Fa­mil­iar face Luke to pick up Rebels

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - SPORTS -

The task of pulling to­gether Mis­sis­sippi’s foot­ball pro­gram is now in the hands of in­terim coach Matt Luke.

The 40-year-old was pro­moted from co-of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Thurs­day night in the af­ter­math of coach Hugh Freeze’s res­ig­na­tion for a “pat­tern of per­sonal mis­con­duct” that started with the school’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion into a call to an es­cort ser­vice.

It’s just the lat­est is­sue fac­ing the Rebels.

While Luke has been an as­sis­tant at Ole Miss dur­ing Freeze’s en­tire five-plus year ten­ure, his name has not been

Freeze linked to the on­go­ing NCAA in­ves­ti­ga­tion of the pro­gram. Luke also has deep fam­ily ties to the uni­ver­sity and north Mis­sis­sippi,

play­ing of­fen­sive line for the Rebels from 1995-1998.

Now he has a 12-game au­di­tion for the full-time job.

It’s not an ideal sit­u­a­tion, but it’s not com­pletely bleak.

“Matt is a great coach,” Bjork said when an­nounc­ing Thurs­day the school was turn­ing the pro­gram over to Luke. “He’s a leader. He’s a rock. He’s an Ole Miss Rebel. And I’m con­fi­dent — and es­pe­cially even more con­fi­dent af­ter watch­ing him ad­dress the team — that he will lead this team and pro­gram through this dif­fi­cult time.”

Bjork also noted that Wes­ley McGriff, the team’s de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor, has been pro­moted to as­so­ciate head coach. Luke was not im­me­di­ately avail­able for in­ter­views in the af­ter­math

of Freeze’s res­ig­na­tion.

Luke is now in charge of a pro­gram that still has a tal­ented ros­ter — es­pe­cially on of­fense — but is in the midst of a long-run­ning NCAA in­ves­ti­ga­tion that’s al­ready caused the school to im­pose a one-year bowl ban for the up­com­ing sea­son.

The of­fense fea­tures sev­eral promis­ing young play­ers, in­clud­ing sopho­mores such as quar­ter­back Shea Pat­ter­son, left tackle Greg Lit­tle, and re­ceivers A.J. Brown and D.K. Met­calf.

Luke needs to hold on to them to have suc­cess, but it is un­clear whether any play­ers on the cur­rent ros­ter will trans­fer.

Bjork said “it’s hard to say” whether there will be ros­ter changes. He said play­ers are cur­rently in sum­mer work­outs and sev­eral are in sum­mer school. They’ll also have a few days off be­fore pre­sea­son camp Aug. 2.

“We will give them space. We will lis­ten,” Bjork said. “And what­ever they de­cide to do, we will sup­port them.”

The Ole Miss pro­gram was un­der a lot of stress even be­fore Freeze’s res­ig­na­tion.

The Rebels are in the mid­dle of an NCAA rules in­frac­tions case that in­cludes 21 charges of aca­demic, booster, and re­cruit­ing mis­con­duct. Fif­teen of those al­le­ga­tions are cur­rently clas­si­fied as Level I, which the NCAA deems most se­ri­ous.

The school al­ready has self-im­posed sev­eral sanc­tions, in­clud­ing the post­sea­son ban, schol­ar­ship re­stric­tions and re­cruit­ing re­stric­tions. More penal­ties could be com­ing af­ter an NCAA de­ci­sion in the case, which is ex­pected later this year.

It re­mains to be seen whether Freeze’s res­ig­na­tion will hurt or help Ole Miss when it ar­gues its case in front of the NCAA in­frac­tions com­mit­tee. The school staunchly has de­fended Freeze in the past, say­ing the coach em­pha­sized rules com­pli­ance dur­ing his ten­ure.

Bjork in­di­cated Thurs­day that view hadn’t changed. He said Freeze’s res­ig­na­tion is strictly be­cause of per­sonal con­duct and not re­lated to the NCAA in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

“He has an es­tab­lished record that’s well-doc­u­mented

in terms of how he ran the pro­gram around com­pli­ance,” Bjork said. “And we still be­lieve in that.”

One sil­ver lin­ing for Ole Miss is that the pro­gram should be on solid fi­nan­cial foot­ing when­ever of­fi­cials hire a full-time coach — whether that’s Luke or some­one else.

Freeze had mul­ti­ple years re­main­ing on a con­tract that paid him more than $5 mil­lion an­nu­ally. Bjork said that if Freeze had not resigned, he would have been fired with cause un­der a morals clause in the con­tract.

Be­cause of that, Bjork said there is “no buy­out, no set­tle­ment.”

Freeze was al­lowed to ad­dress coaches and play­ers af­ter he an­nounced his res­ig­na­tion, and Bjork said the meet­ing was tough.

“I saw some heads go down, as you might ex­pect, but I thought [the play­ers] han­dled it very ma­turely,” Bjork said. “Sev­eral of them came up and hugged me and Matt Luke and the coaches, and from what I could tell ini­tially, they’re ready to move for­ward.”

Bjork

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