When Ole Miss athletic director Ross Bjork and his former football coach, Hugh Freeze, made the trek to Pascagoula last April for their annual Coast stop on the Rebel Road Trip, it was somewhat of a gloomy affair that involved questions about an NCAA investigation and the future of the football program.
A year removed from that Pascagoula trip, Bjork stepped off the bus in Gulfport on Monday in much better spirits with two new, beaming faces following him — football coach Matt Luke, a Gulfport native, and men's basketball coach Kermit Davis.
Freeze was forced out in July after an alleged phone call to an escort service was made public, allowing Luke to be elevated to the top job. He was given the position on a permanent basis in November.
On the basketball side, Andy Kennedy stepped down after 12 years on the job. Davis was hired in March following a successful run at Middle Tennessee.
While Ole Miss football still faces a postseason ban in 2018, unless it is overturned by an appeal, and reduced scholarships, there was a sense of renewal for the Rebels on Monday.
“When people were visiting during spring practice, we had different media members around that hadn't been back in a while. They walked around and they said, 'You know? It feels like normal,' Bjork said. “We feel like we're back to doing the things we should be doing — teaching, educating, coaching, recruiting and building facilities. We're getting the program back in the re-established position of strength. It feels like the cloud is gone. We can move forward. Even though there are a few things left to go, for the most part we're moving forward in a big, big way.”
While Pascagoula has been the popular pick in the past for the Rebel Road Trip, it was an easy decision to move the event to the Great Southern Club in downtown Gulfport this year.
Luke, who played center at Gulfport and Ole Miss, was the center of attention Monday.
“It's good to be home,” he said. “I tell people all the time that Gulfport is just not where I'm from. It's part of who I am and part of what helped shape me. It's really good to be back. I have a lot of friends, family and former teammates here.”
Luke and Davis, who is from Leakesville, both hail from Mississippi, reinforcing the “Mississippi Made” recruiting pitch that Luke is using to great effect.
While Ole Miss football's recruiting class of 2018 wasn't exactly loaded with Magnolia State products, the Rebels currently have eight verbal commitments from Mississippi for the Class of 2019. Among that group is Harrison Central junior offensive lineman Bryce Ramsey.
Luke believes the state will be a good source of top talent for at least the next couple of years.
“The 2019 class in Mississippi is very good and that's going to be our future,” Luke said. “It always starts at home. The thing about the Ole Miss brand is that it's grown so much nationally, but it starts right here in Mississippi. We're keeping the best players in Mississippi at home.”
While Davis acknowledged that the 2019 recruiting class likely won't be all that fruitful in Mississippi for basketball, he said Monday that he wants to make in-state recruiting a priority.
“We've got to do it,” he said. “We've got some good players in '19, maybe not quite the masses of '20. Ole Miss has got to be successful in our state and that's what we're trying to do.”
Davis has also got to focus on keeping together the roster that he inherited from Kennedy.
“It's been 4 ½ weeks and that was first thing we had to do — stabilize the locker room,” Davis said. “We've got four of our top six scorers back and those guys have all been great. They've been good at workouts, bought into what we're trying to do. There are some good pieces, but we've got to add some pieces. We're trying to be real patient. We're going through a lot of official visits."
Davis hopes to sign three players in the spring signing period with a focus on bringing in a forward who can defend inside and also hit the outside shot.