Photo credit: Ole Miss Athletics
As he stood at a lectern, addressing a crowd of cameras and reporters in the aftermath of his first major decision as athletics director, Keith Carter described the last 24 hours as a “tough day.”
The newly-minted leader of the Ole Miss Athletics Department announced the firing of Matt Luke, parting ways with a man who two years ago was tasked with pulling his alma mater through the haze of NCAA sanctions, preventing a top-heavy roster from cratering and returning Ole Miss to prominence on the field. Luke’s run as head coach ended after three seasons.
“I spent a couple of days taking a hard look at the totality of Matt’s tenure as head coach,” Carter said. “While you can see progress in certain areas, we are not experiencing enough success on the field.”
Realistically, when Luke was hired in November of 2017, there were few ways it would end well for him. The level of winning Luke would need to gain favor with a fanbase that saw the hire as underwhelming would have been arduous with a level playing field, and it was only made more difficult with the deck stacked against him. That’s really what this boiled down to: apathy, declining season ticket sales and empty seats. Luke deserves credit for recruiting well under adverse circumstances and replenishing the talent pool. But again, this is a bottom-line industry and the results Luke needed to generate were simply not feasibly. Even a bowl birth in 2020 wouldn’t have guaranteed reinvigoration.
“It was evident that the apathy surrounding the program was too much to overcome,” Carer said. “We felt it was important to find new leadership that could take this team to a new level.”
History will likely remember Luke more fondly than sputtering to a 4-8 finishing in 2019, capped by an embarrassing loss to Mississippi State in which an Elijah Moore personal foul for attempting to urinate like a dog helped cause a Luke Logan game-tying extra point to sail wide right. Ironically, Luke largely earned the job with a 2017 Egg Bowl win in Davis-Wade Stadium and his fate was sealed in the same place two years later. History will likely remember his as a genuine man who did his alma mater a thankless service. But then again, he will be paid handsomely for his services.
Carter made his first tough decision as the man in charge and also took the opportunity to cut through any nonsense about preconceived narratives pertaining to Ole Miss and its shaky history with ‘national searches.’ Carter hired Ventura Partners, the same search firm used to when he spearheaded the search that landed Kermit Davis. There will be no committee, no listening sessions, and from the sounds of it, fewer hands pulling at strings behind the scenes.
“We are going to work very quickly and try to be efficient,” Carter said. “We will obviously try to be confidential. I’ll probably have some advisors, some people that will help me along the way, but ultimately when sitting down with candidates, it will just be me.”
Two weeks ago, all signs pointed toward Luke being retained for the 2020 season for financial reasons if nothing else. Carter went as far as to offer a vote of confidence in his introductory presser. But Thursday night was a rough look for Luke and program, and momentum began to build throughout the weekend and funds were figured out. The decision to move on from Luke with the hopes of turning the page on a tumultuous era of Ole Miss football was a brash one. He broke the news a group of emotional and angry players on Sunday night and addressed the public on Monday morning.
How he handles this search will set the tone for his tenure as AD. It will also be an indicator as to what to expect from the school’s leadership as it enters a new age. Will a recent history of botched hires, hijacked searches and opaque processes be put in the rearview?
Sources indicated to SuperTalk that Memphis head coach Mike Norvell will be the primary focus, though Norvell will have plenty of other suiters including Arkansas, Missouri and most notably Florida State. Louisiana’s Billy Napier and Appalachian State’s Eliah Drinkwitz are also on the school’s shortlist. Tulane’s Willy Fritz and Boise State’s Bryan Harsin make some sense.
Where Carter goes with this hire remains to be seen. He shot down a question about the importance of Mississippi ties and repeated he is simply looking for the best available candidate, one with a dynamic personality that will inject the program with a needed boost of excitement. Ole Miss needs to sell tickets every bit as much as it needs to win games. The former often mirrors the latter, but the Rebels need someone to increase interest from day one.
“We have to find a head coach that can walk into a room and absolutely take that room over,” Carter said. “Galvanize people. Bring them back. I think people want to support, want to come back, want to come to Ole Miss football games, but we just lost some of that luster.
How he handles this search will be fascinating to observe. Monday was a strong start.