There's new leadership at Ole Miss after Thursday's surprising resignation from former coach Hugh Freeze.
Matt Luke, Freeze's longtime assistant, is now the interim head coach.
Here are five things to know about Luke, the man in charge of taking over a program on less-than-solid footing:
He knows Ole Miss as well as anyone: Following the usual path of succession and promoting a coordinator would have been a tricky move for athletic director Ross Bjork because offensive coordinator Phil Longo and defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff were hired less than seven months ago. So to make the transition as seamless as possible, they went with the coach who arguably knows Ole Miss better than anyone: Luke. Before Luke played as a center in the mid-1990s, his brother was a quarterback on the team. And well before that, his father was a defensive back. Entering this season, Luke, a Mississippi native who was a student assistant coach at Ole Miss in 1999 and is married to a woman from Oxford, was one of only two coaches remaining from Freeze’s initial staff in 2012. "He’s a leader," Bjork said. "He's a rock. He’s an Ole Miss Rebel."
But his qualifications extend beyond Oxford: He spent 10 years as a coach at Ole Miss, but Luke left to prove himself elsewhere a few times. His first paid position was as offensive line coach at Murray State from 2000-01, and after one season at Ole Miss under then-head coach David Cutcliffe, he went to Tennessee, where he was tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator for two seasons under legendary former coach Phil Fulmer. Before joining Freeze at Ole Miss in 2012, Luke linked back up with Cutcliffe at Duke, where he was offensive coordinator for four seasons.
How long he holds the job is anyone's guess: Bjork and chancellor Jeff Vitter had to move quickly when it became apparent that keeping Freeze was no longer an option. So if they're still in the process of formulating a game plan about how long to keep Luke as interim head coach, you'll have to be patient with them. "The team is the focus right now," Bjork said Thursday night. "I told the football staff that the No. 1 thing, from beginning to end, is the team and that's all that matters. I haven't even thought about a search. We had to get a plan in place right now. We start practice in less than two weeks. There will be a lot of time to conduct a search for a permanent head coach." In the meantime, Luke needs to find a replacement for himself, bringing Ole Miss up to the maximum of nine assistant coaches. Bjork said that could be an outside hire or a promotion from within.
His No. 1 priority might not be wins and losses: Ole Miss is on shaky ground right now. Freeze is gone, leaving a vacuum of leadership, and an NCAA investigation is looming. Recruiting has been hurt, scholarship limitations are already in effect and the school has self-imposed a one-year bowl ban. After the program's first losing season since 2011 last year, Luke has his work cut out for him. If he handles it well and keeps the locker room intact, Ole Miss has a chance to weather the storm. If not and the product on the field suffers, and in turn recruiting continues to wither, we could be looking at an extended rebuild for a team that had built a roster capable of competing with (and beating) the best of the SEC.
He has good pieces to work with: Speaking of the roster, there's a lot to like about Ole Miss on paper this season, especially on offense. Shea Patterson, who took over for an injured Chad Kelly late last season, has the look of a young Johnny Manziel at quarterback. The true sophomore has the mobility, the arm and the improvisational skills to wreak havoc on defenses. What's more, he has plenty of weapons at receiver. There might not be a better trio of young receivers in the SEC than Ole Miss' A.J. Brown, D.K. Metcalf and Van Jefferson. If Eric Swinney can provide some balance at running back, this offense will be capable of averaging 30 or more points per game. Although that might not be enough to contend for a division title with so many questions on defense and so many off-the-field distractions, it should make for a fun team to watch between the lines on Saturdays.