Ole Miss’ Luke in tough spot

The Denver Post - - SPORTS - By David Brandt

OX­FORD, MISS.» One of new Mis­sis­sippi coach Matt Luke’s vivid child­hood mem­o­ries is see­ing his dad’s Ole Miss hel­met — No. 35 — hang­ing in the fam­ily’s den.

Then there were the years his fam­ily drove five hours each way be­tween Gulf­port, Miss., and Ox­ford to watch his older brother, Tom, play for the Rebels. A short time later, it was Matt’s turn, and he was a main­stay on the Ole Miss of­fen­sive line from 1995-98.

Now, at 40 years old, he is the new head coach of the Rebels.

“I can truly tell you all to­day that this is my dream job,” Luke said Mon­day, oc­ca­sion­ally get­ting emo­tional as he talked. “It’s a job I’ve been pre­par­ing my whole life for. I feel more strongly than ever that I’m the right man to run this pro­gram.”

Luke’s dream job, how­ever, is not a dream sit­u­a­tion right now.

The past 12 months have essen­tially been a night­mare for the Ole Miss foot­ball pro­gram.

There was a dis­ap­point­ing 5-7 sea­son in 2016 and a self-im­posed bowl ban for the 2017 sea­son be­cause of an on­go­ing NCAA in­ves­ti­ga­tion. And then — most stun­ningly — head coach Hugh Freeze re­signed in dis­grace last week af­ter a school in­ves­ti­ga­tion into his phone records found a “pat­tern of per­sonal mis­con­duct,” start­ing with a one­minute call to an es­cort ser­vice.

Now Luke is left to pick up the pieces. It’s a daunt­ing task — pre­sea­son camp is just over a week away, and the Rebels’ first game is Sept. 2 against South Alabama.

“They just want to play foot­ball,” Luke said of his play­ers. “They just want to go out and play the game they love. They want to go out, rep­re­sent Ole Miss and win foot­ball games. It’s my job to make sure the fo­cus stays on the play­ers.”

Ole Miss ath­letic di­rec­tor Ross Bjork said Luke will be paid $500,000 over the next five months to be the head coach. That’s in ad­di­tion to his yearly $660,000 salary as the co-of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor.

While Luke could keep the job in 2018 and be­yond, Bjork of­fered no prom­ises other than to say Luke is “go­ing to be a great can­di­date for our job. We’re go­ing to watch him up close and per­sonal. He and I will in­ter­act on a daily ba­sis.”

Luke was a safe choice to lead Ole Miss in the short term for many rea­sons.

Even though he was with Freeze in all five of Freeze’s sea­sons, he al­most has com­pletely avoided in­volve­ment in the Rebels’ long-run­ning NCAA in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Luke is men­tioned in just one of the NCAA’s 21 al­le­ga­tions, but he is not the fo­cus of the al­le­ga­tion.

His of­fen­sive pedi­gree should pro­vide con­ti­nu­ity for a young, promis­ing core that in­cludes sopho­more quar­ter­back Shea Pat­ter­son, sopho­more left tackle Greg Lit­tle and sopho­more re­ceivers A.J. Brown and D.K. Met­calf.

Big Ten Net­work adding prime-time ex­po­sure.

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