil.
Ensminger wouldn't be the Eagles quarterback, however it didn't mean he was finished... thanks to Vermeil's eye for talent and his good natured soul, the Super Bowl winner offered Steve a lifeline.
Vermeil, a man who's heart is so large it can supply tears on command, didn't realize it at the time but when he invited Steve into his office, shut the door, popped a few beers and gave a damn about Ensminger's future, he was fanning the flames of the future G.O.A.T Tigers coordinator:
"I wanna help you, Steve, what's your plan?" Vermeil asked the beleaguered quarterback, emotion emanating from the future 1999 Rams coach, the NFL's version of 2019 LSU.
Despite the cultural differences, Vermeil saw a lot of himself in Ensminger: a man taking punches, moving on, catching more punches, but still hanging in there and fighting. In turn, Vermeil unknowingly navigated the LSU quarterback towards a football-obsessed career; thanks to his ultimate example, Coach E looked up to Vermeil as if he were a saint.
Although many within the Eagles' organization had to strain their ears to understand his speech, some disregarding Ensminger completely, Vermeil always had a keen barometer for transcendental ability:
He egged Ensminger on, "what do you want out of life?"
During that intense moment in his office, he knew what Steve's answer was before Ensminger knew himself: "I wanna coach..." came Ensminger's reply, and it was Vermeil who allowed Coach E to stay on for an extra month, paying the unofficial offensive assistant good money to simply sit, watch, listen and learn from an offensive squad who'd just played in the Super Bowl only months previously.
The Eagles offensive coordinators' room was already crowded, having no room for the young, unknown and uncouth Ensminger...but the top dawg never subscribed to those beliefs:
Vermeil allowed the Slinger to watch the 1st quarter of games from the sideline and hang out during offensive staff meetings. The Tiger Legend took rampant notes, filling up 6 full notebooks which contained nearly every word spoken by Vermeil, Ed Hughes and Sid Gillman during those meetings.
"That was the best experience of my life, let me tell you! Vermeil actually paid for me to be there... just to study. I looked back at those notebooks for years...anytime I needed an answer for something or to see a new way of doing something, the answer was in there...I lost those notebooks in the 2016 floods...every dang one of 'em..." Ensminger sadly detailed, looking off as if this equaled the loss of a limb.
Ensminger didn't need the notebooks...after all he's said about his own lack of intellect, we've come to learn the man is three things:
1) humility personified
2) a man who's much smarter than he'll ever let on
3) a football database.
His coaching journey turned out to be a long strange trip, a long way to the top if he wanted to rock and roll...and Stevie had the electricity, the will and the personality to prevail....no matter what obstacles lay in his path:
Ensminger's time at the NFL level (as well as starting at quarterback for LSU) earned him his first gig. Like many current LSU coaches, he began to work on his craft at Nicholls State as a WRs Coach.
His coaching travels took him between a few Louisiana jobs: Nicholls, McNeese and Louisiana Tech until he became Georgia's QBs Coach and Passing Game Coordinator, working with future NFL players, stars or Hall of Famers Eric Zeier, Garrison Hearst, Andre Hastings, Shannon Mitchell and Terrell Davis.
In 1994, it was current LSU D-line coach and Ensminger's old friend Bill Johnson who recommended the Slinger for Texas A&M's vacant OC/QBs spot.
After Coach E grew weary of the Aggies (who doesn't?), he took a job aboard Clemson's staff coaching quarterbacks Brandon Streeter and a young Woody Dantzler.
Although The Bayou Gandalf enjoyed his first real taste of big time collegiate coaching at Clemson, he left the program in the wake of Tommy West's firing, returning home to Baton Rouge in 1998.
At this juncture, he'd had enough of collegiate coaching and wanted to watch Steve Jr play quarterback. Now at home, Steve Sr tried his hand at Louisiana high school ball in order to stay local and fulfill his never-ending football jones.
Running the offense at Central High near the beginning of the century, Ensminger was able to stay home and watch Steve Jr take after his old man on the gridiron....
Around 2003, a chance at major collegiate coaching beckoned once again as Steve Jr led West Monroe to a state title: Steve's old friend Tommy Tuberville was starting something special at Auburn, recruiting Ensminger for the QBs Coach spot in 2003.
Helping Auburn to an undefeated, "unsuccessful" challenge at the 2004 title, Ensminger helped Jason Campbell become a 1st Round draft pick before later coaching both QBs and TEs.
After a 2008 shot as the interim offensive coordinator at Auburn, Steve left for the high school ranks again a year later, defecting over to Alabama's Smiths Station High before the doors to his dream job opened widely:
In 2010, the time finally came to stay home for good: Head Coach Les Miles loved Ensminger's no nonsense Bayou attitude and wanted him on his staff, no matter what the ramifications. Les Miles' LSU needed a local...they were looking to reconnect with their Cajun heritage, especially concerning in-state offensive recruiting. Becoming the TEs coach at his alma mater set the table perfectly...yet the ride to his actual dream job was a long, arduous one.
In the end, Ensminger was sold short: he had much more to offer our 2011 team, but instead the former Tiger was forced to look on hopelessly as LSU's offense sputtered to a malfunctioning tailspin of diarrhea-death during that season's BCS title game shutout to Alabama.
"No, no, no," Ensminger dismisses any notions of failure on the part of Greg Studrawa or Les Miles, "we had a good game plan going into the Championship, we were just outplayed....simple as that..."
"Do you think LSU wins that game if you'd been offensive coordinator?"
Loyal as ever, Ensminger is having none of it:
"Nah...are ya kiddin? Could you have beaten that defense??? If that game went for another 20 hours, we still don't score on that defense..."
So, in his favored role amongst the shadows of the coaching staff ("just grateful to be part of the action" he quipped), Ensminger's reputation grew, especially on the recruiting trail.
Finally, in 2016 when the hammer fell on Les Miles after 4 games, former D-Line Coach Orgeron was made interim head coach. The second Ed assumed control, he appointed Ensminger as his offensive guru...but once again, Ensminger's role was only slated as an "interim OC".
Much like Coach O, both Cajuns were fighting for their LSU lives....
In typical renegade fashion, Steve made his mark instantly and our offense displayed drastic improvements, putting up 40 points over the next three games.
Still, the struggles against Alabama prevailed and the Tigers were shutout 10-0; later on, they could only muster 10 points vs #22 Florida...by the time 2017 came around, Athletic Director Joe Alleva acted like a Roman emperor when he forced Orgeron to hire Matt Canada as offensive coordinator, demoting his buddy Ensminger back to Tight Ends Coach.
Orgeron couldn't stomach the turn of events, but as he was barely out of the interim stage himself (and with the Tigers' still incapable of fully solidifying an offensive identity), he had to follow Alleva's every sadistic whim.
The arrangement wouldn't last long:
Canada's offensive schemes were outdated and easy for Saban, Smart and other top tier defensive coordinators to predict and by season's end, Orgeron realized the time was now for his own ideas to be implemented or his dream job could be lost forever...it was time for Orgeron and Ensminger to bet on themselves.
"I always knew in the back of my mind Stevey Ensminger would be the man to revitalize the LSU offense...but after the Notre Dame game, I knew he had to be that man..." Orgeron reminisced, "after 2017, I knew we had to change everything about how we worked, about how we prepared and there was no better workhorse example than Coach E. Together, we looked through everything in our coaching history to figure out a blueprint forward. That's when I found Bill Walsh's 'standard of performance'. So, we came up with the LSU Standard of Performance..."
January 2018: finally Steve Ensminger was handed the keys to the LSU offense, becoming the official offensive coordinator of his LSU Tigers, introduced via spectacular fashion by Coach Ed Orgeron during a press conference which has aged like fine wine:
"He's not just one of our own, he is also the best coach to lead this offense in the next coming years!" Coach O's voice boomed authority, each word emphasized with a point of his finger. "And I do believe that with all my heart and I'm 100% convinced of that from what I've seen on a daily basis. From the way he leads our offense, how he coaches our players, how are players respond to him, Steve Ensminger...there is no doubt in my mind, is the right man to lead our offense. At LSU, we must and we will develop championship quarterbacks...we will be a championship-caliber team. We're gonna give our players the ball in space and let them make plays, just like our offense did when Steve took over last year. His play-calling is second to no one in the country..."
Orgeron's prophetic words were followed by an emotional Ensminger taking the podium: "I've thought about this opportunity my entire career..." You could sense an overwhelming pride in the hire, yet we had no clue what to expect from LSU's struggling offensive quagmire.
Would Joe Alleva give Ensminger enough time to prove himself?
But over the off-season, a divine union was forged within the burning steel of Tiger desire:
Ohio-native Joe Burrow transferred from Urban Meyer's Ohio State after a few years in the wilderness, recovering from a broken hand and the constant feeling of doubt surrounding his time in Columbus; LSU Safeties Coach Bill Busch knew Joe from his time at Ohio State and made a daring proclamation to Orgeron and Ensminger:
"We get this guy and we're going to the College Football Playoff..."
Ensminger, Orgeron, Busch and every big gun on staff went hard after Joe...recruiting him with more intensity than any other player before, Steve especially:
“He called me when I was being recruited,” Burrow said about his marathon phone calls with Ensminger. “He talked and talked and talked. I just put my phone down and put him on speaker and watched TV because he wasn’t letting me get any words in.”
Buckets of crawdads, endless hours talking football, dissecting offenses...as much as Coach O involved Joe's family, notably his brother Dan, everything was all football, all championship-talk, all big picture kick ass wherewithal:
LSU and Joe Burrow were love at first sight and without Ensminger, 2019's iconic history just isn't the same.
"First time I met Joe, we talked football for about three hours straight...there was me, Mickey Joseph, Coach O, Tommie Robinson, Jerry Sullivan and Greg McMahon all in the same room...but Joe Burrow was the smartest man in the whole place...and it wasn't even close," Ensminger chuckled.
The Cajun OC and his new quarterback became tied at the hip, watching long hours of film together, obsessing over their new offense and the infinite possibilities among their bevy of skill position talent. Many forget Ja'Marr Chase and Terrace Marshall were both high octane, though unfortunate freshmen in 2018, sustaining injuries for much of the campaign; Thaddeus Moss's foot problems kept recurring, forcing Randy's NFL-ready son to the sidelines.
2018 wasn't perfect, but through its lens we see why, who and just how the 2019 juggernaut came together.
Over 2018's 13 games we witnessed Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Justin Jefferson emerge, Ja'Marr Chase overcome a knee injury and play significant time over the final games. Still, when it came down to a top 10 showdown vs Alabama at home, LSU fell horribly short, being exposed 29-0. Following the shutout, Orgeron and Ensminger held an emergency meeting, talking long into the night. "We need an offense to beat these guys...right now...we have the quarterback to do it...we cannot waste this opportunity!" Ed implored, both experienced Cajuns plotting the new direction. "Right then and there, we said 'we goin' to the spread, shotgun...put our guys in space...we knew we needed to commit to this as a new identity or it would fail...it had to become a part of who we are," Orgeron later said. Coach O began hounding his pals within the Saints' organization and new offensive developments were underway immediately. Finally, Burrow received enough time from the offensive line to deliver strike after strike, coming into his own after running for his life through much of 2018.
LSU's offensive identity didn't change the second Joe Brady arrived in January 2019: the offense had already undergone a complete facelift and defiant rejection of traditional LSU "iso, toss, iso, toss, hitch, FG or punt" offensive "values".
People will always see Joe Brady's youth and Ensminger's age and definitively announce "Brady changed everything"....but the reality is much more revealing of our society's ageist biases:
The older Ensminger (a quarterback who's time at LSU during the mid to late 70s was bookended by archaic offenses) actually started the revolution, getting the ball rolling before viciously booting it down the hill, tumbling and bouncing towards a helpless Nick Saban and the rest of college football below.
Forget the automatic inaccuracies of your brain's connections: just because you associate Brady's youth with an aggressive LSU offense doesn't mean you're right when saying Brady ran the show. In fact, the elder statesman Ensminger is far more aggressive in his play-calling: Steve Ensminger is the pedal to the metal overlord on the Tigers staff. "I would keep saying 'let's get it to Clyde' and Coach E would reply 'okay let's throw it to Clyde'..." Joe Brady laughed, such was his pass-first ethos.
For an "older gentleman", Stevey has more aggression than Joel Klatt panting after Tim Tebow's gaze on the FS1 set:
Football isn't just a game for Ensminger...in fact, football became a place to lay his head, a home away from home:
Every season, this man sleeps in his office from Sunday to Wednesday, heads home on Thursdays for family night with the grandkids, but then geauxs straight back to the office for the most intensive days of the week:
Fridays are spent dissecting film, analyzing the game plan, leaving no stone unturned long into the night...then, game day on Saturday...but instead of decamping and heading home for the night on Saturdays, Coach E can be seen through the murky darkness of his office windows burning the midnight oil, pouring over the day's game film like a nocturnal offensive mensch sowing his wildest oats.
"Every coach here works to the fullest, to their maximum, but no one works harder than Steve Ensminger," Coach Orgeron said recently on an episode of Off The Bench.
Above all else, Steve Ensminger answers to a higher calling: as a father and pillar of strength:
On the worst day of Steve Ensminger's life, he found the strength within himself to heal his family the only way he could in the moment: calling the greatest offensive performance in CFB history.
Prior to the 2019 Peach Bowl semifinal vs Oklahoma, a private plane carrying Steve's daughter-in-law and four other passengers unimaginably crashed outside of Lafayette, Louisiana tragically taking the lives of all on board.
The news nearly broke the family....but with a little help from his courageous son, Steve turned a day of bleak tragedy into something Tigers Superfan Carley would be extremely proud of:
He was about to head to the airport and board an immediate flight home until Steve Jr urged his father to go ahead and call the game.
Despite Coach E's "football or bust" reputation, here was a father ready to throw away a leading role in the biggest game of his career...football was just a game...
Instead, staying in Atlanta after a sudden, shocking death in the family and calling the plays became the most heroic coaching moment in recent collegiate memory. He was coaching for his family...and he gave them every second of his 38 year coaching experience...he gave them everything he had:
"It's what Carley would've wanted..." Jr instructed his father, "Go kick some ass!"
Fighting through the tears, Coach E walked the pregame sidelines, laying his emotions bare for the first time in his entire career.
In typical Ensminger fashion, Coach Ed Orgeron kept the news from the players as much as possible, though there were countless images of everyone from Myles Brennan, Austin Deculus, Stephen Sullivan or Blake Ferguson all consoling their coach...the news had clearly leaked and made the rounds thanks to the Mothership network.
When ESPN Commentator Dari Nowkhah accidentally / embarrassingly informed Joe Burrow about Ensminger's loss during a post-game interview, Burrow said he "didn't know" about Carley McCord's tragic passing, staring Dari down as if he could see through the commentator's very cerebral cortex, pouncing like a protective animal hunched over its young...hungry for blood to protect his coach.
Still, I have a feeling he had some idea of the hell that transpired before the game:
Joe wasn't merely all business before the game, Burrow looked like a terminator from some distant shadowland where only Joe Montana, Tom Brady and Optimus Prime exist...his eyes telling the tale:
The rest of the season was for Coach E.
Ensminger dialed up nonstop slant patterns, letting the receivers dictate the rhythm early. Then, he mixed in a high dosage of Chris Curry up the gut, pounding Oklahoma's senses; once they started positioning Thad Moss as a legitimate threat out wide, the message was sent out loud and clear: GOOD LUCK STOPPING THESE GUYS...
Ensminger even introduced the slightly injured Clyde Edwards-Helaire, just to rub it in the Sooners' face some more, our star running back charring and broiling Justin Broiles into the pavement. This ushered 2019's freshmen running back trio Chris Curry, John Emery Jr and Tyrion Davis-Price to lay waste on a ridiculous fury of unstoppable runs, powering over pathetic Oklahoma defenders (rushing for 139 total yards, 90 from Curry alone while Burrow tossed 29/39 for 493 himself, finding the time to also rush for 21 yards, 2 first downs and a touchdown).
But the real majesty came when Joe Burrow sat back and rocketed one outrageous throw after another, Justin Jefferson catching 14 of 18 total targets for 227 yards, 4 touchdowns in the first half and three in the 2nd quarter alone... What in the name of The Great Hezekiah Manning???
"Joe, they can't cover Jets," Coach E could be heard instructing Burrow over the headphones, the Bayou Gandalf's wizardry creating a horrorshow of mis-matches for the Sooners: every play Chase, Marshall or Moss were positioned on or near Oklahoma's #1 CB Parnell Motley, shackling and frustrating Alex Grinch's best player in the secondary and opening up countless easy throws to Jefferson, especially against newbie safeties from the Big 12's football spoofery.
Due to Ensminger and Brady's offensive supershow (Brady motivating on the sidelines for segments, conferring with Ensminger at others), Joe Burrow threw 7 touchdowns in one half, running for another during the first minutes of the 2nd as Ensminger's offense dropped a merciful 63 points on the Sooners...most important of all, nearly every Tiger came into the game during the second half.
The Tigers were different on that day, December 28th 2019...they had a feverish, invincibility which was displayed all season, but on that day it all became emotional. The Tigers exuded intensity...as if they were playing the last game of their lives...
Due to the tenuous balance of mortality hanging around the forefront of their minds, each player became hellbent on playing the greatest game of all time for Steve's family, especially Stevie Jr.
Yet Ensminger's own motivation provided the spark which bled Oklahoma dry.
It was as if he sat down in the booth that afternoon, looked down upon that field and said, "My son just had the best thing in his life taken from him...I need to give him something...something..." With LSU now safely in the title game vs Ensminger's old haunt Clemson (and his old quarterback Brandon Streeter, now Clemson's QBs Coach), the 2019/2020 renegade Tigers' final goal took on a new metamorphosis which oozed infallible belief: take it home for Stevie Jr & Sr.
Ever the cantankerous protector, Sr refused questions about anything other than the National Championship Game during his game-week press conference. "Could you lean closer into the microphone just a bit?" Asked an LSU Media hound, infringing on Steve's personal space after Ensminger's protective opening statement. "Uhhh no," Ensminger scoffed, staring the PR guy down with a Cajun dismissal. "Ok..." Came the tiny answer. Although Ensminger would shower Clemson's 2019 unit with praise, calling both sides of the ball "the best he'd ever seen", Steve delivered the same pass-master origami & flying death circus monopoly upon Dabo Swinney's 29-0 squad, making this nearly impervious history machine fall to their incredulous knees, begging for more until the surreal beating made sense. But it wasn't so easy.... Through the first drives, LSU sputtered, standing puzzled, frustrated and shaking their heads after each wasted series, punting the ball three times with only 17 total yards. "What did you see?" Brady asked Joe, their usual cycle for each subsequent drive: Burrow and Brady conference, followed by Ensminger, Mickey Joseph, Brady, Munoz and Mangus all crafting the adjustments, each coach or analyst designated with a certain role. Yet Joe wanted Ensminger on the headphones immediately: "They're just stacking the box, disguising the mic, Skalski, but he's just a spy...no matter how many safeties they use, they're still playing man on the outside...they can't cover our guys, we need deeper routes!" "Let's go to #1..." Ensminger replied bluntly. Joe nodded in foul-mouthed affirmative and went over to Chase, telling him to "keep fighting on every route"...the ball was coming the nervous freshman's way.
Clemson were playing LSU perfectly: Venables had his guys stout, attentive, quick to react, fast in the blitz and flying all over the field to help cover Chase, Jefferson and Marshall. Swinney's men weren't blinking, they weren't buying the RPO action just yet...for once this wasn't a team shaking in fear of LSU. Worst of all: Clemson were smashing Joe. Ensminger knew we had to change protections in order to free up the routes: The offensive line needed to stop accounting for James Skalski, Clemson's hard-hitting middle linebacker. As a spy, Skalski would sit back, watch Burrow and key on the quarterback's every move. This included the odd blitz straight at Joe, nailing the quarterback on more than a few occasions. "Joe can handle him...we gotta stop worrying about blocking 47, leave him!" Ensminger reportedly told Cregg. Cregg was bemused but gave the orders...for the rest of the game, LSU cultivated and exposed the weaknesses within Venables' unit: Clemson relied on Skalski and Simmons' relentless movement to cover their deficiencies, especially when it came to safety help over the top in coverage.
“The first couple series, I didn’t think there was any way they were just going to play man with Ja’Marr,” Burrow recalled, his eyes dancing as he continued. “I wasn’t really looking his way and then I got back to the sideline after the second drive and I was like, they really are playing man-to-man with Ja’Marr, so we started going to him heavy.”
Once Joe aired out a long, fading teardrop touchdown for Chase, the Biletnikoff winner rising over A.J Terrell's cumbersome disassociation, LSU tied the game. Despite some back and forth gamesmanship, the juggernaut offense never looked back. Something personal went down on the Superdome turf between Joe and Skalski, the two Midwesterners thrashing into each other many times throughout the title game. "I got him..." Joe's stern eyes glaring on the sideline after LSU took a 21-17 lead. He nodded his head, chomping at the bit. Joe wanted Skalski...but how he won the duel over the raging linebacker remains the apple of our bewitched eye: Mind over matter, brain over brawn...he allowed Skalski to nail him for the price of a Thad Moss touchdown before half. Joe would toss 5 total touchdowns, a title game record, Clyde Edwards-Helaire would run rings around Clemson, disintegrating their linebackers for nearly 150 total yards. Ensminger dialed up the screen action when LSU were forced to claw their way back in the game, facing a 10 point deficit.
This was all about Clyde's iron will and savage rough housing wearing Isaiah Simmons out like a Paul Stanley wig, #22 creating even more space for Chase, Jefferson, Moss and Marshall to devour: the four combined for all 5 of Joe's passing touchdowns. Once LSU began pointing at ring fingers, hugging Coach O like he was the world's angriest Teletubby, embracing each other in pre-Covid gusto and sparking victory cigars, Ensminger found Jr on the field and hugged him harder than ever before. As Sr and Jr cried in each other's arms, son congratulating father, father consoling son, football became more than a game in that moment: LSU's championship signified the Ensminger and McCord families' ability to overcome the odds, hang tough until the end and rise above doubt, pain and heartbreaking loss. His son Stevie Jr won a championship as a member of West Monroe High School, but now it was time for father to join son as an Ensminger Champion:
Football had always tied father and son together, yet the bond between Sr and Jr only grew through Carley's passing, rallying around one another: As Ensminger Jr now returns to coaching at Assumption High School, only months after such a devastating loss and a 5 year coaching absence, his father has also inspired his son. "Carley always wanted me to coach,&q