His family seated to his right, new Ole Miss Athletics Keith Carter gripped the lectern and began to outline his vision for the department.
Carter spoke of facilities upgrades, fundraising, season ticket sales and past experiences that he believes have properly prepared him for this challenge. The two men primarily responsible for removing Carter’s interim tag sat to his left and looked on. He was introduced by Chancellor Glenn Boyce, a man who was originally hired by the IHL as a consultant to lead a search for the university’s next chancellor only to eventually take the job himself. Boyce said the backlash to his own hiring didn’t make him hesitant to hire from within, something that has become a trend at this university.
“I put together a committee that I thought was exceptional,” Boyce said. “People who love Ole Miss and are connected to the athletic world. That process ran flawlessly, and as long as that process ran flawlessly I knew we would come up with the right candidate. Keith had to fight through that process. He won this job.”
Mike Glenn, the head of Boyce’s committee, reiterated that the committee — comprised of Jesse Mitchell, Peggie Gillom-Granderson, David Dellucci, Dave Morris, Ron Rychlak and Archie Manning in an advisory role — did its job. Glenn said it was an exhaustive search and that Carter’s track record of hires, ability to attract talent and fundraising experience made him stand among the other 30-plus candidates considered that primarily consisted of “sitting power five and group athletics directors.”
“Keith has already demonstrated a pretty good track record in hiring coaches,” Glenn said. “His role in attracting Kermit Davis to the university was instrumental, so that’s a good start right there.”
Head football coach Matt Luke sat in the audience. Luke, of course, served as the interim head coach after Hugh Freeze resigned in disgrace in July of 2017. After a 6-6 record and an Egg Bowl win, Luke was awarded the permanent job. Fair or unfair, Carter’s anointment will be compared to the hiring of Luke and Boyce — both of whom were largely seen as either unqualified or undeserving for their respective positions. The recent opaque and convoluted process that led to Boyce becoming chancellor is still fresh on the minds of a fanbase that doesn’t trust its leadership. It’s slightly unfair to Carter, who has spent a decade in athletics and fundraising, led the search that netted Kermit Davis and spent six months as acting AD. He’s a bright man and was likely on his way to earning a similar position elsewhere, eventually. But he will undoubtedly face the challenge of shedding the optics of another ‘national search’ ending down the hallway.
“When we got through deliberating, (Collegiate Sports Associates founder) Todd Turner pulled me aside and said well it’s a good thing you’ve hired him because I was going to have him placed within six months,” Glenn said. “There is an example of someone who hires Athletic Directors for a living as well as coaches and saw the same things we saw in Keith Carter as we did in a committee.”
Carter’s most pressing issue lies with Luke and a football program still recoiling from the effects of a half-decade long NCAA Investigation. Carter will be tasked with halting plummeting season-ticket sales and restoring interested in the football program whose fan base is becoming more apathetic by the week. He acknowledged the importance of winning fans back, and when given the opportunity, Carter gave Luke a vote of confidence.
“I think our football program is headed in a great direction,” Carter said. “I’m so excited about coach Luke. He’s our coach, and we couldn’t be more excited about the opportunity we have next week in Starkville. We’re excited about where recruiting is and excited about where the future is headed. We’re going to get behind coach Luke, and we’re going to try to get after the Bulldogs next week and get to that fifth win.”
All signs pointed toward Luke getting a 2020 season anyway. The cost of buying out Luke and his staff would be too costly for an athletics department that has missed out on $16 million in bowl revenue the past two seasons. In early November, RebelGrove reported that Ole Miss was telling candidates it was in the best financial interest of the school to retain Luke for 2020, though Boyce denied such a notion when asked about it on Friday. But either way, how Carter handles the tough decisions that loom with regards to the football program over the next 12 months will go a long way in him gaining public favor.
There is evidence to point to Carter being able to make tough decisions during his time as interim AD. He elected not to extend the contract Mike Bianco and is currently conducting an external audit into the softball program and placed coach Mike Smith on administrative leave. He’ll need to continue prove he is able to make competent hires, and he will need to handle “national searches” more competently than those that have come before him.
Carter described his time interim period as one of education and confirmation.
“Having the opportunity to be interim was so valuable,” he said. “I’ve said my whole career I’ve wanted to be an athletics director. You hear from sitting athletic directors but until you’re in
the chair, you really don’t know what it’s all about and I learned that on the first day, that that’s absolutely true. It really solidified for me that I wanted to do this. Not only did it
solidify that I wanted to be an Athletic Director, but that I wanted to do it at Ole Miss.”
Like most of the recent hires at Ole Miss, this one was optically unpleasing to a portion of a fragmented and dissatisfied fanbase. But Carter, who is experienced and qualified for this job, will have ample opportunity to prove just that.