OXFORD • As the new year arrived, some former Ole Miss football players are hopeful the Lane Kiffin Era will mean new success for the Rebels.
Kiffin replaced one of their own as Ole Miss coach on Dec. 7 when he took over for Matt Luke, a popular former player and long-time assistant before he became head coach after the abrupt firing of Hugh Freeze weeks before the start of the 2017 season.
Luke inherited an ongoing NCAA investigation with sanctions and scholarship reductions to be announced at the end of that season.
“I felt like the program needed an injection of unification of life and excitement. A current coach couldn’t do that. It wasn’t possible,” said Jackson attorney Jesse Mitchell, a Moss Point native and defensive lineman from 2000-2003.
Mitchell served on the committee that recommended the hiring of Keith Carter as athletics director.
Carter had served as interim athletics director since the departure of Ross Bjork last May.
When he was announced to the permanent position on Nov. 22, Carter gave an enthusiastic vote of confidence to Luke but fired him after a 21-20 season-ending loss to Mississippi State citing a loss of support for the program.
Doug Buckles, an offensive lineman in 2001-04, believes Luke had a “50-50” chance of regaining that support.
“I was a big Luke supporter because he stepped in in one of our darkest moments and poured his heart and passion into it when we were on probation,” Buckles said. “He recruited some good athletes. I respect him for that. That’s why I hated to see him go.”
“Matt Luke kept us stable,” said former quarterback Romaro Miller, a Shannon native, who played from 1997 through 2000.
That stability was endangered, Carter believed, because of lack of support.
Luke’s recruiting ability leaves a solid foundation for Kiffin, players say, pointing to a signing class that made great contributions in 2019.
Kiffin’s success in previous head coaching stops is noteworthy.
His lone recruiting class at Tennessee was ranked No. 8 on the 247Sports composite list in 2009.
His classes at Southern Cal from 2010-2013 were ranked No. 3, No. 3, No. 8 and No. 13.
With just 11 days before the early signing date to present himself as Ole Miss coach, Kiffin attracted a group of 12 three-star prospects.
He called the early signing date “halftime” and said he and his evolving coaching staff would be able to better evaluate prospects and build relationships before the Feb. 5 signing date.
“First and foremost we’ve got to recruit some players. The sanctions, that hurt our program. You look at the job he was doing recruiting at Tennessee, USC and other places. He’s shown he can do it,” Miller said.
Kiffin’s national profile has also been a boost to Ole Miss, they say.
“Lane has brought a good spark to the program on a national level and also a Mississippi level. (Mississippi) State fans are talking more about Ole Miss and what Lane’s doing than they are themselves,” Buckles said.
Regardless of feelings for Luke players believe Carter delivered the unifying hire he promised on Dec. 2 when he announced Luke’s termination.
“You’re never going to get 100 percent unification,” Mitchell said. “Keith got as unifying a hire at head coach as he could possibly get given the circumstances and environment.”