Oxford, Miss.—No one ever told Matt Luke that it was going to be easy.
And it hasn’t been.
In July of 2017 Hugh Freeze was forced to resign as the head coach at Ole Miss and Luke suddenly became the interim head football coach at his alma mater. Then in November of 2018, he realized a lifelong dream when he was named the full-time head of the program.
But Luke was very much a realist. Between the scholarship restrictions and the post-season bowl ban imposed by the NCAA, Luke knew things would probably get worse before they got better.
And they did. Last season Ole Miss jumped out to a 5-2 start only to watch injuries and the lack of depth (caused by the sanctions) take their toll. The Rebels lost five straight to finish 5-7 (1-7 SEC). There were two close losses to South Carolina (48-44 in) and Vanderbilt (36-29 overtime).
But Luke also knew that if he could just hold on a little longer and continue to recruit at a respectable level (his first two recruiting classes were ranked No. 36 and No. 22 by 247Sports) and keep the program at least competitive in the rugged SEC West, that eventually the penalties would end and a corner could be turned.
And that time, said Luke, is now.
“We’re in a totally different place—a really good place now,” said Luke, as we sat in his office in March. “Now I know exactly what we have to do. Now it’s an opportunity for a fresh start. No bowl bans. No scholarship restrictions. We don’t have to talk about all that garbage anymore.”
Given an opportunity to hit the reset button on a football program that plays in the same division with Alabama, Auburn, LSU, and Texas A&M, Luke knew that he and athletics director Ross Bjork were going to have to do something fairly dramatic to get the world (and recruits) to sit up and take notice.
And they did.
Thus Rich Rodriguez, a former head coach at West Virginia, Michigan, and Arizona was given a 3-year contract that will pay him $900,000 year, to serve as the Rebels’ offensive coordinator.
The Ole Miss defense which, to be charitable, was just really bad last season, also needed a major infusion of coaching talent. In steps Mike MacIntyre, the consensus national coach of the year at Colorado in 2016, to serve as defensive coordinator. He signed a three-year deal at $1.5 million per season.
So if you’re keeping score at home, that’s a commitment of $7.2 million for only TWO assistant coaches over the next three years.
“Now we can sell Ole Miss for what everybody loves about it,” said Luke. “And I get to do it with one of the better staffs in college football.”
Getting both men to Oxford was no easy task.
MacIntyre, who led Colorado to 10 wins and the Pac-12 championship game in 2016, quickly fell from grace with a conference record of 4-13 the next two seasons. He was fired on Nov. 18, 2018.
Luke was a player at Ole Miss when MacIntyre was on David Cutcliffe’s staff. Given the struggles of his defense, Luke knew he wanted to make a run at MacIntyre immediately.
“It was an awkward phone call. I didn’t want to call too soon but I wanted him to know that there was a good opportunity here and that it was a really good fit,” said Luke.
“I really didn’t know what I wanted to do,” said MacIntyre. “Some guys in my position take a year off and figure out what’s next. Finally I decided that at my age (53) I didn’t want to do that. We loved our time in Oxford when we were here before.”
So on Dec. 10, less than a month after he was let go at Colorado, MacIntyre took the job at Ole Miss.
Luke took a little more time with his OC hire. Among those he consulted was MacIntyre, whose defense had gone head to head with Rodriguez’s Arizona offense as fellow members of the Pac-12 South.
“Mike said that he (Rodriguez) was very hard to stop,” said Luke.
Rodriguez had a difficult ending to his time at Arizona as the school fired him in January of 2018 amid allegations of sexual harassment. Rodriguez denied the claims. The University investigated the charges but could not substantiate them. After seasons of 7-6, 3-9, and 7-6 he was let go.
So after a year away from the game watching his son, Rhett, play for Arizona, Rodriguez is ready to turn the page and give it another shot.
“I’m excited,” he said. “I’m excited about going up against the best in the SEC.”
Rodriguez has only three returning starters but will build the offense around red-shirt freshman Matt Corral from California, who played in only four games last season as a backup to Jordan Ta’amu, and running back Scottie Phillips, who would have gained over 1,000 yards if not for an ankle injury in the 10th game with Texas A&M that essentially knocked him out for the season.
Rodriguez like Carrol’s competitive nature and calls him “a willing runner.”
Rodriguez also has to find replacements for three receivers—A.J. Brown, D.K. Metcalf, and DeMarkus Lodge—who will be taken in the NFL Draft.
It’s important that the new Ole Miss offense be able to control the ball to protect a defense that gave up 483.4 yards per game and 6.32 yards per play. The Rebels gave up an average of 41 points and 247 yards rushing in conference games.
To that end MacIntyre has switched to a 3-4 front and will give opposing offenses a lot more to think about than the previous regime led by Wesley McGriff, who was fired the day after a 35-3 loss to Mississippi State to end the 2018 season.
“The 3-4 suits our personnel better and even if we do give up a few big plays we have to stop the run,” said Luke. “Defensive line is the deepest part of our team.”
This much was clear from our visit. If Ole Miss can get to a bowl game 2019 it will be a major step away from a troubled past.
“This team has been through a lot and now we have a chance to start moving in the right direction,” said Luke.