USC's Ed Orgeron has developed a reputation as one of college football's… (Kent Nishimura / Getty Images )
Start with the sound of him.
A voice deep and gruff, like dump trucks rumbling down the street. If dump trucks had a Cajun accent.
Add a sturdy face and barrel chest, a sense of determination that allows the man to go days on end with little sleep, living on Slim Jims and Red Bull.
These are the peculiar charms that Ed Orgeron brings to his job.
"I learned it a while ago," he says. "Be who you are."
Orgeron is — among other things — the recruiting coordinator at USC, in charge of coaxing high school football players to sign with the Trojans. Over the past decade, he has built a reputation as one of the top names in a cutthroat line of work.
"He's a big guy who goes in there with a lot of humor and aggressiveness and the kids just love him," says Tom Lemming, a recruiting expert for CBS College Sports Network. "He overwhelms them."
Though USC figures to harvest another top-10 class Wednesday — the first day that prospects can sign letters of intent — the next few years could be rough.
The Trojans face continuing NCAA sanctions that, unless overturned by appeal, will severely limit scholarships through 2014. That means rival schools will be looking to gain an edge in living rooms across the country.
"There's no question," Orgeron says. "We have to deal with this."
Now, more than ever, USC needs a man of his charms.
Recruiting was tailor-made for a big guy with an even bigger personality, a former defensive lineman who played at Northwestern State in his native Louisiana.
But before Orgeron could send his first letter or make his first call, he needed to recognize talent. A series of entry-level coaching jobs landed him at Miami in the late-1980s, working under Jimmy Johnson.
"That's where I learned to evaluate," Orgeron says. "I just listened to him."
The process began with hours of watching film. But lots of players look impressive against high school competition, so there was an element of trial-and-error, developing an eye for athletes whose skills would translate to the next level.
Years later, Orgeron, 49, explains: "You're doing it for 25 years and you have pictures in your mind. You remember what Mike Patterson looked like, what Kenechi Udeze looked like, what Matt Leinart looked like."
Experience taught him to stretch beyond football. He made a practice of talking with anyone who could tell him about a prospect's character — the school principal, the counselor, even the janitor.
It was all about sharpening his instincts, finding ways to measure a young man's heart.
Those early days in Miami were exciting, Orgeron coaching eight All-Americans on the defensive line — including Warren Sapp and Russell Maryland — while the Hurricanes won a pair of national championships.
But the good times did not last.
First came a domestic violence incident in 1991, when he was single. The next year, Orgeron was charged with head-butting a man during a fight in a Baton Rouge, La., bar. The incident led to a year away from the game.
"I believe that things happen for a reason," he says. "We learn from what we do."
The road back began at Nicholls (La.) State and wound through Syracuse before leading him to Paul Hackett's staff at USC in 1998. The late Marv Goux, a legendary assistant for the Trojans, pulled him aside to talk about hard work and loyalty.
"I realized how powerful this place was," Orgeron recalls. "There were people here who helped me, both in football and in my personal life."
Newly married and starting a family, he saw everything falling into place. Then Hackett got fired.
Love of the chase
It was the winter of 2000 and Pete Carroll felt confident about getting hired at USC. In town for an interview, he stopped by a Long Beach Poly game to scout the local talent.
That is where he met Orgeron.
"Ed didn't know who the next coach would be, didn't know if he'd still have a job," Carroll says. "But he was out there recruiting, working it."
Done correctly, college recruiting demands a year-round effort, every spare moment devoted to finding new blood for the program. Some coaches would rather diagram plays or work with their teams on the practice field. Or play golf.
"If a head coach plays golf, the chance is great that he will be a lousy recruiter," Lemming says. "A lot of coaches play golf."
Carroll and Orgeron were different because they had a passion for the chase and loved signing prospects almost as much as winning games.
Their plan to bolster USC's struggling program was simple: They focused on local talent, which meant reconnecting with high school coaches throughout Southern California. It was a matter of sheer will, the men constantly challenging each other to see who could work harder.
That meant driving to a dozen or more campuses each day.