No longer the excitable sergeant, Matt Luke is Rebels’ general

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Ole Miss athletics

Matt Luke speaks Monday at his first Ole Miss game week press conference as head coach.

It is the biggest, most difficult step in sports – a leap, really, from being an assistant coach or a coordinator to being the boss, the head coach.

Matt Luke makes that step Saturday at Ole Miss when the Rebels open the season against South Alabama. And he knows well his biggest challenge.

“It’s going to be emotional. This is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time,” Luke told reporters Monday at his first game week press conference. “… I’m very, very excited. That’s going to be one of my biggest challenges this game is controlling my emotions. To be a very efficient and organized head coach and not let my emotions get to me. But I’m excited and prepared for it.”

Melanie Thortis

Rick Cleveland

I covered Luke when he was a player at Ole Miss, at first a walk-on and then a team leader, a center who was like a coach on the field. He was, to say the least, a fiery, emotional player.

Says his former teammate Deuce McAllister, “After some games, Matt was hoarse. He could barely talk because he had yelled so much. You see head coaches pace on the sidelines? Matt was pacer as a player. He was up and down the sidelines.”

I’ve watched Luke grow as an assistant coach, first as a grad assistant under David Cutcliffe and then under several different head coaches, taking on more responsibilities with each job.

As an assistant coach, he was a hands-on, very vocal, in-your-face teacher and coach. His players never had to guess how he felt. He made sure they knew. You won’t find many offensive line coaches who hide their emotions, and Matt Luke certainly wasn’t one.

Said McAllister, laughing, “The Ole Miss players may hear some language they didn’t hear from Coach (Hugh) Freeze.”

That may be, but now Luke has to be the eye in the storm – the calmer general, rather than the excitable sergeant. He won’t be making suggestions, he’ll be considering the suggestions of others.

“You have to manage the clock, you have to manage timeouts, field goals and when to go for it,” Luke said. “If I am going to go for it, I need to be able to let (offensive coordinator) Phil Longo know that on second down if he’s got two downs,” Luke said. “Just being able to manage the clock and be an efficient head coach and making good game day decisions.

“I think you have to be in the game to do that, and I don’t think you can be all emotional and running around,” Luke continued. “I think I can be into the game and be a motivator, but I want to make sure I’m making good decisions, helping out the defense, helping out special teams – do we want to go for a block, or do we want to be punt safe? Just the little things that make you a very efficient and good head coach.”

The best head coaches often are the best delegators. They surround themselves with good coaches and then let them coach. But they also must know when to reel in their assistants. It requires a deft touch and a real sense of how to handle people. Some are good at it and, frankly, some aren’t.

LSU head coach Ed Orgeron will tell you now that he didn’t delegate well at Ole Miss in his first head coaching assignment. Of all his mistakes – and there were many – the worst might have been trying to do too much, not letting his assistants do their jobs.

“I wasn’t ready,” Orgeron said recently. “I did the things I did as a defensive line coach and was very successful with over the years. It didn’t work at Ole Miss.”

Orgeron has pledged to be different at LSU. We shall see. LSU is the job he has always wanted.

The same is true at Ole Miss of Luke, who knows this is his big chance at his alma mater. There is talent in the program, albeit mostly on the offensive side of the ball. In many ways, the 2017 season is like a test drive. If he handles the new responsibilities well – if Ole Miss wins some games – he could become the permanent head coach.

He begins his head coaching tenure the same way he began as a player at Ole Miss – that is, on probation, short of scholarships and under a bowl ban. He saw how Tommy Tuberville handled it and handled it well. That’s got to help Matt Luke in what he now faces at Ole Miss.