The L.S.U. coach lifted his football team to No. 1 with his skill and challenged cultural stereotypes with his colorful voice.
When Louisiana State completed a rare victory over Alabama in November, my sister, Irene Cloud, kissed her tiger-striped fingernails. Then she pressed her hand to L.S.U. Coach Ed Orgeron’s face on her television, which had been sprinkled with holy water for good luck.
“He’s so cute; I love him so much,” Melissa Landry, a family friend, said in a video of the victory celebration at Irene’s home in Lafayette, La.
“The Cajun Cookie Monster!” yelled Sarah Davenport, Irene’s daughter and my niece.
“He does not speak English at all,” Landry laughed.
Orgeron’s raspy voice is similar to bayou voices they have heard their entire lives but more gravelly, like the sound of tires on an oyster shell parking lot. Scratch that. It is the sound of a fiddle being played with a chain saw.
“We finally have a coach without an accent,” Irene likes to say.
All kidding aside, as top-ranked L.S.U. faces Clemson in college football’s national championship game Monday in New Orleans, a sensitive subject lurks beneath the good-natured jibes about Orgeron’s voice.
The Cajuns of south Louisiana, descended from the French-speaking Acadians who were expelled from Canada in the 1750s for refusing to pledge fealty to the British, have long endured media portrayals as a people whose distinct accent makes them seem backward and ignorant.
Exhibit No. 1: Adam Sandler’s witless character in the football comedy “The Waterboy.”
“You were laughing at that character; nobody’s laughing at Coach Orgeron now,” said Shane K. Bernard, a Louisiana historian and the author of “The Cajuns: Americanization of a People.”
The success of Orgeron, 58, who is from tiny Larose, La., southwest of New Orleans, has provided an athletic and cultural rebuttal to ridiculing vocal stereotypes of Cajuns, who otherwise have been widely embraced for their food, music and hospitality.
“A lot of Cajuns can’t understand him, either,” Emily Davenport, my niece and Sarah’s sister, said with a laugh. “But true L.S.U. fans, now we get it. It’s like a secret language. And we love it.”
That was not always a prevailing opinion. In the World War I era, Louisiana tried to smother its French heritage by assimilating Cajuns into the broader American culture. The state constitution of 1921 required that public schools teach in English only. When my father attended school in the 1930s and ’40s in Eunice, La., he and others caught speaking the Cajun French dialect were sometimes paddled or forced to kneel in uncooked rice that bruised the knees.
Even into the 1950s and early ’60s, said Barry Jean Ancelet, a renowned folklorist and emeritus professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, there were reports of French-speaking school children wetting their pants because “they didn’t know how to ask for permission to go to the bathroom in English and they weren’t allowed to in French.”
Not until 1968 did a formal, belated attempt begin to preserve the French language and the Cajun culture. As a coach, Orgeron has faced mocking suspicion that equated his accent with a lack of intelligence and sophistication. When he struggled as the coach of Mississippi from 2005 to ’07, a parody song reduced his vocabulary to “Yaw yaw yaw yaw football.”
Many L.S.U. fans considered his hiring as head coach in 2016 to be the desperate signing of a shrimp boat captain instead of a master football strategist.
Angelle Terrell, a staunch Orgeron supporter, wrote recently on the Baton Rouge blog Red Stick Mom that some of her acquaintances had called the hiring “embarrassing” and “humiliating” and that the criticisms of Orgeron were “usually tinged with jabs at his accent, his overall demeanor and his ability to represent L.S.U. to the public.”
Last month, Bruce Feldman, a highly regarded college football reporter for Fox Sports, posited that Orgeron was not promoted to head coach at Southern California in 2013, despite a 6-2 record as interim coach, because U.S.C. officials “couldn’t get past what Ed Orgeron sounded like.”
Irene, my sister, said, “That hurts my soul to hear that his accent didn’t meet their country club standards.”
Six seasons later, U.S.C. struggles for relevance while L.S.U. seeks its fourth national title. Orgeron implemented an inventive passing game and helped develop quarterback Joe Burrow into a Heisman Trophy winner. To show his appreciation about becoming an honorary Cajun, Burrow, who is from Ohio, recently wore a pregame jersey with his name spelled Burreaux.
L.S.U. football has long served as a measure of achievement in a state that has struggled with poverty, educational achievement, cancer rates, infant mortality and political chicanery. Rudy Penton, an inveterate L.S.U. fan who has been known to paint purple and gold tiger stripes on his dogs, told me years ago, “When we’re No. 1, it’s usually for something bad.”
Orgeron, though, represents characteristics that Cajuns hold dearest: resilience, innovation, hard work, pride in their heritage, lightheartedness combined with seriousness of purpose. Rod Dreher, a Louisiana native and a senior editor at The American Conservative, wrote that Coach O, as Orgeron is widely known, “could be acclaimed governor for life by divine right.”
Orgeron and his mother, Coco, have also endeared themselves by speaking fluent Cajun French in video clips. The Washington Post did a deep linguistic dive into Orgeron’s accent, variously described as rough as the hide of a gator and as flavorful as a bowl of gumbo. By happenstance, Orgeron’s ascendance comes amid an explosion in south Louisiana of French immersion schools, which have popped up like mud chimneys built by crawfish.
“I’m proud as all get-out to know we have someone that speaks like us and people are finding out there’s nothing to be ashamed about being a Cajun,” said Mark Layne, the professional name of Martel Ardoin, the general manager of radio station KVPI in Ville Platte, La., which hosts two French-language newscasts daily and a morning coffee-talk show called “La Tasse de Café.”
Ancelet, the folklorist, views Orgeron as a Cajun Yogi Berra, who speaks truths with colorful language. “Your accent can reveal where you’re from,” Ancelet said, “but I don’t think it ought to be presumed to reveal what’s in your head.”
Mine is a family of L.S.U. graduates. A sportswriter for 40-plus years, I still follow L.S.U. football with avid interest but not emotion. My mother, sister and two nieces, though, maintain a passion as spicy as sauce piquante.
During the game against Alabama, the Tigers’ first victory over the Crimson Tide since 2011, Irene hosted her granddaughter’s first birthday party, complete with a baby’s cheerleader outfit, a cake designed as a football field, invitations shaped as football tickets and an L.S.U.-themed bouncy castle. She bought tickets for her daughters to attend Monday’s championship game. And she will be watching at home with her usual accouterments — holy water, an L.S.U. jersey and a costume tiger head.
“We love us some Coach O,” Irene said. “A lot of smart people talk with a funny accent.”