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The Egg Bowl has cost another coach his job. Matt Luke is far from the first. He will not be the last.
Luke surely is the first coach to get his job because of winning the Egg Bowl and then lose it because of losing the Egg Bowl, and we’ll get to a little of that history.
But first, my take on Luke, whom I have covered as a player, an assistant coach and a head coach — and someone I thought was a solid hire for Ole Miss two years ago when he was elevated from interim to permanent had coach.
I still believe that, given time, Luke could have been successful. We will never know.
What we do know is this: He is an Ole Miss man through and through. He loves the place dearly. His dad played there. His older brother played there. Matt Luke played and coached there.
In fact, Matt Luke loves Ole Miss so much he walked on as a player there when he had scholarship offers elsewhere. When Luke was a high school senior at Gulfport, Ole Miss was limited in scholarships because of NCAA probation (just as they were when Luke got the job as head coach).
Luke was undersized for a center in the SEC, but he played as a freshman and started for three more years. One poignant Egg Bowl memory: In 1997 at Starkville, the Rebels trailed State 14-7 late in the game. Luke had suffered a torn knee ligament earlier in the game and doctors and trainers already had told him to take off his pads, that he was done for the day.
But when it looked as if Ole Miss might get the ball back for one last drive, he put the pads back on. Lame leg be damned, he was going to play. And when Ole Miss got the ball back, he limped onto the field, dragging his bad leg.
All he had to do was block State’s superb nose guard, Eric Dotson, in the two-minute drill, while calling out the line signals. Long story short: Luke somehow blocked Dotson. Ole Miss scored, went for two and won one of the most exciting Egg Bowls in history. The victory sent the Rebels to the Motor City Bowl.
You can look up that Egg Bowl on YouTube and watch Luke dragging that leg down the field on the winning drive. And, yes, I know, being a tough, gritty, valiant football player does not necessarily translate into later becoming a successful head coach – even at the university you love.
Detractors will point out that Luke went from 6-6 as an interim head coach to 5-7 in 2018, to 4-8 this past season. That is not a positive trend, they will say.
I would counter that Ole Miss showed real progress this season, losing five times by eight or fewer points while playing two freshmen quarterbacks. They were more competitive. They were vastly improved defensively. And there’s this: So many of the Rebels’ best players were freshmen. There was hope for the future.
There’s still hope, that is, if the new Rebel coach can retain many of those outstanding young players. That’s no given.
Please don’t take this column as an 800-word pity party for Luke. He was paid well. Ole Miss still owes him $6.5 million. That’s an insane amount of money, more than most of us will make in a lifetime. And Luke will coach again. Says David Cutcliffe, whom Luke played under and then coached under at Ole Miss, Tennessee and Duke: “Matt is a terrific football coach. He would have been successful at Ole Miss given time, which he wasn’t. I believe he will be successful somewhere else.”
Cutcliffe, by the way, is one of the few Ole Miss and Mississippi State head coaches who have lost their jobs after winning the Egg Bowl. Historically, most State and Ole Miss coaches, Luke included, lose their jobs after losing the Egg Bowl.
Many have gone into the game needing to win it to keep their jobs. Believe it or not, Johnny Vaught, the Ole Miss legend, had to win the 1950 Egg Bowl to keep his job. He did. And he watched his Egg Bowl victories end the tenures of six Mississippi State coaches. In recent years, Sylvester Croom and Ed Orgeron have been among the many to lose the Egg Bowl and then lose their job.
It’s probably crazy that one football game carries that much import in this small state where both SEC schools must compete against Alabama, Auburn, LSU and Texas A&M – and that’s in their own division.
But then, nobody ever accused the Egg Bowl of having much at all to do with sanity.