Clad in a blue sport coat with a paper in his right hand that served a blueprint for the fiery speech he was about to deliver, Matt Luke gave by far the most emotional disquisition in the public spotlight since being named permanent head coach of Ole Miss.
Luke spoke strongly about the worst being behind the program and reassured the fan base that he is qualified to turn it around.
“The last few years, this program has been through a lot,” Luke said. “The most important people, our players and our fans, did not sign up for any of it. Y’all don’t deserve any of this. I appreciate the fact you all have high expectations, but nobody has more expectations than I do. Every time I walk on that field, I expect to win. I know exactly what it takes to get us out of this.”
Luke spoke of his arrival on campus as a player in 1995 when the program was on probation and the improved state he and that senior class left it in upon departure in 1998. He spoke about the other turnarounds he has played a hand in orchestrating as a coach.
“I know what it takes to turn programs around,” Luke said. “When I went to Tennessee in 1996, I was part of a turnaround there. I went to Duke in 2008 and was part of the biggest turnarounds in college football, and then we did it again here in 2012.”
The head coach that some see as in over his head grew more animated the more he spoke, speaking with a type of fire and brimstone some of the fan base feels is missing amongst the program as a whole.
“We will win here,” Luke said as he jabbed his fist into the lectern. “Will it be easy? No. Will it take a lot of hard work? Absolutely. But for the first time since 2014, I can walk into a living room and not talk about bowl bans or sanctions. I can sell everything that is great about Ole Miss.”
Luke called for the program to press forward, noting the NCAA induced storm has largely dissipated. Change has already come and more change is expected. Defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff was let go on Friday. Luke said the search will be extensive. The early signing period is less than a month away on December 19. How will that affect the hiring?
“It certainly raises the level of difficulty, but I cannot put that in front of finding the right person,” Luke said. “I have to find the right fit. If I can find the right fit before the signing period, that obviously is best. But I am not going to put that above finding the right fit.”
Offensive coordinator Phil Longo has been rumored to be in the mix for several head coaching jobs, Texas State included. Longo’s departure would mean more staff turnover. An offense loaded with NFL talent sputtered in the red zone and struggled to keep the Rebels in games late in the year. Luke thinks the red zone struggles are fixable, and seemed to want Longo back on the sidelines in 2019 if Longo doesn’t leave on his own.
“You are always evaluating,” Luke said. “I think we are a really good offense. We are a top 10 offense. Are there things we have to improve on in the red zone? Absolutely. I know what good red zone looks like. I love Luke Logan, but I want him kicking extra points not field goals. We can get that fixed. A lot of people struggle to get to the red zone. We can get that fixed and we will.”
Where did all of this emotion come from? Luke seems self aware. He is a smart man. He likely knows what the outside perception is and one would think he can sense the widespread apathy engulfing a fan base that is struggling to get behind the 42-year-old head coach trying to bring his alma mater out of the gutter.
“It is just the fact that I did it in front of a camera,” Luke said. “That is me. It is who I am. I am an emotional person. It is probably my biggest strength and weakness, but it is who I am. When you go through tough times, I think it is important for me to stand up here and be positive to keep our team together. But I want our fans to know what is going to happen here as long as we stick together and keep working.”
Following the last question, Luke snagged the pieces of paper that guided him through his sermon to the fan base and swiftly exited the room. It was the strongest public appearance he’s had since taking the reins to this embattled program. More staff changes are likely coming. Ole Miss still faces an uphill battle and Luke doesn’t know precisely how long he has to fight it. But if nothing else, he spoke with the sort of conviction and emotion that a lot of people had been clamoring for.
For now, it is certainly a positive start.