What a Cajun and a Dream Can Teach Us About the Power of Belief

It’s February of 2017 and it’s been about a month since the conclusion of the 2016 college football season. Ed Orgeron has returned to his hometown of Larose, LA – a small town deep in the Louisiana bayou about an hour south of New Orleans – to speak at a local banquet. It’s just under a two hour drive from his new work office at Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge – home of the LSU Tigers football team.

Three months ago, Orgeron had the interim tag removed from his job title after he lead the Tigers to a 5-2 finish coming off the firing of Les Miles four games into the season. Earning the head coaching position at the school he grew up watching on Saturday nights wasn’t just a dream come true for the Cajun native – it was a chance to prove USC had their guy and let him slip away just a few years back. 

In 2010, Orgeron was brought on to the USC football coaching staff to coach the defensive line when his long time friend and colleague Lane Kiffin took the head coaching position. Five games into the 2013 season, Kiffin was relieved of his responsibilities as head coach and Orgeron was asked to temporarily fill the vacant position. It was his first chance to show the college football world what he had learned since his disappointing stint with Ole Miss back in ’05-’07 where the Rebels finished 10-25 and just 3-21 in SEC play.

This time around, he did not disappoint.

In their final eight fames, the Larose native guided the Trojans to a 6-2 record – including an upset over #5 Stanford – and felt very strongly he had done enough to earn the full time head coaching position. Many others did too – but USC  didn’t think  it was worth giving the Cajun native a second chance. Instead, they decided to hire Washington head coach Steve Sarkisian and Orgeron was left without a job in football for the first time since 1993. It was, in his words, one of the worst days of his life.     

Fast forward three seasons – Orgeron found himself in the same situation fighting for a head coaching job with the school he walked away from three decades ago as a homesick freshman football player. His 5-2 finish and impressive interview – along with Tom Herman’s decision to take the Texas job after extensive discussions with LSU – was enough to convince then Athletic Director Joe Alleva to take a chance on the hometown Cajun.

Orgeron understood there would be skeptics and people who thought he wasn’t capable of leading a multimillion dollar program like LSU considering his previous failures with Ole Miss. However, Orgeron wasn’t too concerned about his past. He knew he was a different coach this time around and all he needed was a chance to finally prove it. 

Talk about a storybook second chance. 

When Orgeron took the podium in front of the hometown crowd at Larose, he had already thought through what he was going to say a long time ago. It was, after all, a big part of the reason why he got the LSU head job in the first place. He wasn’t satisfied with eight and nine win seasons anymore and analysts constantly bagging LSU’s lackluster offense – which did not lack on talent, either. He knew just how bad it hurt to watch Alabama dominate the SEC and how badly the program longed to get to the big game so they could avenge their embarrassing championship loss from 2012. He didn’t just understand the pressure of playing in one of the best conferences in college football and the expectations to compete for a national championship every single season; he embraced it. 

To show just how serious he was, he decided to make a promise to the Tiger faithful that evening:

“I am honored to be the head coach of the LSU Tigers. I am proud to be a Cajun from the Bayou and I will never run away from my heritage. That part stays with me forever, and I know you folks here got my back. I’m going to get some negative comments. I’m not everyone’s first, second, or third choice, but I got the job and I’m going to work day and night to get this program back to the top. Some of the naysayers will laugh about this, but in a very short period of time we will beat Alabama, we will be back in the SEC Championship Game, and in the Final Four series for the National Championship. I promise you that.”

Orgeron was a man of his word.

Two years and eleven months after his promise to LSU, this is what he looked like in January of 2020: Head coach of the 2019 National Champion LSU Tigers, one of the greatest teams in college football history.

LSU head coach Ed Orgeron, left, and quarterback Joe Burrow, center, hold the trophy beside safety Grant Delpit after their 2020 National Championship victory over Clemson (source)

Now don’t get it twisted – the journey to get to this point wasn’t as easy as delivering a couple of sentences and all of a sudden the Tigers doubled their win record. It required some pain, adversity, heartbreak, and even paying a non-conference team $900,000 to come beat them on their own turf! Orgeron’s group had to go straight through the home of one of the greatest dynasties in college football history and go toe to toe with the 2018 defending national champions and their school-record 29 game win streak. Just this past season, they had to play seven top 10 ranked teams, go on the road against the man who was allegedly Alleva’s #1 guy, and finish their season against three of the top four ranked teams in the country (they played the fourth back in November). They beat all four – becoming the first team to ever do so – and did it by an average of 19.6 points per game.

There were people who doubted Orgeron, didn’t think he was capable of being the guy LSU needed, and even called him one of the worst hires in college football history. People mocked his thick Cajun accent and thought it was laughable he could start giving orders to people he once used to work underneath. 

Turns out, Orgeron out-smarted than them all.

The heavy native accent he acquired deep in the bayou – which turned away USC in ’13 – ended up being the perfect smokescreen as he built one of the greatest teams in college football history. The rest is history.

 

So now for the moment of truth: What was Orgeron’s secret? What was he really putting in the gumbo down south that took a team lost to Troy in 2017 – not too long after he made his promise in Larose – and turned it into a national champion just a few short years later? Well, there wasn’t really one secret –and he sure got some help from a kid named Joe Burrow – but there was one thing Orgeron did that set the tone for what was to come:

He created an attitude of belief.

From the day he took the interim job, Orgeron had a strong vision for the kind of program he wanted to build at LSU. Growing up watching the Tigers every Saturday in the fall, Orgeron understood just how much LSU football meant to the state of Louisiana. It wasn’t just a game down in the bayou – it was a way of life; people live, breathe, eat, and sleep LSU (and New Orleans Saints) football. Anything less than a championship just wouldn’t cut it for the purple and gold faithful. Orgeron felt the same exact way. 

It didn’t matter how distant a championship might have seemed back in 2017 – let alone, simply beating their long-time division rival Alabama. It also didn’t help the Crimson Tide were lead out of the tunnel by the same man who brought LSU its first championship since 1958 back in ’03. Yeah, watching Nick Saban guide one of the greatest dynasties in college football wasn’t just unfortunate for Tiger fans – it was unbearably painful.

Ever since the 2012 championship debacle (to guess who – Alabama), LSU had failed to play in a BCS bowl game, hadn’t made a single College Football Playoff appearance, and hadn’t even beat Alabama once. Every year and every loss was eating away at the little amount of hope Tigers fans had left that their program would return back to the top. A change of scenery up top seemed to be the right move when Les Miles started off ’16 with two dreadful losses to Wisconsin and Auburn. However, Joe Alleva could not afford to whiff on his next hire.

While bringing in a hometown hire made for a great story headline, there were some glaring questions about giving Orgeron full reign of the Tiger football team. If the Cajun native hadn’t learned from his time at Ole Miss and put his mistakes in the past, LSU wasn’t going to be competing for a championship anytime soon. Alleva believed Ed was his guy and knew just how much this program meant to him, but he also knew Orgeron couldn’t afford to churn out eight win seasons like the one they had in 2016. Ed’s promise from 2017 couldn’t just be verbiage – he had to deliver on it. 

It sure wasn’t smooth sailing early on, but Orgeron never batted an eye; his belief was too strong. He didn’t cave when they lost to Troy or abandon hope when they failed to get it done against Alabama for the eighth consecutive season in ’18. When Orgeron’s group dropped a seven-OT heartbreaker to Texas A&M back in ’18, they didn’t sit around and complain about how they got screwed by officiating on multiple occasions (in my completely unbiased opinion, of course). They got right back up and ended UCF’s 25 game win streak in the Fiesta Bowl. They haven’t lost a game since.

As devastating as those losses might have been, the belief Orgeron’s group had in his vision was too great to let one game throw them off course. Everyone in that locker room knew what they were going to build and where it was going to take them. There were only bumps in the road – no dead ends. Orgeron’s energy, enthusiasm, and ability to inspire gave him the ability to take a sinking ship and get it back on course when the program needed it most. The same qualities that made him such a good interim head coach would end up being the same qualities he relied on to build a national championship program.

“I love Coach O. I pray that he’s the head coach for LSU. I think he did a tremendous job.” – Jamal Adams, New York Jets defensive back, on Orgeron’s stint as interim head coach with LSU

Orgeron’s 2017 promise wasn’t a PR move to try and make some new friends – it was his DNA as a leader. Their 2019 national championship run was no coincidence; it was the byproduct of a group inspired beyond measure and fueled by belief.

If there’s anyone who knew a thing or two about belief, it was the head ball coach that stood on the opposite sideline of Orgeron in that championship game.

 

“To be an over achiever you have to be an over believer.” – Dabo Swinney, head coach Clemson football

Dabo Swinney – like Orgeron – got his foot in the door as interim head coach when Tommy Bowden – son of the legendary Bobby Bowden – resigned six games into the 2008 season. After finishing 4-2 over the final six games of the year – which included impressive victories over Boston College and South Carolina – Clemson decided to remove the interim tag and promote Swinney to his first-ever head coaching position.

When Swinney first took the job, he recalled an early morning meeting with the Board of Trustees where one of the board members shared how they wanted a program that was like some of the other great programs in the country. They wanted to be like the Alabamas, Ohio States, and Oklahomas of the country – but Dabo wasn’t really concerned with how he measured up against any of those schools. He said, “Sir, I appreciate your vision, but my vision is much bigger than that. My vision is to create a program where they all want to be like us.”

Since that meeting, Clemson has gone on to win six ACC Championships, make five College Football Playoff appearances, and win two national championships. Swinney, indeed, has created the model for what a championship caliber program should look like. It all started with a couple of signs.

Dabo Swinney hoisting the College Football Playoff championship trophy after defeating Alabama in 2019 (source)

When Swinney started at Clemson back in 2008, he created two signs that he brings to every single meeting with his team. For his players, they’ve become as important as the meeting itself – if they’re not present, they’ll remind Swinney to go grab them. These signs read: 

  • Believe
  • I Can’t – with the ‘t crossed out

Swinney talked about the signs in a Sports Illustrated article saying:

“From day one, I made a big point of those signs. I brought them in, set them down, and said this is where it starts. The number one thing that needed to change was we needed to create this attitude of belief. Not you know, I felt like we hoped to win. There is no hope to win. Like, we expect to win. We believe we’re going to win.

“I don’t think we had this rock solid, core belief that we were going to win no matter what. And that’s what it takes. If I could say from just one thing that has changed from 2009 to now in Clemson football, it’s this attitude of belief.”

It’s the same exact message Orgeron shared with his Tigers back in February of 2017. Both men were not concerned with what people thought was realistic for their programs and whether or not they were capable of competing for national championships. Instead, they created their own reality and laid out a vision that exceeded what everyone else thought was possible for them. They didn’t just set the bar high because they could – they set the bar high because they believed they could get there. They saw it before anyone else did, set a high standard when no one else would, and believed it so everyone else could. Their vision illuminated the path in which they would follow; their belief helped keep them on course.

This believe to achieve attitude isn’t the exception, either – it’s the expectation when it comes to high performing individuals. In fact, you could argue that it’s even more important in a sport where a 30 percent success rate means you’re one of the best in the business. One of these guys – Milwauke Brewers outfielder Christian Yelich – knows a thing or two about the power of belief when he’s facing the best arms in the game that can spin it, slide it, and run it up to triple digits. In fact, he doesn’t even entertain the idea that he might not get a hit. He’s had too many at-bats to understand what happens when your approach begins with doubt. 

“To have any shot at all,” said Yelich in a Player’s Tribune article, “you can’t be intimidated. Ever.”

Christian Yelich batting in the 9th inning against the Reds in 2018 (source)

The 2018 NL MVP doesn’t care if he’s facing Max Scherzer, Jacob deGrom, Gerrit Cole, or if he’s 0 for his last 20 – he knows it’s bad news for the guy on the mound when he steps in the box. He doesn’t simply hope he’s going to get a hit – he knows he’s going to find some green. He believes it:

“Let’s be honest here: If you’re going up to the plate lacking confidence, having a quality at bat becomes impossible. So you have to convince yourself that you’re going to win every battle. You almost have to trick yourself into believing that success is always on the horizon, no matter how many times you’ve gone up there and gotten it absolutely handed to you.

“And you think that way even when you’re 0 for your last 20. Sometimes you’ll go up to the plate and you’ll feel so bad about your swing, so out of whack, that there’s no chance that you’re getting a hit. But somehow you have to convince yourself otherwise. Like, it’s going to happen for me right now.”

It also doesn’t just apply to baseball or football, either. When six-time NBA Finals champion Michael Jordan looks at players across the league that can’t get it done in the crunch time, he sees the opposite of what Yelich is talking about: He sees players who don’t believe in their abilities. When belief is absent, fear fills the void and causes even the best in the game to break down when the lights seem to shine a little brighter. He talked about this in an ESPN article saying:

“Some guys in the league right now, their regular seasons are different than the playoffs. Why is that? Because it’s a different kind of pressure. Those guys, when it gets stripped down, don’t believe in themselves. They aren’t sure they can hit the big shot, so they can’t. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

This self-fulfilling prophecy is exactly why Orgeron and Swinney invested so much into the cultures of their teams early on. The belief they crafted, preached, and reinforced on a daily basis was designed to create an infectious environment that would propel their teams to achieve things they never thought would have been possible. When players don’t have a strong belief in their abilities and the vision of the team, they don’t over perform – they underperform. Jordan knew this as much as anyone.

When the former Bull missed a critical shot towards the end of the 1991 NBA Finals – his first-ever Finals appearance – Jordan didn’t even entertain the idea that he wasn’t cut out for the big stage. He knew how good of a player he was and he understood how important it was to believe in his abilities on the court – win or loss.

“Now, if you thought about it, that was a pretty big miss,” said Jordan. “It was my first-ever game in the Finals. I could have folded. But I had no trouble bouncing back because I knew it was a good shot. I believed every time out I was the best. And the more shots I hit, the more it reinforced that.”

Michael Jordan with head coach Phil Jackson after defeating the Utah Jazz to win his 6th and final NBA championship in 1998 (source)

This is exactly what William James – American philosopher and psychologist – meant when he said: “People tend to become what they think of themselves.” This is the power of belief – those who believe they can and those who believe they can’t both end up both being right. Jordan and Yelich knew just how important this statement was. It didn’t matter who was in the other jersey or what the situation of the game was – there was no doubt in their mind they were going to get it done and deliver for their team. If they didn’t get it done, they’d get right back up and be ready for their next opportunity. Their belief was too strong to let one bad swing or one bad shot ruin everything they had ever worked for.

For Orgeron and Swinney, this attitude of belief became the driving force behind their championship runs. It empowered their players to realize how much more they were capable of and drove them to perform at a level they wouldn’t have accessed if they didn’t first change what they expected of themselves. When things went wrong, they didn’t panic – they knew and believed they would overcome any obstacle in their path. Belief is the glue that saved LSU’s sinking ship back in ’16 and it’s the bandages that healed Clemson’s wounds after their championship loss in ’15. Setbacks were inevitable, but also necessary for both programs – there’s no better way to find out how strong your belief is when you’re faced with something that challenges just how much you believe.

“All winners and losers in life are completely self-determined.” – Dr. Bob Rotella, from How Champions Think in Sports and in Life

It doesn’t matter if you’re a coach, competitor, or CEO – high achievers are high believers. They see things before anyone else does and expect more when everyone else would settle for less. When faced with obstacles that would make others crumble, they find a way to endure because their belief is too strong. Christian Yelich could be 0-20 or 10-20 – his mindset is the same every single time he steps to the plate. Michael Jordan might have missed a big shot with the game on the line last night – it’s not going to stop him from taking another one tonight.

“Coaching at the highest level is about getting athletes to believe in things that the experts think are unrealistic.” – Dr. Bob Rotella

Swinney wasn’t concerned with how his group stacked up against Ohio State or Alabama – he was going to build a program that exceeded anything Alabama or Ohio State had ever done. Orgeron didn’t care people thought he was crazy when he said his Tigers were going to make the College Football Playoff back in 2017 – he knew it was only a matter of time before his Tigers brought a championship back home to Louisiana.

Legendary golfer Jack Nicklaus said it best: “You have to be a legend in your own mind before you can be a legend in your time.” These four men from above were indeed legends in their own mind well before they were legends in their own time. As a result, they’ve now become living proof for what you can achieve when you start with an attitude of belief. 

 

So now a question for you – What could you become if you put the excuses aside and started to believe in yourself?  

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