Mississippi coach Matt Luke ready to seize ‘destination job’
OXFORD, Miss. (AP) — Matt Luke had a broad smile as he strolled to the podium to be introduced as Mississippi’s football coach. The cameras flashed, the crowd gave a long standing ovation and Luke’s family watched with pride.
The welcome felt much more like the real thing this time.
The 41-year-old Luke was introduced Monday as Mississippi’s football coach — for the second time. He was named the program’s interim coach in July, and led the Rebels to a 6-6 record, including a 3-5 mark in the Southeastern Conference.
Ole Miss announced on Sunday that Luke would keep the job on a permanent basis.
“Ole Miss is a destination job,” Luke said. “It’s not just my dream job, it’s a destination job. And I am truly honored to be the head coach at the University of Mississippi.”
Luke has a four-year contract that’s worth $12.6 million and includes several performance incentives. The school did not release any details about buyout terms for either side.
The news conference on Monday had a much more positive vibe than Luke’s introduction as the interim coach, when the program was still reeling from previous coach Hugh Freeze’s sudden resignation. Freeze left after a university investigation into his phone records found what the school called personal misconduct.
One reason Luke was asked to be the interim coach was his deep ties to the university. He was an offensive lineman for the Rebels in the 1990s and his brother and dad also played for the school.
Luke said his love for Ole Miss is well-documented, but that’s not the reason he feels qualified to lead the program on a long-term basis.
“I wanted to be hired here because I was the right man for the job,” Luke said. “I’ve been playing and coaching at this level for 20 years. I’ve been under some of the best head coaches in the country and I fully understand what a championship program looks like.”
Luke’s hiring is undoubtedly popular inside the program. He led the Rebels to an emotional 31-28 upset victory over No. 16 Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl on Thursday, and players were heard in the locker room chanting “We want Luke!” during a raucous celebration.
Outside the program, the response has been more tepid. Many fans wanted a more well-known leader or at least someone with more head coaching experience.
Ole Miss athletics director Ross Bjork said that he had “extensive conversations” with eight candidates and that interest in the job was significant, but in the end, Luke had the best plan for future success.
“I realize that the easy decision was to hire someone new,” Bjork said. “Bring in a splash hire. A big name, if you will. In reality, the hard decision was to drill down, assess our program, what it needs, be strategic and hire the right coach.
“In the final analysis, Matt Luke is the best person, best leader and the best coach.”
The Ole Miss job comes with several challenges — most notably the fallout from the NCAA’s investigation into the program for rules violations. The Rebels were not eligible for a bowl this season because of a self-imposed postseason ban. They’ve also self-imposed scholarship reductions and recruiting restrictions.
The NCAA is expected to release a final ruling in the case in the coming weeks. The governing body could accept the Rebels’ self-imposed sanctions or add to them.
Luke said that the NCAA’s judgment won’t affect the long-term vision of the program.
“We’ve been through a lot of adversity and we’re going to come through this no matter what,” Luke said. “But it’s going to take hard work. It’s going to take discipline.”