‘Tis National Signing Day Eve, 2009, and fatigued high school football players all over the nation will dream tonight of text messages, fax machines, and NFL draft days. Tomorrow, internet recruiting sites will bow and creak under the weight of 100 million hits from fans wearing out their computers’ refresh keys wondering what new life will be breathed into their favorite college football program. By Thursday, most of the dust will have settled, and most of the upcoming seasons’ rosters will finally be set.
But what, exactly, will have happened? We fans scour the internet in search of any newsworthy nugget about our programs’ attempts to convince a certain player to come to our school, and we attempt to divine intentions from quoted snippets of texted words that we know don't mean what they usually mean in any other context. In the end, we concede that because we are on the outside, we know next to nothing of the million dollar process with which we have somehow become so infatuated. Fortunately, ESPN.com Senior Writer Bruce Feldman has authored Meat Market: Inside the Smash-Mouth World of College Football Recruiting and thrown open the door to the war room, inviting fans inside to observe the cogs and wheels and gears in motion.
For college football fans
In its most general terms, Meat Market is simply an insider’s view of the recruiting process, college football’s season within the season. It is an exceptionally well-written and well-told work that at once confirms suspicions, refutes assumptions, and otherwise fleshes out the big picture with colorful, textured detail.
Admit it. You’ve suspected that a recruit’s star ranking is governed more by the fact that he’s had a number of offers from high-profile schools than by an independent evaluation of talent, right? Well, consider that premise confirmed, courtesy of Feldman. And yes, you’ve known that recruiting is important to a college football program, but you didn't really know how to quantify just how important, right? Try $22 million important in the case of Southern Cal’s class of 2003, which, with nine first-day NFL draft picks, is widely regarded as the best recruiting class in recent history. Over and over again, Meat Market takes fans of college football recruiting from a 50,000 foot aerial view down into the thicket to examine the bark and berries of the bushes.
For Tennessee fans
Above and beyond what it offers to college football fans generally, though, Meat Market provides added value to Volunteer fans. The book not only examines the nuts and bolts of the recruiting process, but it does so through the iconic Ed Orgeron, who just received the equivalent of two defensive coordinators’ wages to serve as Tennessee's chief recruiter. Feldman risked life, limb, and mental wellness to tag along with Orgeron and the Ole Miss staff for an entire season.
So what's Orgeron really like? What makes him tick like a time-bomb? Is he really the mythological, larger-than-life character the internet has made him out to be, or is he simply misunderstood? Again, Meat Market serves up the answers.
Orgeron's early years
It will likely come as no surprise to learn that Orgeron grew up south of New Orleans playing football on a gravel driveway littered with broken shells. He was good enough to get a scholarship to LSU, but he transferred to Northwestern State almost immediately when he was moved from his preferred position of defensive lineman to center.
After college, Orgeron spent a year as a graduate assistant at Northwestern State, a year as a GA at McNeese State, and then two years as an assistant strength coach at Arkansas. He had been there two years when he got his first major break. Orgeron was trying to reach his former boss at Northwestern State, who Orgeron thought was working as a GA at Miami. Instead, Tommy Tuberville, who was a Miami GA at the time, answered the phone and informed Orgeron that his former boss had taken a job somewhere else and had left an open GA slot at Miami. When Tuberville asked Orgeron if wanted the open position, Orgeron threw his pillow into the car and headed south.
Trading places (and addictions)
It was 1988, and the Miami Hurricanes had just won a national title under head coach Jimmy Johnson and was developing a reputation for cranking out first round NFL draft picks. When Johnson left for the Dallas Cowboys the following year, new head coach Dennis Erickson promoted Orgeron to defensive line coach.
The wild success Orgeron and the other Hurricane coaches and players were experiencing in Miami provided a culture in which Orgeron’s dark side would grow unchecked. During this time, Orgeron indulged in an extraordinarily wild life-style that grew from Orgeron's obsession with what Feldman calls The Chase: “South Florida turned out to be one big adrenaline rush, and Orgeron jumped in head first. Competitive to the core in everything, he had to chase women, belt down booze, and party at a harder, faster pace than anyone. Had to.” (Emphasis in original).
In 1992, just before Orgeron’s 31st birthday, his obsession with The Chase got him into trouble with the authorities and on probation with the ‘Canes. In 1993, he resigned, and he believed his college coaching career was over. He'd flamed out.
Fortunately, Orgeron climbed his way back into coaching simply by substituting one addiction for another. He quit chasing women, booze, and trouble and channeled all of his compulsive energy into selling college football programs to high school athletes. As with all true addictions, that was really all that Orgeron needed. Initially, he took a job as a volunteer coach for Nicholls State in 1994, where the totality of his recruiting budget consisted of a golf shirt with the school logo on it.
From there, Orgeron went to Syracuse, and in 1997, he was hired by Southern Cal coach Paul Hackett to coach the Trojans’ defensive line. Three years later, Hackett was fired, and while the rest of the staff was out looking for jobs, Orgeron just kept feeding his addiction: he kept looking for players. One of the players Orgeron targeted was Shaun Cody, whose father wasn’t too keen on the idea of Orgeron trying to recruit his son to a floundering program that was likely to fire him any day, but when USC hired former New England Patriots head coach Pete Carroll, Carroll hired Orgeron, and together they sold father and son on a “vision that had more to do with where a college football program was headed than with its immediate past or even its legacy.” The Southern Cal coaching staff had a plan to win championships by recruiting the nation’s best players, and they convinced Cody that he would be the first building block in the rebirth of a college football dynasty at USC.
True to their word, Carroll and Orgeron made Cody the cornerstone for the revitalization of the Southern Cal football program. They hatched the plan in 1998, and by 2003, the Trojans had the talent to win a co-national championship. In 2004, they had a national championship to themselves, and Orgeron, who now had four national championship rings and had just been named the National Recruiter of the Year, was rewarded with an offer to become head coach for Ole Miss.
Da Coach O
It was at Ole Miss that Orgeron’s reputation as an excellent recruiter mushroomed into the mythological. It is widely rumored that his first meeting with players was a sort of concentrated, R-rated, shirtless Tony Robbins’ unleash-the-power-within motivational event during which Orgeron whipped his players into a frenzy and challenged them all to a fight. From that point on, Orgeron somehow morphed into a caricature, a Red Bullin’, pork rindin’, yaw yaw yawin’ footbaw recrootah mahsheen.
Bruce Feldman at some point somehow sold the salesman on letting him tag along for the ride during the 2006 season. Feldman survived, and college football fans are the better for it. We got a first-hand look at the way Orgeron evaluates talent, at how the nation’s remote stalking of Jimmy “Hummer-Hall-of-Fame” Clausen resulted in Ole Miss’ targeting of Stephen Garcia, which in turn ended instead with a commitment from Jevan Snead, at how Orgeron surprisingly responded with optimism when staffer Frank Wilson’s recruitment of Joe McKnight ended in disappointment, and a host of other insights about Ed Orgeron and college football recruiting you may have thought you knew but really didn’t.
At this point, Tennessee fans know next to nothing about Ed Orgeron beyond the legend that the internet has created. Meat Market confirms just enough about Orgeron to make you believe that the legend has at least some basis in fact, but it also shows you just enough to know that despite all of the hyperbole, Orgeron is at heart just a highly-motivated man who has successfully redirected his obsessive personality into more positive pursuits. That, and that you'd want no one else more to pursue blue chips for the Big Orange.