As a massive storm cloud lingers over all things Ole Miss football, one man just accepted his dream job.
That man is Matt Luke. He’s a Rebel through and through. And now he’s the interim head coach at his alma mater, where his former boss, Hugh Freeze, just resigned in disgrace and another NCAA response just landed at his doorstep.
But even amid all of that, Luke, when addressing reporters for the first time in his new role on Monday, was immensely proud. It showed. His voice quivered when talking about leading the program where he, his brother and his father all played.
It kind of made you forget for a second what he’s walking into.
“I’m so excited to have the opportunity to be the head coach at the University of Mississippi,” Luke said. “I’ve been an Ole Miss Rebel all my life. It’s all I can remember.
“I can’t believe that I’ve spent 14 years of my life as a player or coach here. I can truly tell y’all today that this is my dream job. It’s a job I’ve been preparing my whole life for. I feel more strongly now than ever that I’m the right man to run this program.”
Luke, a Gulfport, Mississippi native, played line for the Rebels and was an assistant under three head coaches before Freeze: Tommy Tuberville, David Cutcliffe and Ed Orgeron. After stops at Tennessee and Duke, he returned to Oxford as part of Freeze’s first staff. He’s been there ever since, serving as a co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach.
He’s been lauded by everybody around the program since Freeze stepped down.
“Matt is a great coach. He’s a leader. He’s a rock. He’s an Ole Miss Rebel,” AD Ross Bjork said the night Freeze’s resignation was announced. “I’m confident, and especially even more confident in watching him address the team, that he will lead this team and program through this difficult time.”
Sophomore quarterback Shea Patterson said “there’s nobody better to lead this team and this program than Coach Luke,” while offensive lineman Javon Patterson and defensive lineman Breeland Speaks each used the word “passionate” to describe Luke.
“I know he’ll give it all for the team,” Javon Patterson said. “Coach Luke has been around here for a while. You feel his passion and you feel his presence.”
Added Speaks: “He is passionate. That’s the best way I can explain Coach Luke. He wants the best. He’s passionate. He’s a Rebel.”
Luke said he’s been “preparing his whole life” for this opportunity, but there’s no way he could imagine he’d land it under these circumstances. He found out about Freeze’s exit a few hours before the rest of us: around 4 p.m. Thursday. Bjork offered him the interim role, and he accepted. He spoke briefly with Freeze, Luke said, and that was it. Go get ‘em.
“I was surprised. I didn’t have a long time to reflect because I was given a job to do. My focus went to moving forward,” Luke said.
Instead of having an offseason to prepare for preseason camp, he has about a week (the Rebels start camp Aug. 2). It’s even less time than interim coach Jim Grobe had before the 2016 season when he took over at Baylor following the dismissal of Art Briles.
The lack of preparation time is not the best blueprint for success, but other than Freeze and a new offensive line coach Luke will hire, the staff remains intact, much like Baylor’s staff a year ago. Now Luke says the attention — from he and his staff — is going to turn toward the players while the “distractions” around Ole Miss football persist.
“My job is to get the team ready to play. My focus is moving forward. Our focus is on the players and that’s where it needs to be,” Luke said.
“They just want to play football. They’re tired of the noise. They’re tired of the distractions. They just want to go play football and do what they love. I can’t wait for Aug. 2 to get here so we can go to work.”
There’s an inherent shadiness surrounding Ole Miss right now. From the effort to paint the NCAA violation picture as mainly a Houston Nutt-era problem, misleading both the public and recruits, to Bjork last week — while aware reporters were looking into Freeze’s fateful phone call to an escort service — lauding the “culture” built by Freeze to a local television affiliate, there’s just the sense the whole thing could come crashing down at any moment.
Amid all that, Luke’s passion for the school and his new opportunity is a welcome bit of positivity for the Rebels. It remains to be seen whether he has a legitimate shot to turn the interim role into a full-time gig. It rarely happens. Grobe was a one-and-done at Baylor as the school opted for a completely new staff for 2017 and beyond.
At the very least, Ole Miss has a guy who is going to represent it well in the public eye.
“This is something that’s very special to me,” Luke said. “I’m so excited to have the opportunity. You never want to take those times for granted. So I’m excited to have the opportunity to be around my family and at my university.”
For more Ole Miss news, visit RebelGrove.com.
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