Matt Luke looking for permanent success in face of Ole Miss’ sanctions

Published 7:03 pm Monday, December 4, 2017

Matt Luke isn’t taking over his dream job under normal circumstances.

Four months after getting the interim position following his former boss’ indiscretions, Luke finds himself as Ole Miss’ permanent coach amid a program swimming in sanctions as a result of a years-long NCAA investigation.

But Luke’s not deterred. The 41-year-old believes he’s ready for his first full-time head coaching gig, and he said having spent nearly 35 percent of his life as a player or coach at Ole Miss has little to do with that thought process.

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“I wanted to be hired here because I was the right man for the job,” said Luke, whose four-year contract will start at a base salary of $3 million next season. “I’ve been playing and coaching at this level for 20 years. I’ve been under the best head coaches in this country and I fully understand what a championship program looks like.”

Luke is the latest FBS coach to get his shot at running his own program following a brief interim stint. Clay Helton and Ed Orgeron have done the same at Southern Cal and LSU, respectively, in recent years with the results yielding positive returns.

Helton took over in Los Angeles five games into the 2015 season after Steve Sarkisian took a leave of absence and was eventually being fired after just 18 games as USC’s coach. The Trojans went 5-4 the rest of the way that season and shared the Pac-12 South Division championship before Helton had the interim tag removed. USC has gone 21-5 in Helton’s first two full seasons, won the Pac-12 title this fall and will play in its second straight New Year’s Six bowl game.

Orgeron was promoted from his position as LSU’s defensive line coach last season to fill in for Les Miles, whose stubborn offensive approach and clock-management blunders wore thin in Baton Rouge and led to his ouster after the Tigers’ 2-2 start in 2016. LSU went 6-2 in its final eight games under Orgeron, including a 4-2 mark in SEC play that earned the Tigers a runner-up finish in the SEC’s Western Division and the former Ole Miss coach the permanent job. The Tigers went 9-3 overall and 6-2 in the league this season, good enough for their second straight Citrus Bowl berth.

But those coaches had more talent on the field while neither had to navigate the fallout of a major infractions case off of it, one that’s got Ole Miss staring at 13 scholarship reductions over a four-year period and another bowl ban in 2018 if the school’s pending appeal is unsuccessful that could lead to players transferring out of the program. Ole Miss athletic director Ross Bjork said he interviewed eight candidates for Ole Miss’ permanent job but decided to go with Luke in part because of the way players responded to him during a trying season, which ended with an upset of rival Mississippi State to get the Rebels to 6-6 after a three-game losing had Ole Miss under .500 after five games.

“All of the things we went through, it brought us closer together,” said Luke, who took over on an interim basis in the summer following Hugh Freeze’s abrupt resignation amid a female escort scandal. “That’s why you saw them play the way they did down the stretch, because all of the adversity brought them together. We’ll continue to do everything we can to fight and scratch and claw our way out of this. We will come out of it.”

Luke said he’s leaning on what he learned under some of the coaches he played and coached under, including Tommy Tuberville and Duke coach David Cutcliffe, as he tries to reverse the fortunes of a program that’s gone 11-13 since its Sugar Bowl win two years ago. He’s also drawing from the good and the bad that came with his first 12 games as a head coach.

“There is no teacher like experience,” Luke said. “A lot of valuable learning lessons for me in Year 1, and I’ll be able to learn from that and improve.”

He knows it will be anything but easy.

“I’m looking forward to having a full offseason to implement my vision for this program,” he said. “The hard-nosed, blue-collar, tough mindset that nobody cares who gets the credit. We’re in this thing together, and we’re a team.”