After a 6-6 campaign, navigating through the NCAA morality maze yet still awaiting the punishment to be announced, and winning the Egg Bowl, lifetime Rebel Matt Luke has finally reached his summit. He is now the head football coach at the University of Mississippi, first reported by Neal McCready of Rebel Grove.
Back in July when Hugh Freeze resigned for using a university-issued cell phone to contact hookers and things of that nature, Bjork announced that Luke would be the interim guy, and most expected him to be.
He is a lifelong Rebel who has virtually dedicated his life to Ole Miss after stops at Murray State, Tennessee, and Duke. In total, he has spent damn near 20 years in some form or fashion playing or coaching at Ole Miss and just concluded his first full year as the interim coach in Oxford.
Despite some puzzling decisions in games against Cal, Arkansas, Texas A&M, and in the rivalry game win against Mississippi State, Bjork and Ole Miss has decided to retain the former walk-on center and offensive line coach to be the head man for 2018.
After winning six games with a terrible defense and an All-World offense, what’s next for Luke and Ole Miss? How does he fit in? And what should fans be concerned with about their new head coach?
Why this is a good thing?
First things first, he kept a team of teenagers together and managed to win six games with an atrocious group on defense and new coordinators on both sides of the ball. Other than a blowout at the hands of Nick Saban, a road loss to Cal, and home losses to Arkansas and Texas A&M, he handled things fairly well at times. And even won the Egg Bowl on the road.
The players certainly want him to stay around, too. Now, this is almost certainly a product of their emotions running high after defeating their in-state rival and biggest pot-stirrer in the NCAA investigation, but it certainly shows that Luke’s name is respected within the program, as evidenced by A.J. Brown here.
He is also someone who is very comfortable in this particular setting as it pertains to being under the NCAA microscope. As a player, Luke was a walk-on center (who eventually became the starter) who played on a team that was on probation because of lazy recruiting done by a another former staff. He can speak to his players about the trials and tribulations he went through as a player and they can truly believe him because he walked the walked. But, can it translate to more wins and returned success on the recruiting trail?
Why is this a risky hire?
Despite his experience as an on-field football staffer (17 years), Luke has never been a head coach outside of this year’s interim gig. He has only been a co-offensive coordinator and position coach until this season. The aforementioned losses to Cal, Arkansas, and A&M had their own unique calls, strategies, and game plans that were quite puzzling at times and seemed to reflect Luke’s decision-making or lack thereof.
Could this be a product of his doing or the team just not being very good? I tend to lean towards the former. Luke is going to go through growing pains because that’s what new coaches do, and it will be on Bjork’s watch. But, with that said, some learn on the job quicker than others.
Most people thought that Bjork and Ole Miss would look in the direction of South Florida’s Charlie Strong, Oregon’s Willie Taggart, Memphis’ Mike Norvell, or even N.C. State’s Dave Doeren, but they went the even riskier route and hired from within. An unproven name. Someone without much credibility. Zero head coaching experience. Bjork is going to be defined by this hire, don’t get it twisted. And he is certainly going out on the proverbial limb hiring Luke when there were other viable candidates out there that were available AND had Power 5 experience.
Why should this concern you?
As mentioned above, this will be Luke’s first full-time gig as a head man of a program. He will need to organize a full recruiting calendar, navigate a tough SEC West once again with a defense that needs a lot of improvement, and he will almost certainly need to make some staff moves. The last requirement is going to be the toughest in my opinion. Matt is very likely to be asked by Bjork and other administration to make changes to improve the defense and he will have to depart with friends and colleagues he has made during his time in Oxford.
Another thing that should concern you is the recruiting aspect of running a program. Ole Miss has had two recruiting classes affected by the NCAA investigation and the 2019 Mississippi class is loaded with talent. Mississippi State is also going through a transition of their own now that Dan Mullen is gone, you need to establish yourself as the leader in the clubhouse and not miss on all the talent that is in your backyard.
No matter how Luke does as head coach, it should be somewhat concerning to Ole Miss fans that Ross Bjork had several other options out there, ones with Power 5 experience, and still passed on them to take the safe hire and get the Rebel 4 Life guy that would take the job for free probably.
As an Ole Miss fan going on 30 years, it will be damn near impossible for me not to support and watch the Rebels in 2018, but this is quite puzzling and a tad bit underwhelming for me that names like Strong, Taggart, or Norvell were out there, and we didn’t roll the dice and try to ask them to name their price to be the guy that leads the players through the Grove on game day.
Alas, here we are. The Matt Luke Era is officially underway. And hey, he got two commits the Sunday after the Egg Bowl so there’s a start. But still, the point remains, Ole Miss hired a search firm, “looked” during the season, and we expected Ross Bjork to make a splash hire and, well, he didn’t. Life goes on.
Hopefully Matt Luke proves me wrong. I sure hope so.