Ole Miss has three games remaining in the 2017 season. The Rebels are 4-5 (2-4 SEC) following their come-from-behind, 37-34 win at Kentucky on Saturday, and they’ll play host to Louisiana-Lafayette this weekend.
But with season’s end quickly approaching, the coaching carousel is ramping up and, in 17 days, Ole Miss will officially have an opening. The university self-imposed a bowl ban for the season in an effort to mitigate its potential NCAA sanctions, meaning the season ends on Thanksgiving with the Egg Bowl against in-state rival Mississippi State in Starkville.
Luke wears the interim tag as Ole Miss head coach. He’ll get consideration for the full-time position, but athletics director Ross Bjork is heading a comprehensive search with assistance from Turnkey Search, a firm hired in August to aid Bjork in generating candidates.
Still, while he’s aware of all the rumors swirling about the program, Luke is focused only on his team and nothing more. Sure, Ole Miss is his dream job. Luke lettered four seasons at Ole Miss (1995-98) as a center. He was a team captain in 1998. His father, Tommy, was a defensive back for the Rebels in the 1960s, while his brother, Tom, quarterbacked Ole Miss from 1989-91.
But Luke has no control over whether the job will ultimately be his. What he can control is the preparation put in by the Rebels for the Cajuns this week in practice. Ole Miss hosts Louisiana-Lafayette Saturday at 11 a.m.
“It’s a dream of yours since you were a little kid, but you just have to focus,” Luke said. “That’s what my dad has always said. You’ve just got to do the best job you can with where you’re at and things will take care of itself.
“I think the biggest thing is we have 17 days left guaranteed together. We got to make the best of each one of those 17 days. That’s what we talked about in the locker room after the game, and with this young team only having 12 seniors, we just talked about, hey, we’re learning how to get better. We’re learning how to win. If you keep putting yourself in position to win games, you’re going to win your share. I think you just talk about getting one week better and taking advantage of all 17 days that we’re guaranteed left together.”
Luke replaced Hugh Freeze in July after the latter resigned in embarrassing fashion following an investigation by Bjork into his phone records. The Rebels opened the year 2-0 before suffering three straight losses. Ole Miss is 2-2 over its last four.
The players certainly haven’t quit under Luke, who made mental toughness the theme of the season for a team that has been dealt more than its fair share of adversity over the last year-plus, including the twists and turns of a five-year NCAA investigative process. Despite the trying nature of the season (Ole Miss blew a 24-point lead against Arkansas, for example), the Rebels have continued to battle back, which Luke said he’s most proud of.
“All the stuff that these players have been through, that’s why you do what you do,” he said. “What these players have been through and how hard they get up and keep fighting each week, I think every week it’s motivating them. Because I think everybody says, ‘When’s this team going to quit? After the Arkansas game, everybody was like, ‘Well, they’re probably just going to lay down.’ But they keep showing up and they keep fighting. It’s just awesome to be a part of this team. We talked Friday night about being grateful for this team and how much they stuck together. It’s just very rewarding to see those guys h ave an opportunity to go on the road and get a big win like that. You could see it in their faces. That’s where the focus is. It’s on those players and how much they’ve stuck together through this.”