OXFORD, Miss. – It’s unusual for Matt Luke to enter the team meeting room in the Manning Center wearing a suit. Most folks are used to seeing him in Ole Miss garb—a Rebels t-shirt and a pair of the school’s shorts—complete with colored bands on one of his wrists.
But Monday was a special day for Luke, and he dressed for the occasion as he conducted his first press conference as the interim head coach of the Ole Miss football team following last Thursday’s resignation of former head coach Hugh Freeze.
Coach Luke did a fantastic job, especially under circumstances he likely could not have imagined a week ago. The former offensive line coach and co-offensive coordinator exuded confidence and optimism as he made his opening statement. He showed emotion, fighting back tears at certain points, as he explained what the opportunity to be the head football coach at Ole Miss means to him and his family.
He began his presser by thanking Chancellor Jeff Vitter, athletic director Ross Bjork, and his wife, two sons, and parents.
“I’m so excited to have the opportunity to be the head coach at the University of Mississippi,” Coach Luke said. “To my wife, Ashley, my two boys, Harrison and Cooper, thank you so much for your sacrifice. To my mom and dad, I appreciate y’all making this possible.”
Luke’s love for Ole Miss runs deep
Luke’s love for Ole Miss is deep, having been an Ole Miss player, himself, from 1995-1998 and a member of a family that boasts two additional members who played for the Rebels–his father and brother. On Monday afternoon, he looked around the room and smiled as he reminisced about his family ties to Ole Miss.
“I’ve been an Ole Miss Rebel all my life. It’s all I can remember, from seeing my dad’s No. 35 helmet hanging in my den, pictures of his playing days hanging in my room, making the five-hour drive from Gulfport to Oxford to watch my brother Tom play, wearing the No. 17 jersey in the Grove.”
Coach Matt Luke
‘Our focus is on the players’
In typical Luke fashion, he moved the attention away from himself so he could talk about his players–players who just want to play football.
“I’m so excited about our players. They’ve been through so much adversity. They’ve never wavered, not one time. They sacrifice so much. They get up in the mornings, they do their running, they go to class, they go to the weight room, they do their position running, they go to study hall, and they do it over and over again.”
Coach Luke on his Ole Miss team
As expected, Coach Luke was asked questions regarding what he thinks about Freeze’s resignation, but he made it clear he is looking toward the future.
“My job is to get the team ready to play,” he said.
“We have a little over a week before we start practice, and my focus is on moving forward. Our focus is on the players, and that’s where it needs to be. That’s what college football is all about. It’s about the student-athletes. My focus is on getting these kids ready to play and giving them an opportunity to be successful.”
Coach Luke on getting the team ready to play
Luke’s history of success
One doesn’t need to listen to Coach Luke for long to realize he walks, talks, sleeps and breathes football, and that is a mentality that has led to his success as the offensive line coach for the Rebels. Take a look at the offensive stats since 2012.
- In 2012, Luke helped Ole Miss improve in almost all offensive categories from the previous season, including total yards per game (from 281.3 in 2011 to 423.8 in 2012) and points per game (16.1 in 2011 to 31.5 in 2012). The Rebels finished fifth in the SEC that season in rushing (173.9 ypg), up from 10th in 2011 (129.6 ypg).
- In 2013, the Ole Miss offense broke the then-school record for total offense (473.3 ypg).
- In 2015, Luke’s offensive line helped Ole Miss set program records for scoring (531), touchdowns (68), total offense (6,731), passing yards (4,351), and passing touchdowns (35). The Rebels led the SEC and were in the top 10 nationally in scoring (40.8), total offense (517.8 ypg), and passing (334.7 ypg).
- Last season, Ole Miss led the SEC in passing (314.9 ypg) for the second straight season and ranked 13th nationally. The Rebels averaged 464.3 yards in total offense, which ranked third in the league.
On Monday afternoon as Coach Luke discussed what the Ole Miss job means to him, he poignantly described his phone call with his father shortly after meeting with Bjork and taking the head coaching job.
“It was emotional, as you can imagine,” he said. “When playing is a dream for you and coaching is a dream for you, when you get the head coaching job, it’s even more special. It was emotional.”
Season opens September 2 with South Alabama
Coach Luke and the Rebels open up fall camp on August 2. Ole Miss’ first game is on September 2 against South Alabama at 6:30 p.m. on ESPNU.
(Feature image credit: Joshua McCoy, Ole Miss Athletics)