Matt Luke knows how to make the best out of a bad situation—which could be exactly what Ole Miss needs
Throughout my relatively short time around Ole Miss football, I’ve watched coaches come and go, fan loyalty ebb and flow.
Sunday’s announcement that Matt Luke would become the Rebels’ permanent pick for head coach was met with mixed emotions—my own included—and understandably so, given the questions and uncertainty surrounding the football program.
Social media swarmed with conspiracies of good ol’ boy boosters and what Ross Bjork does or doesn’t know about the outcome of the NCAA investigation. There were promises of canceled season tickets and declarations that this was an embarrassing hire for a program that only last year tasted the sweet victory of a Sugar Bowl win.
Let’s get this out of the way right now—no one involved with the Ole Miss football program has any idea about Ole Miss’ impending NCAA ruling, and they won’t until the NCAA notifies them, which happens the day before it’s made public.
It could be today. Or tomorrow. Or next week or next month or in 2018.
Luke’s hiring came as a shock for fans clinging hopefully to rumors of potential candidates like Charlie Strong, Mike Norvell and Willie Taggart—coaches many felt could take an embattled program and turn it into an elite football team. Ultimately, Luke’s lack of experience revealed itself at crucial moments throughout the season, and the idea of “an Ole Miss guy” being the top pick left a sour taste in the mouths of fans who felt like a national search should have yielded nationally competitive candidates.
It all sounds pretty familiar.
Non-Ole Miss guy Ed Orgeron’s arrival in 2005 was so widely celebrated you couldn’t find many vehicles in Oxford without a George W. Bush-inspired “O The Coach” decal plastered on the back glass.
His departure after a winless season in SEC play was met with equal enthusiasm, sans decal.
Non-Ole Miss guy Houston Nutt was a sight for sore eyes after the fruitless Orgeron era. Maybe a seasoned SEC football coach was just what the program needed to move past decades of instability. He started strong, leading the Rebels to back-to-back Cotton Bowls his first years. But when Nutt finished out his time in Oxford with a 2-10 record in 2011, few were sorry to see him go.
Even his replacement, non-Ole Miss guy Hugh Freeze (OK, HALF-Ole Miss guy since he hailed from North Mississippi), was initially written off by many fans as a girls’ basketball coach whose only “significant” experience was coaching college football at Arkansas State.
Until he started winning.
I’m not oblivious as to why so many fans are frustrated with the hire. On the one hand, Bjork’s decision to make Luke the guy before the release of the NCAA ruling seems perplexing, especially considering Luke has been clear about Ole Miss being his dream job. He would have undoubtedly waited as long as necessary for the decision to be made.
Then again, after a four-year NCAA investigation that still hasn’t yielded the infractions committee’s final ruling, no one knows the level of severity the program is facing regarding sanctions, not the least of which includes a multi-year bowl ban that would allow the team’s current scholarship players to transfer immediately.
In some ways, outside hires would be making a gamble greater than Bjork’s bet on Luke by walking into a program plagued by scandal and uncertainty. On paper, Ole Miss seems like a solid transitional job for an up-and-coming coach with enough pluck to withstand whatever the NCAA is preparing to hand down. But Ole Miss isn’t the only college program offering a potential stepping-stone opportunity and certainly not in the SEC. Plenty of programs are in the same shape without the added burden of NCAA punishment.
There’s merit to the question of why Bjork didn’t wait for the fallout to make a hire. However, by affirming the commitment to Luke now, Bjork avoids looking panicky in the aftermath of the NCAA sanctions, which could have an even bigger impact on player morale and season ticket sales.
Many fans will say it’s not personal, that they just want the best guy for the job, and I’m not saying that isn’t true. It’s also true that Bjork had to personally apologize for showing a 20-year-old throwback video of Tommy “Pine Box” Tuberville at this year’s Texas A&M game despite the fact that most Ole Miss undergrads were still in diapers when he bounced to Auburn in 1998.
If it weren’t personal, you wouldn’t have the backlash against Houston Nutt for his lawsuit against the university which indirectly brought Freeze’s indiscretions to the surface. If it weren’t personal, Ed Orgeron’s comments about dreaming of the LSU job while in Oxford wouldn’t ruffle as many feathers.
It’s always personal because the popularity and success of college football depend on it being personal. At the same time, the endearing qualities college football fans seem to gravitate toward—loyalty, commitment, unwavering love for a given school—aren’t what they want in a football coach.
At least not a football coach expected to win championships.
Time will tell whether hiring Luke was the right call. And if it isn’t, Ole Miss will have another coach. And another after that. And so on and so on. It’s called a coaching carousel for a reason.
Even if Freeze’s personal behavior hadn’t been his downfall, let’s not forget 2016 was a year that started with a Sugar Bowl win and ended with a 5-7 record. We can’t ignore the then-ongoing NCAA investigation and its effect on recruiting, not to mention quarterback Chad Kelly’s season-ending injury that threw Shea Patterson into the fire late in the game, but it doesn’t change the fact Freeze was a seasoned coach who made crucial mistakes on and off the field.
Luke was thrown into the job a month before the season started and finished it with six hard-to-watch wins, some improbable at best. Without the self-imposed bowl ban, the Rebels would be preparing for a low-tier bowl game, but a bowl game nonetheless. And in 2012, 7-6 and an improbable Egg Bowl win was all that was needed for the fan base to throw their support behind Hugh Freeze’s unlikely rise.
Regardless of the reasons for hiring Luke, the deal is done. He’ll win or he won’t. But for a program that’s spent years picking up the pieces left behind by several non-Ole Miss guys, it’s hard to ignore the value in someone able to inspire a team of players who aren’t sure how the NCAA’s impending sanctions will impact their future or the future of Ole Miss football.
There are more disappointing outcomes than a coach who stepped in at the worst possible time and made the best of a bad situation. Given what could still lie ahead for the program, Matt Luke might be the most qualified at taking the Rebels’ terrible circumstances and inspiring the team to turn them into something good.
If he can do that, he just might inspire the rest of us too.