Former Gulfport High School football coach Ronnie Cuevas received a text from Matt Luke, one of his former star players, on Friday.
The message, “Pray for me.”
Luke, 40, was named the interim head football coach at Ole Miss on Thursday along with the stunning announcement that Hugh Freeze had resigned from his post after school officials had found a “concerning pattern” of conduct through a review of his phone records. The Ole Miss probe began after a Freedom of Information request flagged a phone call to a number associated with a female escort service, according to USA Today.
Luke, who was reportedly a head coaching candidate at Western Kentucky and Troy in recent years, is in charge of a football program for the first time in his career.
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A center at Ole Miss from 1995-98, Luke hails from a family that has deep roots in Oxford. His father, Tommy, was a defensive back there in the 1960s and his brother, Tom, played quarterback for the Rebels from 1989-91.
Luke, who has also coached at Murray State, Tennessee and Duke, is entering his 15th season at Ole Miss as either a player or a coach.
While many experts have expressed doubt that Luke will last past one season on the job, Cuevas believes Ole Miss already has the man to lead the program past its most recent embarrassment and the potential impact of any further NCAA sanctions. Ole Miss is under a self-imposed postseason ban for the 2017 season following NCAA allegations of misconduct by Freeze’s staff.
“I just know what type of man he is,” Cuevas said of Luke. “He’s grown into an unbelievable person, being a teacher and a coach. Our ultimate goal is to lead people in the right direction. As far as being a leader, he’s a man. I think he will turn it around.”
No stranger to struggles
This will not be the first time that Luke has had to deal with adversity at Ole Miss. He stepped on the campus in 1995 when the program was dealing with severe NCAA sanctions due to infractions committed under former coach Billy Brewer.
As far as being a leader, he's a man. I think he will turn it around.
Retired Gulfport coach Ronnie Cuevas
Tommy Tuberville was hired as the Ole Miss head coach prior to the 1995 campaign and he had to find ways to sign talented players despite dealing with scholarship reductions. One way of doing that was reaching out to the Ole Miss community and finding players whose families were willing to pay for their expenses.
Luke, who was the Sun Herald Player of the Year in 1994, and a high school teammate of his, Sam Owen, were among the walk-ons included on the 1995 list of Ole Miss football signees.
Biloxi football coach Bobby Hall, who is “elated” to see Luke land the top job, recalls coaching Luke during the Mississippi-Alabama All-Star Game that season.
“He was a great overachiever,” Hall said. “When he first showed up at mini-camp, I thought he wasn’t big enough. But if you look at 85-90 percent of the highly successful coaches, they are overachievers — Bobby Hall, Matt Luke, Lou Holtz, Vince Lombardi. Those are guys that had to maximize everything they had. That’s the way Matt was and that’s how I expect him to be as a coach.”
Listed at 6-foot-3, 245 pounds when he arrived in Oxford, Luke lettered four seasons at Ole Miss as a center, starting 33 games and was twice named SEC All-Academic.
Cuevas said he knew Luke’s future was in coaching when David Cutcliffe, who was hired to replace Tuberville after the 1998 regular season, trusted the senior center to coach the offensive line for the 1998 Independence Bowl, a 35-18 win for the Rebels.
Cuevas and Luke had a 30-minute conversation on Wednesday, the day before news broke of Freeze’s resignation.
“I didn’t get a hint, nothing,” Cuevas said.
Cuevas, who was in Jackson this week at the annual clinic conducted by the Mississippi Association of Coaches, was as shocked as anyone when he heard that Freeze had stepped down.
“I was thinking Matt had a chance to be the interim coach, but I was shocked,” Cuevas said. “I’m sure we had 3,000 coaches at the clinic. Not one of them knew it was coming.”
Hall was also in attendance at the clinic in Jackson, but don’t count him among those were stunned by the nature of Freeze’s departure. When asked how surprised he was, on a scale of 1-10, about the news, he paused and answered, “About a one.”
“I’m an Ole Miss graduate and I am a coach. I kind of try to keep up with what goes on,” Hall said. “I’m not here to be anything but positive. I don’t judge people whether I agree with them or disagree with them.
“I had as much fun at the (2016) Sugar Bowl as I’ve ever had in one weekend. I’m proud of that. I had a lot of fun every time we beat Mississippi State. It is what it is. I’ll be a Rebel fan long after all this is over. I’ve seen worse times than this.”
Luke is joined by his brother, Tom, at Ole Miss as an assistant athletic director for player development. Their parents also moved to Oxford.
While Luke may have landed his dream job under less than ideal circumstances, Cuevas sees him stepping up to the challenge.
“Everything happens for a reason. This is his chance,” Cuevas said. “He was probably thrown into everything quicker than he needed to, but I think he’ll do a great job. He’s been around some good coaches. With his being a student of the game, he’s learned what to do.”