The Ole Miss football program is in a unique situation.
As the Rebels await the final verdict in a yearslong NCAA scandal, they are also in the business of finding a new head coach. Former play-caller Hugh Freeze resigned from the program in July, following a “pattern of personal misconduct,” which included using a university-issued phone to call a number associated with an escort service. Although Ole Miss’ football program lacks stability at the moment, athletic director Ross Bjork said he believes the university can still attract the right man for job.
“What I’ve sold is resources, a beautiful place (and) a university that’s surging in many areas,” Bjork said. “It may be tough right now, but look at the possibilities to get right back on track.”
Bjork cites the fact that the Rebels have enjoyed success recently as well as in the past. He does admit, however, that consistency has been an issue throughout the program’s storied history.
Since Ole Miss football got its start in 1893, only five head coaches have stayed with the team for more than five seasons. Since 1995, Ole Miss has had six different men running its football program. That is a trend Bjork hopes to reverse in the coming years, especially given that Ole Miss currently awaits sanctions resulting from 21 NCAA allegations.
“Our challenge has been maintaining and being consistent,” Bjork said. “Our peaks have been really good, but then we bottom out pretty darn fast. To me, that’s very important: stability and consistency.”
He said the team has finished with at least seven wins in 12 of the last 21 seasons. To avoid a “bottoming out” period for a head coach and program, Bjork believes patience is key.
“If we give the right kind of support and we’re in this thing together, then a longer-term approach, to me, is (healthier),” Bjork said. “I’d rather build it to last versus build it fast and then it falls apart.”
According to Bjork, Ole Miss still has a number of options on the table for its new head coach, including current interim head coach Matt Luke. Luke played football at Ole Miss from 1995 to 1998 and had been an assistant coach under Hugh Freeze since 2012.
“I think (Luke) has done a great job,” Bjork said. “He has made it worth it to these players to keep fighting. I think he’s done a tremendous job. We’ve said it from day one: Who better to be a candidate than Matt Luke?”
With someone like Luke — who has deep ties to Ole Miss — currently leading the program, Bjork said the coaching position boils down to more than just wins and losses, but a fit for the program.
“If he’s the right guy, he’s the right guy, bottom line,” Bjork said. “It’s not wins and losses. It’s not anything to do with the final two games.”
The looming NCAA investigation has draped itself over Oxford like a dark cloud. The Rebels face almost two dozen NCAA allegations, 15 of which are of the Level I variety — the most severe, according to the association’s bylaws. Although Bjork is still awaiting a response from the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions, he said the closure of that day, regardless of the penalties, will be a bright day for Ole Miss Athletics.
“(The NCAA investigation) has been a barrage of negative recruiting towards our program,” Bjork said. “To kind of withstand all of that has been really tough. One of the things that will help is we can say, ‘This is the final report.’ There’s no question that the day of getting that report will be a day of clarity, relief and moving forward in many ways for this program and the university.”
Ole Miss hosts Texas A&M this Saturday before traveling to Mississippi State for the Egg Bowl on Thanksgiving Day.