The task of pulling together Mississippi’s shattered football program is now in the hands of interim coach Matt Luke.
The 40-year-old was promoted from co-offensive coordinator on Thursday night in the stunning aftermath of coach Hugh Freeze’s resignation for a “pattern of personal misconduct” that started with the school’s investigation into a call to an escort service .
It’s just the latest issue facing the embattled Rebels.
While Luke has been an assistant at Ole Miss during Freeze’s entire five-plus year tenure, his name has not been linked to the ongoing NCAA investigation of the program. Luke also has deep family ties to the university and north Mississippi, playing offensive line for the Rebels from 1995-98.
Now he has a 12-game audition for the full-time job.
It’s not an ideal situation , but it’s not completely bleak either.
“Matt is a great coach,” Bjork said when announcing Thursday the school was turning the program over to Luke . “He’s a leader. He’s a rock. He’s an Ole Miss Rebel. And I’m confident – and especially even more confident after watching him address the team – that he will lead this team and program through this difficult time.”
Bjork also noted that Wesley McGriff, the team’s defensive coordinator, has been promoted to associate head coach. Luke was not immediately available for interviews in the aftermath of Freeze’s resignation.
Luke is now in charge of a program that still has a talented roster – especially on offense – but is in the midst of long-running NCAA investigation that’s already caused the school to impose a one-year bowl ban for the upcoming season.
The offense features several promising young players, including sophomores like quarterback Shea Patterson, left tackle Greg Little and receivers A.J. Brown and D.K. Metcalf.
Luke needs to hold on to them to have success. But it is unclear if any players on the current roster will transfer in the wake of Freeze bombshell.
Bjork said “it’s hard to say” if there will be any roster changes. He said players are currently in summer workouts and several are in summer school. They’ll also have a few days off before preseason camp on Aug. 2.
“We will give them space. We will listen,” Bjork said. “And whatever they decide to do, we will support them.”
The Ole Miss program was under a lot of stress even before Freeze’s resignation. The Rebels are in the middle of an NCAA rules infractions case that includes 21 charges of academic, booster, and recruiting misconduct. Fifteen of those allegations are currently classified as Level I, which the NCAA deems most serious.
The school has already self-imposed several sanctions, including the postseason ban, scholarship restrictions and recruiting restrictions. More penalties could be coming after an NCAA decision in the case, which is expected later this year.
It remains to be seen if Freeze’s resignation will hurt or help Ole Miss when it argues its case in front of the NCAA infractions committee. The school has staunchly defended Freeze in the past, saying the coach emphasized rules compliance during his tenure.
Bjork indicated on Thursday that view hadn’t changed. He added that Freeze’s resignation is strictly because of personal conduct and not related to the NCAA investigation.
“He has an established record that’s well documented in terms of how he ran the program around compliance,” Bjork said. “And we still believe in that.”
One small silver lining for Ole Miss is that the program should be on solid financial footing whenever officials hire a full-time coach – whether that’s Luke or someone else.
Freeze had multiple years remaining on a contract that paid him more than $5 million annually. Bjork said that if Freeze had not resigned, he would have been fired with cause under a morals clause in the contract.
Because of that, the AD said there is “no buyout, no settlement” moving forward.
But money can’t fix the Rebels in the immediate future.
Freeze was allowed to address coaches and players after he announced his resignation and Bjork said the meeting was tough.
“I saw some heads go down, as you might expect, but I thought (the players) handled it very maturely,” Bjork said. “Several of them came up and hugged me and Matt Luke and the coaches and from what I could tell initially, they’re ready to move forward.”
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