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June 20, 2007
Ole Miss defensive coordinator John Thompson has spent the last quarter-century mentoring hundreds of college football players in a coaching career that has taken him all over the Southeast.
But he never could forget Ed Orgeron, whose intensity and tenacity stood him apart from Thompson's other former pupils.
"He is pure Cajun in that he shows so much emotion," said Thompson, who coached Orgeron at Northwestern (La.) State and now is working for him at Ole Miss. "I remember in pregame as a coach saying, 'You've got to calm down because you're going to expend all your energy.' But I've never seen him expend all his energy. That's just the way he is."
Thompson's unique relationship with Orgeron caused this well-traveled assistant to give up a stable job as Central Arkansas' athletic director and return to the nomadic world of coaching.
More than two decades before Ole Miss hired him as its head coach, Orgeron played on the defensive line at Northwestern State. Thompson was a young Northwestern State assistant back then working as a defensive coordinator for the first time.
After Orgeron finished his playing career, he spent his 1984 season as a graduate assistant on Northwestern State's staff. Even then, Thompson could picture Orgeron as a potential head coaching prospect.
"He was the best graduate assistant I've ever been around," Thompson said. "He was really a tremendous coach. He had so much pride in doing it the right way and went at it so hard. I wanted to hire him as a full-time coach (then), but he was just too young for the people who did the hiring."
Their friendship continued as both moved up the coaching ladder.
"I kept close contact with him throughout the years, and we had a mutual respect," Orgeron said. "I think we have a great chemistry. We're really excited to have him."
Thompson now is making sure his former player keeps his current job for quite some time.
Ole Miss has gone just 7-16 in its first two years under Orgeron after reaching a bowl game in two of the three seasons before his arrival.
At first glance, it wouldn't seem as though hiring a defensive coordinator would make that much of a difference. Although Ole Miss ranked 11th out of 12 Southeastern Conference teams in total defense last season, Kentucky and Arkansas were the only conference foes that scored more than 23 points in regulation against the Rebels last season.
The Rebels have struggled because of their inability to move the ball in Orgeron's two seasons. Ole Miss ranked 115th out of 119 Division I-A teams in scoring offense in 2005 and only improved to 108th in that category last year.
So how will the hiring of a new defensive coordinator boost the Rebels on the other side of the ball?
Orgeron spent the last two seasons as his own defensive coordinator. Now that Thompson has arrived to work with the defense, Orgeron can devote his considerable energy to fixing the offense.
He knew the defense was in good hands with his former coach.
"He's kept it very similar but has a blitz package that I thought was very, very good," Orgeron said. "I wanted to spend more time on offense and be able to recruit a little more."
Thompson didn't need much convincing.
The veteran coach had wanted to settle down last year after moving his family so many times during a career that has included stops at Arkansas, Northwestern State, Alabama, Louisiana Tech, Southern Mississippi, Memphis, Florida and South Carolina plus a two-year stint as East Carolina's head coach.
Thompson, 51, assumed he'd found a permanent job behind a desk last year when he took over as the athletic director at Central Arkansas, where he had played two seasons as a defensive back.
He would soon learn the joy of returning to his alma mater couldn't outweigh the emptiness he felt each Saturday while sitting at home instead of celebrating a victory.
"There's no question that a man needs to be at his passion,'' Thompson said. "I think it would have been a disservice to my family to not see me do that. You can't wash coaching off. Coaching is 24 hours a day, 365 days a year."
That eventually caused Thompson to move his family again when Orgeron offered him a job on the Ole Miss staff. Thompson is hoping this reunion will work out well enough to keep his family from packing again.
Thompson's task won't be easy.
He must rebuild a linebacking corps that lost Butkus Award winner Patrick Willis and Rory Johnson. The pair combined for 231 tackles last season. If the offense's performance over the past two seasons offers any indication, the Ole Miss defense won't have much margin for error.
Thompson has embraced the challenge thus far. He believes it's just a matter of time before Ole Miss is playing in bowl games again.
"It's going to happen," Thompson said. "We're going to win here. We're going to get it done."
"He's one of those kinds of coaches that players want to play for," Tillman said. "It's just the way he acts and the way he carries himself around us ? the way he treats us and talks to us."
During his year away from coaching, Thompson missed the relationships he built with his players throughout the season even more than the games.
Now that he's back on the sideline, Thompson is making up for lost time.
"I was just missing the players," Thompson said. "I was afraid there'd be no more ex-players. Having that kind of relationship, that's why I got into coaching and why I got back into coaching. To me, nothing compares to that."
And it's even better now that he's working for one of his favorite ex-players.
Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.