When Matt Luke walked into the meeting room at the Manning Center for the first time as a head coach Monday morning, the excitement was palpable. Filled with family, friends and Ole Miss faithful, the room was at capacity in support of Luke’s first public appearance as the official head coach of Ole Miss football. When the 41-year-old’s face turned the corner and walked through the door, people in the crowd rose to their feet in cheer and a beaming smile broke across the lifelong Rebel’s face.
After Luke joined his family to the side, Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter stood behind the podium and made his opening statement.
“Since August, our athletics director, Ross Bjork, has worked tirelessly, scouring the country for the best football coach for the Ole Miss Rebels, and he has found him in Matt Luke,” Vitter said before being met with an “amen” from a spectator.
When Luke took over the program as the interim head coach in July, he had less than a week to prepare for the season and the expectations for the program were low. Now, after a long and laborious season, Luke finds himself with a 6-6 record in his first year. A single-win improvement over a season ago, the year was capped off with a massive victory over rival No. 14 Mississippi State, and the team immediately showed support for the man who led it there.
“The last Ole Miss coach to go from line coach to head coach, I think, worked out pretty well,” Bjork said. “Coach Johnny Vaught won 190 games during his career, and we are trying to meet his standard every day.”
After laughs echoed throughout the room, Bjork looked at Luke and smiled.
“No pressure, Matt,” he joked.
Since Luke was introduced as the interim head coach, players affectionately swarmed to him and bought into his no-nonsense style of coaching. While the year was met with hardship from the beginning, his players followed him religiously throughout the season and trusted his plan for success.
“He has demonstrated in a tough environment that he can rally a team, a program, a university when we needed him the most,” Bjork said. “The reaction from the team in the meeting last night said it all. Players now and players in the future want to play for Matt Luke. He’s the right coach for Rebel football.”
When Luke took to the stand, he was again met with furious and friendly applause from those in attendance. It has been cited frequently throughout the season that this is Luke’s dream job and where he wants to be, and now it is his time.
“Everybody knows how much I love Ole Miss and how much my family is entrenched in Ole Miss,” Luke said. “But that’s not the reason I wanted to be hired here. I wanted to be hired because I am the right man for the job. I have been playing and coaching at this level for 20 years. I have been under some of the best coaches in this country, and I fully understand what a championship program looks like.”
In the few months Luke has been the interim head coach, he has managed to change the culture of the program. Taking over a team that seemed to be in disarray, he kept the players focused on the common goals of family, getting up after hardship and silencing the doubt surrounding the program. Now with a full offseason to prepare, he is excited to get started and take the measures necessary to carry a winning tradition in the program, which starts on the recruiting trail.
“My staff is already on the road recruiting. The hard work starts today, and it starts right now. This is just the beginning,” Luke said. “Recruiting is the lifeblood of any program, and I’m looking forward to sharing this blue-collar, hardworking vision with the players of this country and of this state. I understand what it takes to bring the caliber athlete here that will take us to the next level.”
Though the entirety of the 2017 season was one long job interview for Luke, his hiring came down to his plan for the future. After interviewing eight other candidates for the job and hiring a search firm to help with the process, Bjork felt confident the Mississippi native was ready to lead the program into the future.
“I told coach Luke four weeks ago that the Friday after the Egg Bowl, we need to sit down because I need to hear his plan, how he would run the program,” Bjork said. “That was the plan — to talk to him all along regardless of how he finished. The record didn’t matter. I wanted to hear his plan. We met again on Saturday morning, and then the chancellor and I met with him Sunday afternoon, and we both looked at each other, and we said that he was the guy.”
Now that Luke sits as the official head coach of the Ole Miss Rebels, he will begin implementing a full plan — one that will last longer than just the single season ahead.
“It is and always remains about our players. That’s what I told those guys last night,” Luke said. “The reason it’s different now is because it’s a 30-year plan. It’s a program plan. It’s not just ‘How can I motivate these guys for this season?’ It’s a plan for the long haul.”
With the head coach position filled, questions remain about other positions on the coaching staff and job security, which is something Luke will have to look at from the top of the totem pole on down.
“One of the things you learn as a head coach is that you are always evaluating. You’re always looking for ways to make your program better,” Luke said. “I’m very happy with the way the staff performed and how we finished the season, but I am going to evaluate everything in this program from top to bottom, from recruiting to coaching to academics. I’m going to make the decisions I think are necessary and are best for this program.”
Luke has been coaching for more than two decades. He started his career in 1999 as a student assistant coach with Ole Miss. Since then, he has worked his way up the ladder alongside coaches who have seen abundant success, like former Tennessee head coach Phillip Fulmer, who went 152-52 with the Volunteers and won a BCS Championship in 1998, and veteran David Cutcliffe of Duke.
“I’ve seen head coaches do it the right way, and I have seen head coaches do it the wrong way,” Luke said. “But the biggest challenge for me was to be myself and see how I learned. I have been raised under a lot of good head coaches, and I have a lot of great experiences, and I have tried to take the best from everyone I’ve been around. Put that with my love for Ole Miss, and you kind of have your own coaching style.”
Pointing to the advice he has received since taking over in July, Luke emphasised the importance of being himself and letting the rest fall into place. As the emotional morning came to a close, he ended his remarks with a powerful statement that affirmed confidence and faith in his hiring.
“I’m proud to be a Mississippian, and I’m proud to be born and raised in this state, and I’m proud to be Mississippi-made,” Luke said as a tear escaped his eye. “Ole Miss is a destination job. It’s not just my dream job — it’s a destination job, and I am truly honored to be your head coach at the University of Mississippi.”