Mississippi

Matt Luke: Born A Rebel

September 6, 2017

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Sept. 6, 2017

By Brian Scott Rippee, OleMissSports.com

Todd Wade remembers sensing the writing on the wall. A little more than a day after the 1998 Egg Bowl – a game in which Ole Miss fell to Mississippi State 28-6 – Tommy Tuberville darted from Oxford to become the head coach at Auburn.

“I don’t remember the exact speech,” Wade said. “But there were a couple of things in the speech that was given before that game. Something along the lines of `things happen, change happens. Basically, just go fight.'”

Tuberville’s departure was a punch in the gut to a team that had dropped its final three games and limped into an Independence Bowl match up with Texas Tech. Just six days after the Egg Bowl, Tennessee’s David Cutcliffe was introduced as head coach and was in the process of putting a staff in place to coach the bowl game. 

It was an awkwardly arranged marriage between a first-time head coach and a team in the midst of an emotional roller coaster. 

“This was a group of guys who were looking for answers, sincerity and genuineness,” Cutcliffe said. “I looked at it as an amazing moment. They earned the opportunity to play in the bowl game. We were looking at it as our beginning, but also the best experience. They only had a handful of seniors on that team, and we made it about them.”

Cutcliffe was tasked with communicating an entirely different language in terms of scheme with a team he knew next to nothing about.

That’s where one of the few seniors on the team came in, center Matt Luke. Cutcliffe called him into his office with new offensive line coach John Latina to discuss a plan.

“He was a young guy who understood football,” Cutcliffe recalled. “I recognized that in conversation pretty quickly. I put a little play book together with the run game I wanted to run and the pass game I wanted to run. I asked him what he would have called it. For one game, we used their terminology. I wasn’t going to make them learn my terminology. I felt like I could use theirs to run our offense.”

Latina had dealt with a similar situation years back at Clemson, but he didn’t have someone like Luke to help him.

Matt Luke was as impressive as a young man in that meeting as I have ever been around in terms of what he knew and how much he knew,” Latina said. “It wasn’t just line play, it was the whole offense. I know that was really helpful for us as a staff.”

Off to the practice field they went, literally starting from square one. The equipment staff put tape on the players’ helmets with their name on it to help the coaching staff.  Cutcliffe was dealing with a stomach ailment so violent that it left him hospitalized for some days of practice.

“It was a tough deal,” Luke said. “You go from the ultimate low to then finding out you’re getting a new coach and we are about to play in a bowl game. It kind of gives you new life to redeem ourselves.

Luke was battling a fairly significant MCL injury and was held out for the majority of bowl practice. But he served an even more invaluable role while being sidelined. He was the team’s translator. 

“Every offense has a language that they use, so communication is not easy for the coaches or the players,” Latina said. “Smart guys have a great grasp of what they are doing and maybe the whole offensive line as a group. Rarely do you go beyond that to the tight ends and the running back reads, and why they run certain plays. He understood philosophically all of that stuff. He was like a coach.”

When Latina or Cutcliffe would convey a message during meetings, they’d then turn to Luke who would regurgitate it in language his teammates could understand. 

“To be as efficient with our time as possible, we needed excellent communication. Matt was that person,” Wade recalled. “When he was most vital for during that time in those two weeks of practice was in the meetings. Being able to speak up on how we would run things, being asked to identify the defense and pointing out the Mike (line)backer. How we handled certain blitzes.”

It was a tiresome task, especially for a senior with a new coaching staff, a leg injury and one game left in his career. Most would have had one foot out the door.

“Seniors don’t have a future with you. They can have one attitude or demeanor about what transpired with a certain staff,” Latina said. “Obviously, the guys that are coming back have to be kind of attentive to impress you because that is who they are going to play for. So you have two different dynamics.’

But that wasn’t Luke’s style. He wanted to win.

On December 28, 1998, the Rebels took the field in Shreveport against a favored Texas Tech team. Luke was hobbling on one leg, and Cutcliffe said the offense was armed with four run plays and eight passes. It was a struggle, but they made it work. 

“He was vintage Matt,” Latina said. “Very vocal and energetic in a positive way. I vividly remember being on that sideline and saying something, looking at Matt and him translating it to their terminology.”

Ole Miss rolled to an improbable 35-18 victory in Luke’s last career game and Cutcliffe’s first. The seemingly unfit arrangement had worked, largely because of Luke’s ability to channel communication between coaches and players. 

That game may have shut the door on Luke’s playing career, but it served as the birth to his coaching career, one that has last 17 years and counting.

“That was probably the time that turned me on to getting into coaching,” Luke said. “Credit Coach Cutcliffe, he said `Matt this is something you may want to look at getting into. I think you have a gift.’ That is kind of where I got started, and the rest is history.”

Luke served as an undergraduate assistant on Cutcliffe’s staff the next season. He assisted Latina with the offensive line. His knowledge and ability was so advanced, Latina coached from the booth during games.

“I coached for 38 years,” Latina said. “Never did I let a graduate or undergraduate assistant talk to the line on game day. I went up to the press box for the whole next year and let Matt run the sidelines. That’s how much respect I had for him.”

Luke got a job as the offensive line coach for Murray State the next year, and his coaching career has soared upward ever since. He’s spent 11 years around Cutcliffe and credits he and Latina for getting his start. 

If Tuberville hadn’t left abruptly for Auburn, Luke would never have been forced to play the role he did on that team and possibly would have gone to work for his father in commercial contracting.

“I may never have met Coach Cutcliffe,” Luke said. “I may never have become a coach.”

As he looks back now, he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“The difference the coaches have made for me in my life, it has made me want to be able to help young men,” Luke said. “I have always taken pride in trying to get the best out of young men, helping them do something they did not think they could do.”

Now here he sits at 40 years old and the head coach of his alma mater. He’s gotten advice from Cutcliffe on various things and says a lot of Cutcliffe’s philosophy is ingrained in him. He feels it when he talks to his team. 

Latina says he and Luke talk regularly. Latina says when someone approaches him about getting into coaching, he instinctually tries to talk them out of it. He never did that to Luke because he was so sure of the potential his former translator had. 

“He is the perfect guy for this time and stage for the Ole Miss football program during this time. There is no doubt that he will do not a good job, but a great job,” Latina said. “If I had to bet anyone, I would bet on Matt. There is no doubt in my mind he was always going to be special.”

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