As Rebel football closed the curtain on its 2017 season following last Thursday’s Egg Bowl victory, then-interim head coach Matt Luke’s fate hung in the balance.
Ross Bjork, Ole Miss’ vice chancellor for intercollegiate athletics, stood facing a difficult choice. A 6-6 record, capped with a win over No. 14 Mississippi State, defied many fans’ low expectations. But midseason losses to teams like LSU and Arkansas cast doubt on the former Ole Miss linesman’s future in Oxford.
The Ole Miss players, however, had already made up their minds. They wanted Luke, who began the season with an “interim” looming before his “head coach” title, to stick around. And they weren’t quiet about it.
After their victory over a ranked Bulldog team in Starkville, the players filled the visiting locker room with boisterous approval for him.
“We want Luke! We want Luke!” they chanted over and over again.
At 8 p.m. Sunday, the team met for an “academic” meeting at the Manning Center. But Bjork and the Ole Miss staff had little, if any, intention of discussing academics. Something far more important took precedence.
Bjork announced the results of his coaching search.
“From the Monday after we made our change in July, I have been very consistent in our approach in this search process,” Bjork said at a press conference Monday morning. “It was our obligation to conduct a national search while also assessing the job of Matt Luke throughout the season.”
For several minutes, Bjork built tension, almost teasing the players as he first listed off the characteristics Ole Miss looked for in a head coach. Then, just as the excitement climaxed, Bjork gestured to the door. Luke walked in to thunderous applause and a hearty round of hugs and handshakes from players in the front row.
“The reaction from the team last night at the meeting says it all. Players now and players in the future want to play for coach Luke. He is the right coach for Ole Miss football,” Bjork said.
Luke was not a shoe-in for the job, however.
Under former head coach Hugh Freeze from 2012 to 2016, Luke served as an offensive line and co-offensive coordinator. He lacked any sort of head coaching experience. Many felt Luke should guide the Rebels through a burdensome 2017 before handing the reins off to a more experienced, established coach.
“I realize that the easy decision was to hire someone new, bring in a splash hire, a big name, if you will,” Bjork said.
But that strategy was never going to sit well with Luke, a man as Mississippi as they make them. The Gulfport native had his sights set on a permanent position.
“I am proud to be Mississippi-made. Ole Miss is a destination job. It is not just my dream job, it is a destination job,” Luke said.
Now, as the program awaits pending NCAA sanctions, Luke finds himself with a unique opportunity to mold the future of Ole Miss football. How the Rebels handle potential bowl bans, scholarship restrictions and/or related sanctions could shape the team for years to come.
“To me, building and changing this culture, the NCAA is not going to affect that. We’ve been through a lot of adversity, and we’re going to come through this no matter what,” Luke said. “But it’s going to take hard work, discipline and toughness.”
Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter stood with Bjork and Luke at the press conference Monday morning to express his support and the support of Ole Miss’ alumni.
“When Matt first started in July, I really saw the beginning of a culture change,” Vitter said. “I just waited throughout the season to see the players come around. We also had just an amazing outpouring of support from alumni across our Ole Miss family.”
On Monday, the details of Luke’s contract were also released. His four-year contract extends until Dec. 31, 2021. Total compensation over that period equates to $12.6 million, while his 2018 salary clocks in at $3 million. According to USA Today’s NCAA salary data, just two coaches in the SEC last season earned less (base salary without bonuses) than $3 million: Missouri’s Barry Odom ($2.35 million) and Vanderbilt’s Derek Mason ($2,721,834).
Luke is expected to begin work on the recruiting trail during the coming months. Many hope that Luke, a passionate speaker and charismatic coach, can use his talents to help restore Ole Miss’ recruiting prowess.
“That hard work starts today,” Luke said. “My staff is already on the road recruiting. This is the first week of contact. Recruiting is the lifeblood of any program, and I am looking forward to sharing this blue-collar, hardworking vision with the players of this country and this state.”
Though the university administration and players support Luke and his array of talents, opinions among students remain mixed.
“It was the best hire we could make in the situation,” said Brandon Cannon, a junior personal finance major from Southaven. “He’ll be very good for in-state recruits.”
Other students felt less optimistic about the hire.
“This season, Matt Luke was, at best, holding his own,” said Andrew Wildman, a French and integrated marketing communications double major from Laurel. “He isn’t aggressive and doesn’t seem to have the grasp of the game an SEC coach needs.”
While little consensus exists among students regarding Luke’s hire, Bjork and the players remain confident in their decision. Ole Miss blood courses through his veins, and perhaps no one in the world is as committed as Matt Luke to returning success to Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.
“These last four months have been an unbelievable experience. I have seen the culture start to change. I have seen these kids come together under the face of adversity at every corner,” Luke said. “We are in this together, and we are a team.”