New interim Ole Miss coach Matt Luke short on personality, long on passion for Rebels
The Q-and-A portion of Ole Miss interim coach Matt Luke’s introductory press conference Monday was a pretty dull affair.
Naturally, there were plenty of questions about the mess he inherited from Hugh Freeze, who resigned Thursday in a total shock. The discovery of a one-minute phone call to an escort service in a record request led to a disturbing “pattern of behavior” being unearthed.
Understand that the Rebels had already been perhaps the most heavily scrutinized program in the SEC. The NCAA is currently investigating the school for 21 violations — some of which they have admitted to already — that include all the stereotypical things associated with the college game, from skirting recruiting rules to outright paying players.
That being said, Luke’s opening statement made it abundantly clear that he’s thrilled to have the job no matter the fashion in which he got it.
“I’d like to thank everybody for being here today,” Luke said. “I really appreciate you guys coming out. I want to start by thanking chancellor (Jeff) Vitter. (Athletic director) Ross (Bjork), thank you so much for your leadership. I’m so excited to have the opportunity to be the head coach at the University of Mississippi.
“To my wife, Ashley, my two boys, Harrison and Cooper, thank you so much for your sacrifice. To my mom and dad, I appreciate y’all making this possible.”
Even if you follow this league closely, chances are you’d never heard of Luke prior to him being tapped by Bjork to steer what some believe is a rudderless ship. But if anybody on campus bleeds cardinal red and navy blue, it’s him.
“I’ve been an Ole Miss Rebel all my life,” he said. “It’s all I can remember. From seeing my dad’s 35 helmet hanging in my den, pictures of his playing days hanging in my room, making the five-hour drive from Gulfport to Oxford to watch my brother, Tom, play, wearing the 17 jersey in The Grove, playing touch football — 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.”
Each of the three players made available to the media — offensive lineman Javon Patterson, quarterback Shea Patterson and defensive lineman Breeland Speaks — was universal in his praise of the new man in charge. A former walk-on who developed into a captain during his playing days in Oxford, Luke stuck to gridiron talk and avoided most of the Freeze-related drama.
“I’m so excited about our players,” he said. “They’ve been through so much adversity. They’ve never wavered, not one time. They sacrifice so much. They get up in the mornings, they do their running, they go to class, they go to the weight room, they do their position running, they go to study hall and they do it over and over again. It was evident to me at the team meeting on Thursday that these guys, they just want to play football. They just want to go out and play the game they love. They want to go out and represent Ole Miss and win football games.
“It’s my job to make sure the focus stays on the players. My staff and I will do everything in our power to give these young men the opportunity to be successful on and off the field. Those young men deserve that.”
Aside from replacing himself as O-line coach and adding associate head coach to defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff’s title, there will be no more staff changes.
“As far as my staff goes, I’m planning on hiring an offensive line coach so I can focus on being the head coach,” Luke said. “I’m so excited that Wesley McGriff is going to be our associate head coach. His passion and his energy is contagious. He’s a proven leader of young men, and what he did with our defense this spring was phenomenal.
“Phil Longo running the offense, he’s one of the brightest minds in college football. I got a chance to work side by side with him in the spring. His talent was evident. To see him work with all the pieces we have on offense, this is going to be a lot of fun.”
Life in and around The Grove is special in this conference and can be difficult for outsiders to understand. Luke is no outsider, though. While it may not help him win games as a first-time head coach, he’ll get the benefit of the doubt at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.
“To our fans: I know there are a lot of you out there watching today,” he said. “Thank you so much for the texts and the phone calls from the former players and the former teammates. It has meant so much to me. It’s more important now than ever that Rebel Nation stands together. It reminds me of 1989 when Chucky Mullins said, `It’s time.’ It is time. It’s time for Ole Miss and Rebel Nation to move forward together.
“I am honored to be the head coach at Ole Miss. It’s your university. It’s my university. It’s our university. I cannot wait to walk down that tunnel Sept. 2 and `Lock the Vaught’ together. Thank you and Hotty Toddy.”
The questions that followed? Almost as boring and predictable as his answers. Everything will stay the same. Grateful for the opportunity. Excited for the challenge. One practice at a time. One game at a time. Blah, blah blah. The SEC’s coaching ranks have lost some personality in recent years. Luke’s addition unfortunately won’t change that.
But his initial remarks were as raw as they were real. He was emotional, almost to the point of tears. Doubt his chances if you must, but never dismiss Luke’s passion.