After firing Matt Luke too soon, Ole Miss has a real mess on its hands
On the surface, everything suggests Ole Miss should have had a clean, understandable breakup with Matt Luke.
A coach who entered Year 3 in search of his first bowl berth had the 3rd-lowest salary in the conference, and the athletic director who hired him was gone. Naturally, a 4-8 season that ended with a bizarre loss in a rivalry game got that coach canned.
I’m sure that new Ole Miss athletic director Keith Carter looked at those facts and thought, “I’m not going to be questioned for pulling the trigger.” Plenty of Ole Miss fans would agree with that notion. Many who are reading this probably pointed to those reasons and used that to explain why the Rebels had no choice but to move on from Luke.
Heck, if you had laid out those details to me a few months ago, I would’ve been right there with them. That’s the nature of this results-based business.
But perspective is important, and it’s the exact reason this breakup was premature, and much messier than anyone could have anticipated.
If you’re wondering what I mean by “mess,” consider this. Ten days ago, Carter shed his interim tag and was named the full-time athletic director at Ole Miss. Here’s what he had to say about the future of Luke at his introductory press conference:
“I think our football program is headed in a great direction,” Carter said during the press conference. “I’m so excited about Coach Luke. He’s our coach, and we couldn’t be more excited about the opportunity we have next week in Starkville. We’re excited about where recruiting is and excited about where the future is headed. We’re going to get behind Coach Luke, and we’re going to try to get after the Bulldogs next week and get to that fifth win.”
That’s a vote of confidence if I’ve ever seen one. No wonder players were so surprised by this news to come out 3 days after the Egg Bowl on a Sunday night (more on that later).
Now compare that to the statement that he released on Sunday night following the official news that Luke had been fired:
“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,” Carter said in a statement released by the university. “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.”
He used an an interesting word there — “momentum.” Again, 4-8 doesn’t suggest momentum. I get that. You don’t keep a coach just because he was “better than his record indicated,” which Ole Miss absolutely was. The Rich Rodriguez offense starring John Rhys Plumlee quickly became one of the most entertaining tickets in the SEC. Now, obviously, that’s on hold.
We don’t know if Carter is going to fire the entire Ole Miss staff, or just Luke. The total buyout for Luke’s staff reportedly is north of $17 million. That’s because of the offseason additions of former Power 5 head coaches Rodriguez and Mike MacIntyre. Who knows what the future holds for them. The vast majority of the time, firing the head coach means you’re willing to part ways with the assistants.
That seems extremely short-sighted if that’s the case.
Despite what the record suggested, both engineered significant turnarounds in their year in Oxford. It wasn’t an accident that Ole Miss’ average margin in SEC play went from -19 to -4.4. Look at the year-to-year shift in the Ole Miss defense after Luke fired Wesley McGriff and hired MacIntyre:
Anybody who spent time watching Ole Miss could see that defenders were actually in position to make tackles, unlike the previous 2 years. There’s a reason MacIntyre was nominated for the Broyles Award. He can coach.
The same is true for Rodriguez, who inherited an offense that had the least amount of returning production of any team in America.
Let me repeat that because I’m afraid you glossed over that.
Rodriguez inherited an offense that had the least amount of returning production of any team in America.
So what did Rodriguez, a guy known for having mobile quarterbacks and run-heavy, spread offenses do? All he did was take a true freshman and put him in position to lead the SEC’s top rushing offense. Only 5 Power 5 teams ran the ball better than Ole Miss, who had a budding freshman 1-2 punch in Plumlee and 5-star tailback Jerrion Ealy, both in-state recruits.
Speaking of those guys, they were at the center of this interesting reaction story that the Clarion Ledger’s Nick Suss wrote (read all of it because it’s fantastic insight). According to the story, Ealy was one of a handful of players who stormed out of the meeting early before Carter was finished addressing the team about the firing. Junior offensive lineman Chandler Tuitt was quoted as saying “there’s no program without players” and that half the team is considering leaving if the rest of the coaching staff isn’t retained.
Starting from scratch in the SEC West isn’t fun. Go ask Arkansas about that.
The story also outlined how Plumlee wasn’t able to make it to the meeting because he was driving back to Oxford after being home for the holiday weekend, but Carter met with the Ole Miss quarterback individually. That’s telling in itself. Plumlee was quoted by saying the politically correct things like how it was tough, but that Carter made the decision with the program’s best interest in mind.
Still, though. If recent history with high-profile quarterbacks like Justin Fields and Tate Martell is any indication, Plumlee would be able to enter the transfer portal and not risk missing a year of eligibility. That could depend on who Carter brings in, which he said he hopes to have finalized in the next week and a half.
Players were frustrated with the move because they felt like Carter acted out of interests of the fans and not the internal mood of the program. Carter, a first-time athletic director, now has major pressure to deliver with a lot of moving pieces.
Luke’s staff is sort of hanging in limbo right now. Maybe they’re even entertaining other offers from schools who want to buy them out. If neither Rodriguez nor MacIntyre is kept as the team’s head coach, it’s not exactly an athletic director’s job to convince the new coach that they’re staying on as assistants.
A week and a half in the coaching carousel is a long time, especially with the Early Signing Period rapidly approaching. Luke was reportedly informed of the news as he was on the recruiting trail.
Is that the first time that’s happened? Of course not. Is that the first time players have been upset to hear that their coach had been fired? Absolutely not. There are Ole Miss fans who are under the impression that this is standard coach dismissal protocol.
I’d urge them to look a little deeper at this. Ole Miss might not have the bowl ban cloud anymore, but who knows how much they’ll be able spend on a new head coach. Believe it or not, the list of coaches who want to come to the SEC West to face Nick Saban, Ed Orgeron, Jimbo Fisher and Gus Malzahn on an annual basis probably isn’t as long as some fans think. That’s especially true at a place that can’t offer anything more than a 4-year contract because of Mississippi State law.
And look, I get it that there’s a “we want to see what’s out there” element to this. The Hugh Freeze escort fallout tied with the university’s pending bowl ban made shedding Luke’s interim tag the obvious move. The last time the Rebels had a real coaching search was 8 years ago. Just to show you how long ago that was in terms of college football years, Saban is the only SEC coach who had his same job in 2011. There’s natural curiosity to see what the market looks like.
It just felt like Carter made a reactionary move that was messier than he anticipated. Keeping Luke for another year would have essentially meant Carter would have had to add another season to the back end of his contract because of the whole 4-year deal thing in Mississippi. Recruiting isn’t easy for a coach with 2 years left on a contract, which is what Luke would have had if Carter decided to run it back.
That didn’t happen, though. Carter made a mess that’ll take more cleanup than some fake dog pee celebration fallout.
He’s gonna need a big mop.