Thursday night, amid all the chaos pouring out of Oxford, Miss., there was some wild speculation about who might end up with the Ole Miss head coaching job. Les Miles? Chip Kelly? Lane Kiffin? Puh-lees.
Kelly went 46-7 and led Oregon to three top-four finishes in his four years as a college head coach. He will be the hottest free agent in the college coaching market. He’s not touching the Rebels job and almost certainly wouldn’t have even if there weren’t NCAA sanctions surrounding it. Ole Miss has always been a second-tier SEC job. The facilities have been upgraded but not to the same level as Texas A&M, Alabama or Tennessee, and the stadium is not on the level of most others in that conference. Will the NCAA hit the Rebels with added scholarship losses and tack on another year or two of a postseason ban? It’s impossible to say right now. For Ole Miss’ sake, hopefully the Rebels will get their answer to that sooner than later.
It wouldn’t shock me if interim head coach Matt Luke ended up keeping the job permanently—or at least for the next two seasons. Luke, a former walk-on offensive lineman for the Rebels, has strong Ole Miss ties, is a David Cutcliffe disciple and is regarded as a decent man. The latter two aspects of that bode well in light of Hugh Freeze’s embarrassing exit. Luke has a chance because he takes over a team with a potentially explosive offense, led by gifted sophomore quarterback Shea Patterson and an athletic crew of skill guys. If Luke can lead Ole Miss to even 6-6 this season amid all this circus, I think he’ll get very strong consideration.
Keep in mind Ole Miss is coming open in a year where many other SEC jobs, with no NCAA dark cloud hanging overhead, could also have vacancies. Coaches at Texas A&M and Tennessee are on the hot seat. Gus Malzahn at Auburn could be back in jeopardy if his team doesn’t get close to lofty expectations this fall. On the bright side, Ole Miss will pay well, probably around $4 million a year, and the school just saved millions by ousting Freeze for cause. Also, who will be making this hire? It’s no stretch to think this mess might end up costing AD Ross Bjork his job although word I’m hearing out of Oxford is that Ole Miss brass is very pleased with how he’s handled a really awkward dynamic and that they’re comfortable with him leading the program going forward.
Back to some of those other potential options for the Rebels. Kiffin? Ole Miss can’t go after another coach who has had his own drama or NCAA issues.
My hunch is if Ole Miss is going to emerge from this without Luke as the guy, it’ll probably be with someone that has head coaching experience. But I don’t buy that it’ll be Miles. Yeah, he led LSU to a national title, but he also whiffed on several coaching vacancies this past winter which sources say stemmed from poor, rambling interview performances. I doubt Ole Miss would go for a guy who will be 64 in November.
A more likely option could be one of Miles’ former assistants, Frank Wilson. The UTSA head coach just sparked the Roadrunners to their first bowl game in his debut season. The 43-year-old Wilson is a New Orleans native who spent three seasons as Ole Miss’ running back coach a decade ago and another season under Larry Fedora at Southern Miss. He is a dynamic recruiter and is a rising star in coaching circles but he’s still only going into his second season as a FBS head coach.
Memphis’s Mike Norvell is another hot commodity. He’s only 35 but coming off a strong first season with the Tigers. He went to college at Central Arkansas and has impressed people in the Mid-South. Would he jump to take over the Rebels program or wait for a more stable situation?
Another ex high school coach (like Freeze) whose stock is trending up is SMU's Chad Morris. He's primed for a big 2017 and my feeling is he likely would look for a more winnable climate and will have better situations than what Ole Miss figures to be on this go-round.
I think Troy’s Neal Brown, 37, could be a more plausible fit. He’s coached in the SEC as an assistant at Kentucky and just led the Trojans to a 10-win season. He was hired there by former Ole Miss assistant athletic director John Hartwell.
Ole Miss may consider Arkansas native Blake Anderson, a 48-year-old Fedora protege who is 24-15 in three seasons at Arkansas State. Then again, would the Rebels hire another coach from Arkansas State who talks very publicly about his faith? That’s not fair to Anderson, but the Rebels are really going to be under a microscope and that part of things already has come up from one industry source.
Air Force’s Troy Calhoun also could end up in the mix No one could question his character or leadership skills. The 50-year-old also has won 28 games the past three seasons, and even though he's coaching at a service academy, Calhoun's got an expansive offensive background and is a former NFL offensive coordinator.
Appalachian State’s Scott Satterfield is primed for a bigger job. The 44-year-old North Carolina native is 21-5 the past two seasons and projected by Sun Belt coaches to win that league this fall. He certainly would be worth kicking the tires on.
As for Freeze’s next move, I wouldn’t hold your breath on expecting him back on an FBS sideline. One coach mentioned to me Thursday night that Bobby Petrino lost his SEC job after an ugly personal conduct scandal of a salacious nature. The big difference here is that Freeze also has major NCAA baggage right now. It’s very possible he was going to get hit with a show-cause penalty, and now there’s even less reason for Ole Miss to defend him when it has to go before the NCAA Committee on Infractions.