Matt Luke beat the odds. After taking over for Hugh Freeze as interim coach at Ole Miss in July, he was given little chance by the so-called experts to remain the head man in Oxford beyond the 2017 season.
Then came the 31-28 upset win against rival Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl, which provided a new perspective on the Rebels leader who stepped into the offices of the Ole Miss decision makers and nailed an interview the morning after that victory.
But the story to “earning” the removal of his interim tag at Ole Miss goes beyond the special victory that closed the Rebels season at 6-6 in spite of a bowl ban and mountains of NCAA-related distraction surrounding the program.
As it turns out, Luke had help from unexpected sources. During an interview with WJOX-FM’s The RoundTable on Wednesday, Luke revealed he called a lot of coaches after learning he would replace Freeze for the 2017 season.
In particular, Luke singled out the advice he received from Clemson coach Dabo Swinney and Duke coach David Cutcliffe.
“When I went in, I was making decisions for the long term,” Luke explained of his strategy as interim coach. “I called around and asked a lot of people. I called Dabo [Swinney] because he was an interim coach, and my mentor is Coach Cutcliffe. He’s from right here in Birmingham, so I called him a lot. And the message was ‘Hey, Matt, just go be yourself. You’re ready. You’ve been doing this a long time, so just be yourself. Don’t try to act like somebody you’re not. The kids will see through that.’ That’s what I did and made decisions for the long term. And it ended up paying off.”
Aside from being Luke’s mentor and a long-time successful coach, Cutcliffe knows what it takes to coach in Oxford. He was the Rebels coach from 1998 until 2004, leading the program through what many remember as the “Eli Manning era.”
Swinney, meanwhile, might be the biggest interim coach success story of this era. He, like Luke, was not expected to remain the coach at Clemson after taking over for Tommy Bowden in 2008. A decade later, he has a national championship with the Tigers and is considered one of the elite coaches in college football.
Luke seems to have received some solid advice, and if he can continue landing top 25 recruiting classes with his charm and easy-to-see loyalty to his alma mater, he might just be the next interim coach turned star.
For now, Ole Miss fans likely will settle for steady improvement in the win column as the program climbs out of the NCAA mess left by Freeze. Oh, and Egg Bowls. They’ll want more Egg Bowl victories.
You can listen to Luke’s entire interview with WJOX-FM here: