Long before Matt Luke was officially named the head coach of Ole Miss Football, before he declined several other scholarship offers to stay home and play at Ole Miss as a walk-on, he was just a kid from Gulfport.
One may wonder why anyone would give up opportunities such as paid tuition and the strong likelihood of playing time early in one’s career, but it was never a question for Luke of where he was going to attend.
It was Ole Miss. It’s in his blood.
The Luke family is legendary on Ole Miss’ campus. Luke’s father, Tommy Luke, played defensive back for the Rebels in the 1960s under Johnny Vaught during the Rebels’ “glory days.” He wound up at Ole Miss because his sister was enrolled there at the time.
“She came up here, and I starting visiting up here with her,” Tommy Luke said. “I was only recruited by Ole Miss and Mississippi State. I liked it (at Ole Miss), so I had to come.”
What the siblings didn’t know at the time was that their decisions to attend Ole Miss would shape their family’s lineage, the history of Ole Miss and the Rebel football program for generations to come.
Matt Luke grew up sharing a room with his older brother, Tom, in Gulfport. He was born and raised on the Gulf Coast and attributes much of who he is today to his upbringing there.
“Growing up on the coast, I guess, is probably the farthest you can get from Oxford, in Mississippi,” Matt Luke said. “I loved growing up there — very proud of that. My oldest son’s name is Harrison, after Harrison County.”
Matt and Tom Luke are seven years apart, so there wasn’t really much competition between the two in anything. Sports, wrestling or whatever it was, the age gap was just too vast for Matt to make up.
“By the time (Matt) was eight years old, I was in high school. By the time he was really playing football, I was already in college,” Tom Luke said. “It was hard to have athletic (competition). But we shared a room growing up, and the one thing we had in common was the love for Ole Miss.”
The brothers’ love for Ole Miss stems from their father, who, admittedly, didn’t have to push his love for his alma mater onto his sons. The Luke family would travel to Jackson or make the drive up to Oxford to see the Rebels play as often as possible, but living in Gulfport with three kids didn’t make that an easy task for Tommy Luke.
“Every time (Ole Miss) played in Jackson, we tried to make it, and we’d come up (to Oxford) for homecoming every year,” Tom Luke said. “We’d make that five-hour trip (to Oxford), and we’d always go into the book store — always buy a jersey. It started with my dad’s No. 35. Then, we started to grow a connection to other players, and we’d have those numbers with our names on the back.”
In his early years, Matt Luke wasn’t the sports guy that one might expect a future head football coach to be. He was more into Star Wars and things of that nature until he got up to third grade, when he started playing football.
“I can see how a sibling getting dragged to my events may have a negative effect (on his interest in sports),” Tom Luke said. “Instead of getting to play all the time, (Matt) had to travel to watch me play all-star baseball games or high school baseball games.”
Throughout Matt Luke’s childhood, family trips to watch his brother play occurred near-weekly. These frequent mandatory outings may have stunted Matt Luke’s personal interest in playing sports. When he finally did start playing, though, he was prepared. Although he wasn’t the athlete that his brother was, Matt Luke had a strong work ethic instilled in him as a child.
“It just came easy to Tom,” Tommy said. “(Matt) worked hard because he had an older brother who was good. He felt like everyone expected him to be good, and once he got into it, he really started liking it.”
Tom Luke approached high school graduation with several scholarship offers on the table. However, he didn’t yet have one from the only school that mattered to him: Ole Miss. Eventually, Ole Miss did offer him a scholarship to play quarterback and, along with that opportunity, a chance to continue his family’s legacy in Oxford.
“As soon as Ole Miss offered (me a position), the party was over,” Tom Luke said. “It was an easy decision.”
Playing at quarterback for Ole Miss from 1989-91, Tom Luke had a solid career under center for the Rebels. Because he was a quarterback, Tom Luke had a different playing style than his brother, who was a lineman in both high school and college.
“(Their positions were) dictated by their body types,” Tommy Luke said. “(Tom) was a little skinny thing until he began to gain some (weight) in high school when he started lifting weights. Matt, of course, had the body of a lineman. He played middle linebacker and center throughout all of high school.”
Four years after his brother graduated from Ole Miss, Matt Luke graduated high school and received several scholarship offers. However, like his brother before him, he did not have one from his dream school. He contemplated accepting an athletic scholarship to Rice but ultimately decided against it. Instead, he chose to take on the challenge of walking on to the Ole Miss football team.
“For me, it’s where I wanted to be,” he said. “I had some scholarship offers. But I just felt like maybe I had a chip on my shoulder, and I knew I was gonna be good enough (for Ole Miss’ team). I just felt that way. I just came here and worked really hard and earned everything I had.”
Matt Luke was right — he successfully walked on and played at center for Ole Miss from 1995-98. He eventually became a leader in the locker room and ultimately served as a team captain. He had no intentions of becoming a coach until he got his first taste of coaching during his final year of playing for Ole Miss.
“The turning point in his career is when (Ole Miss) went to the (Independence Bowl),” Tom Luke said. “Coach (Tommy) Tuberville had left for Auburn, and coach (David) Cutcliffe had come in. (Matt) had the opportunity to sit in front of a chalk board and talk (about) how coach Cutcliffe’s offense was going to be relayed to his teammates — using (their) old terminology — for that one game.”
Ole Miss wound up winning that game convincingly — with a final score of 35-18 — under interim head coach Cutcliffe. Matt Luke had played an integral role during the matchup, both on the field and behind the scenes on the chalkboard. That game was the pivotal moment in Matt Luke’s career — a moment that would change his life forever.
Originally, Tommy Luke was averse to either of his sons getting into the coaching profession.
“Matt, I have never recommended anyone go into the coaching field, but I think you’re an exception,” Tommy Luke said, giving advice to his son. “I think you’re just cut out (for it). You’re very knowledgeable about everything, and you know how to do it.”
Matt Luke spent his fifth year at Ole Miss as a student assistant coach to Cutcliffe. Luke had exhausted his eligibility as a player, so for him, this was the next best thing.
“Several people tried to talk me out of it,” he said. “Coach (Cutcliffe) really said, ‘I want you to give this a shot. I want you to try it for one year; I think you’ll be really good at it.’”
Following that year of student coaching, Matt Luke graduated and was forced to go elsewhere to gain more coaching experience.
According to Tommy Luke, Cutcliffe called Matt Luke and said, “You know I can’t hire you straight out of college — you can’t do that in the SEC. You’re gonna have to go off to another school, and when I get an opening, I’ll hire you back.”
So that’s what Matt Luke did. He spent two years as Murray State’s offensive line coach to prepare himself for a return to a position in an SEC program.
Cutcliffe kept his word. In 2002, he rehired Matt Luke as an offensive line and tight ends coach, a position which Luke held for three seasons.
“It was my lifelong dream,” Matt Luke said. “My dad and my brother were my role models and my heroes. I wanted to be just like them.”
In 2004, Ole Miss fired Cutcliffe and replaced him with Ed Orgeron, who retained Matt Luke on the coaching staff for just one season. Following the 2005 season, Luke — who continued to hold the same coaching position — served under Cutcliffe at Tennessee for two years before following him to Duke. There, Luke served as a co-offensive coordinator and the offensive line coach.
After six years away from Oxford, Matt Luke was rehired by the university in 2012, when Hugh Freeze became the head coach. Under Freeze, Luke spent four years as a co-offensive coordinator and the offensive line coach.
During Freeze’s tenure, Tom Luke’s son Cale Luke continued the Luke tradition by enrolling at Ole Miss. He was the third generation of the Luke family to attend Ole Miss, and like his uncle, Cale walked on to the football team and received a scholarship before his time in Oxford was up.
“Watching (Cale) graduate was more fun than anything,” Tommy Luke said.
In summer 2017, Freeze resigned as the head coach of Ole Miss Football because of allegations of personal misconduct. Matt Luke was named interim head coach on July 20, 2017, as the Luke name became even further embedded in the lore of Ole Miss.
“Obviously it was exciting,” Tom Luke said. “But at the same time, there was no doubt in my mind that (Matt) was the perfect person (at) the perfect time. I think it (was) a perfect scenario … and I still feel that way, two years later.”
As Ole Miss’ interim head coach in 2017, Matt Luke led the Rebels to a 6-6 record. That may not sound too impressive at first, but considering that he was thrust into the position late into the offseason, finished 3-1 in the Rebels’ last four games and topped the season off with a road win in the Egg Bowl, Luke showed that he can win at the college level.
“(Matt being head coach causes) a mixed emotion,” Tommy Luke said. “You know how tough it’s gonna be. You win, and everything is great. You lose, and you’re the worst ever. I didn’t know if I wanted Matt to go through all that or not, but he was (more) worried (about) us having to put up with all that talk.”
Following the Rebels’ Egg Bowl victory in Starkville, Ole Miss removed the interim tag from Matt Luke’s title and introduced him as the new head football coach. Luke’s dream of becoming a head coach was finally achieved at his destination school, his alma mater.
“(Being named head coach is) obviously a great honor at any school, much less your alma mater,” Luke said. “At some point (in life) I’ve been a fan, a player, a coach, an alumnus, a graduate assistant — I’ve pretty much been everything you can be. (This is) not a job — I am truly emotionally invested.”