Ole Miss announced Sunday night that head football coach Matt Luke was fired, setting off passionate reactions, including players storming out of a team meeting, fans rejoicing and Luke rushing back to Oxford from an Alabama recruiting trip where he learned of the decision.
The Rebels finished the 2019 season on Thanksgiving with a 4-8 record and a 21-20 loss to Mississippi State in which receiver Elijah Moore committed an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty before kicker Luke Logan missed the game-tying extra point in the final seconds. Moore mimicked a urinating dog in the back of the endzone after scoring a touchdown, pushing the crucial extra-point attempt back 15 yards.
Luke went 15-21 in his three seasons as head coach with an SEC record of 6-18, finishing sixth in the SEC West standings in all three years.
Athletics Director Keith Carter addressed the team on Sunday night in the Manning Center and opened the floor for questions, but shortly after the meeting started, a large group of players including Jerrion Ealy and Tariqious Tisdale abruptly left the room, signaling their disapproval of the decision. Matt Luke was on the road recruiting on Sunday afternoon when the news broke and flew back to Oxford immediately, according to the players.
“Disappointed, lost really,” junior offensive lineman Chandler Tuitt said after walking out of the meeting. “Y’all made the decisions without even telling us, first of all. So, like, we’re just all lost. Half the team is talking about leaving if Luke leaves. If you clean house again, I don’t think anyone’s going to stay. You’ve got new recruits coming in next week and won’t have a head coach.”
Ole Miss released a statement as the meeting started, citing the lack of forward momentum in the program that continues to see declining ticket sales and growing apathy from the fanbase.
“After evaluating the overall trajectory of our football program, we did not see enough momentum on the field and determined a change is necessary in order for our student-athletes to compete at the highest level,” Athletics Director Keith Carter said in a statement. “While improvements were evident in certain aspects of the program, we are judged ultimately by our record, and, unfortunately, we did not meet the standard of success that we expect from our program. We will always be grateful to Coach Luke for his leadership, particularly from a recruiting, academic and overall culture standpoint. At the same time, winning is important, and we know that we can compete for championships at Ole Miss.”
Luke was named the interim head coach in 2017 after the resignation of Hugh Freeze, and had the interim tag removed following a 6-6 season and an Egg Bowl win. He served as offensive line and tight end coach from 2002-2005 and co-offensive coordinator from 2012-2016.
After a year of Phil Longo and Wesley McGriff as coordinators, Luke brought Rich Rodriguez and Mike MacIntyre to run the offense and defense. The two high-profile hires were part of a new direction for Ole Miss led by Luke after NCAA sanctions, but 6-6, 5-7 and 4-8 finishes in the last three seasons were not enough for Matt Luke to keep his job for a fourth year.
The 2019 season was defined by missed opportunities for Luke’s teams. Wins over teams like Memphis, California, Missouri, Texas A&M and Auburn were in reach for the Rebels, but miscues late in games from both players and the coaching staff put Luke’s future at Ole Miss in doubt.
“I want to thank Coach Luke for his devotion to Ole Miss,” Carter said. “His integrity, class and dedication to this program and our student-athletes is unsurpassed, and we will always appreciate how he stepped up at a time when his university needed him the most. We wish him the very best, and he will always be a cherished member of the Ole Miss family.”
The development is the first major move for Keith Carter, who was named the official athletics director just over a week ago. Ole Miss is the third SEC school to fire its head coach this season with Arkansas and Missouri also looking for new leaders.
Luke’s firing was unexpected to both the fanbase and the players, especially after the support the new athletics director showed for the coach during his introductory press conference last Friday.
“I think our football team is headed in a great direction and I’m so excited about coach Luke. He’s our coach…,” Carter said during the press conference. “We’re excited about where recruiting is and excited about where the future is headed so we’re going to get behind coach Luke.”
Following the sudden announcement, Ole Miss will now conduct another search for a head football coach — its second in as many years — while the assistant coaches sit and wait.
“A search is underway to find a new head coach who can build a complete program that attracts top talent, develops them as young men and sustains a winning mentality,” Carter said. “We will be looking for the leadership, energy and commitment to excellence necessary to compete in the Southeastern Conference and galvanize our passionate fan base.”