McCready: Ole Miss' risk-averse search ends with the ultimate gamble
Ross Bjork spent the past four-plus months searching for a head coach, apparently focusing on finding the least risky candidate possible.
On Sunday, Bjork took the biggest risk imaginable.
Bjork essentially tied his career to Matt Luke’s Sunday night, taking the interim tag off the former Ole Miss offensive line coach and naming him as Hugh Freeze’s permanent successor.
Some will say Bjork panicked, and it’s impossible to argue with that assessment. Many will read that as a slight against Luke. It’s not. Luke took a job he grew up dreaming of. From the moment he joined Joe Pannunzio’s staff at Murray State, Luke aspired to be Ole Miss’ head coach. That dream has come true. Congratulations to him.
That said, Sunday’s developments were baffling. Ole Miss had since July 20 to search for a head coach. Bjork had some 130 days to survey the landscape and he walked away hiring a man with no experience as a head coach, no experience as a coordinator and just four months removed from being the offensive line coach on a fairly embattled staff. He hired a guy anyone could have hired. He hired a guy who would've waited weeks, and he did it just one day after the end of the college football regular season.
In short, it’s mind-boggling.
Then again, it’s not. Luke got the job in July and went to work on multiple fronts. He rallied a deflated football team and never let them quit. The Rebels went 6-6, losing a stinker at Cal, beating Vanderbilt easily, losing a heartbreaker to Arkansas, winning in comeback fashion at Kentucky, dropping a nail-biter to Texas A&M and then benefiting from a Nick Fitzgerald injury to win at Mississippi State on Thanksgiving night.
Luke also made key contacts with critical boosters and built support. Luke allowed access to boosters who crave that more than life itself. A campaign in Oxford and among former players applied pressure to Bjork, and make no mistake, that pressure was felt. There's no other explanation.
As of Sunday night, the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions had failed to deliver sanctions in November. That hurt the Ole Miss job in the coaching community. Is another season of postseason ineligibility coming? How many scholarships are going to be lost? Will the current roster remain intact? Bjork couldn’t answer those questions — at least not as of Sunday.
Oregon’s Willie Taggart said no. He’s not leaving Eugene, unless it’s for Tallahassee. Charlie Strong was too abrasive. Mike Norvell had something in his background raise red flags. Dave Doeren and Mike Bobo weren’t flashy enough. Chad Morris’ relationship with Sean Tuohy was a killer. Lane Kiffin, I suppose, was too risky.
So Bjork rolled the dice. He took an even bigger risk. He pushed all of his chips in on Luke, who’s a far bigger risk than Kiffin ever dreamed of being.
Luke won’t push season ticket sales. If rumors are true, he’s going to hire a very Ole Miss-centric coaching staff. Fairly or not, his hire will be perceived by a younger generation of Ole Miss alumni and fans as the ultimate good ol’ boy hire, a sign that the school’s decision-makers are more concerned with hobnobbing at the country club than winning on the nation’s biggest stage. That's not the stuff that fills seats on hot days in meaningless seasons.
Interestingly, Luke’s hiring came hours after Florida made it official that the Gators had hired Dan Mullen away from Mississippi State. The Bulldogs are now in the coaching market, and John Cohen’s search will be compared to Bjork’s for the next few years. I'm betting Cohen won't hire John Hevesey.
Donors will bolt, and no one could possibly blame them. Season ticket sales will drop. Fairly or not, a four-month search and the hiring of a coaching search firm got hopes up. Some will ask why Bjork rushed into Sunday’s hire, and it’s more than a legitimate question.
Regardless, it’s done now. Luke is Ole Miss’ coach, and his career is now intertwined with Bjork’s. They’ll be judged by scoreboards from here on out, competing in a league that employs some of the nation’s best coaches. They’ll either prove all the cynics wrong, rebuilding a scandal-plagued Ole Miss program on a diet of loyalty and love or they’ll fail together, leaving a fan base to forever wonder what could have been had the Rebels actually searched for the best possible candidate.