The Matt Luke era is over.
The University of Mississippi and athletic director Keith Carter have cut ties with the third-year head coach after a disappointing finish to a second consecutive losing season.
Luke, who took over as an interim after the Hugh Freeze debacle, went 6-6 in 2017 and won the Egg Bowl on the road. By salvaging what could have been a disaster season, and beating Mississippi State, Luke was brought on as the full-time head coach to the tune of a four-year, $12.6 million dollar contract. Ole Miss regressed each year with Luke at the helm, and went 5-7 in 2018 and 4-8 in 2019.
Ironically, the game that brought him to the top of the program was the game that pushed him off. On Thursday, Ole Miss lost to its rival in a way that most people couldn’t have dreamt. As a result, Luke’s in-division win total dropped to an astonishing 3-15, with just two wins over Arkansas to add to the game that had his interim tag removed.
Though his time in Oxford was not of winning nature, his demeanor never wavered (sometimes to a fault), and the passion he put into his team and his players did not go unnoticed. As a fan since birth, a former player, and a long-standing offensive line coach, Luke had a real shot at his dream job, but just couldn’t right the ship.
However, he deserves a lot of credit for keeping it afloat on the heels of a national spectacle.
When Freeze stepped down in July of 2017, Ole Miss was left muddled just a month before the season was to begin. Luke stepped into a role for which he was unprepared, and kept a talented team without an identity from crashing and burning. Though .500 was not up to the caliber of years prior, the team did not flounder, and an emphatic win to close the year brought optimism and positivity. It was less of a success and more of a ‘it will do.’
Nevertheless, that feeling did not return in 2018, when the year ended with a losing record, despite a number of NFL-talent weapons at his disposal. The losing trend continued in 2019, and the Rebels lost five one-possession games. That’s unacceptable. In a world driven by results, 15-21 in three seasons just won’t cut it— especially when schools like Missouri, which is barely the SEC, are moving on from coaches with 25 wins in four years.
While many Luke supporters rightfully pointed the amount of youth on the roster, it is no excuse to keep a coach. Yes, recruiting had not struggled over the last few years, but it could have been better. And with the talent that was to mature over the next few seasons, getting a strong, innovative mind to lead and develop the underclassmen is crucial.
To be a successful coach, winning is everything. Mediocrity is unacceptable, and inferiority is inexcusable. Luke’s three years were inferior, and his future capped out of a ceiling of mediocrity.
Supporters took notice.
Ole Miss had a decade-low attendance average for the 2019 season, and those who checked out did not have reason to reinvest. Boosters held tight to supporting a program with little hope for the immediate future, ticket sales plummeted, and being unable to compete on a high level was a major gut-check. Though college football is a game, collegiate athletics is a business. A business can’t work if its financial support blanket is ripped out from under it.
That’s where the newly-named athletic director comes in.
Carter, who had his interim tag in November, needed to act quickly to retain the fanbase that had pushed back on the status quo, and he knew it. Initial reports circled that the buyout for Luke and his staff was too expensive to fire them, and the new Chancellor was uninterested in moving on. However, after one of the more wild endings in college football history on Thanksgiving Day, the line in the sand may have been drawn.
Luke is a great man, with a great heart. Keeping him into 2020 was the safe move, sure not to step on toes or damage relationships, but it catered to complacency. Carter’s execution in pulling the trigger on a difficult decision was brilliant.
As someone who was been praised for his fundraising ability during his relatively short time in athletics, he capitalized on the toxicity of the moment and used the grey cloud over the future as a springboard to secure the buyout. It was a bold move, but the right one.
Beyond the logistical puzzle pieces, governance and oversight played a huge factor into the severity of firing Luke. Chancellor Glenn Boyce hired Carter to the full-time AD position shortly after he was appointed to the head administrator role at Ole Miss. Boyce reportedly wanted to retain Luke through 2020, if not through 2021.
As opposed to bending the knee for the man who hired him, Carter did his job and got the backing for a bold move that he believes betters the program. That’s an important factor into this whole equation. Carter is willing to block out the noise and do what is necessary to make athletics successful. Bravo.
Now, just because the deed is done, does not mean that it is all rainbows and unicorns. Less than a month out from the Early Signing Period, Ole Miss does not have a head coach, and a “black Sunday” of significant scale leaves many intriguing openings at prominent name schools around the country. On top of that, Arkansas and Florida State, which may both have equal or more draw than Ole Miss, each have openings and are a step ahead after firing their coaches mid-season. Carter has to act fast.
As it comes to the question of, “who wants that job?” the answer is simple— good coaches. There are fourteen SEC schools, with fourteen head coaches, in the top conference in college football. Should one of those positions open up, which it did with Luke’s removal, the opportunity to consistently compete against the best teams in the nation is coveted. To do so at Ole Miss, where expectations are essentially to compete for the top bowl games and simply stay relevant, is enticing.
Many strong candidate are available and presumably interested (especially when SEC money is involved), and Carter just has to ink one. The right one, sure, but the pool is not shallow. After his definitive move on Sunday, expect him to make a splash.
The Matt Luke era is over, here’s to new beginnings.