The timing may be right for Billy Napier to return to the SEC West
After three seasons, Ole Miss fired head coach Matt Luke on Sunday. Luke went 15-21 (6-18 in SEC play) at his alma mater after taking over as interim head coach following the resignation of Hugh Freeze in July 2017.
Luke, who was co-offensive coordinator/offensive line coach under Freeze, was named interim head coach after Freeze was forced to resign due to questions over his personal conduct, particularly related to phone calls to a number associated with a female escort service.
As a result of the scandal involving Freeze, both Ole Miss and the NCAA penalized the football program, as the Rebels ended up serving a two-year postseason ban and were hit with scholarship reductions. These penalties made Luke's job even harder, as they hampered his ability to build the depth necessary to compete in the SEC, especially on defense.
Despite finishing with a losing record and winning just a third of his SEC games, Luke's dismissal has not been received well, particularly by the players, only adding to the challenge that lies ahead for athletic director Keith Carter in finding the program's next head coach.
So who should that be? Athlon Sports asked a group of editors and college football contributors to make their case for who they would hire to be the next head coach for Ole Miss. While it's not unanimous, the panel seems to favor one name in particular that is familiar with the challenge of coaching in the SEC West.
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
Mike Norvell is the ideal candidate for the Rebels, but all signs point to the Memphis head coach as the front-runner at Florida State. Assuming that's the case, Ole Miss has two outstanding candidates not too far from campus in UAB's Bill Clark and Louisiana's Billy Napier. The Rebels can’t go wrong with either, but the guess here is Napier would be the pick. The Georgia native has worked as an assistant under college football's top coaches in Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney and brought big-time improvement to the Ragin' Cajuns in just two years. Louisiana finished 7-7 with a Sun Belt West Division title in 2018 and followed that up with a 10-2 mark – the program's first double-digit win total – this fall. Napier also has a strong background on offense and has always been regarded for his work on the recruiting trail.
Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch)
The ideal hire at Ole Miss would be current Memphis head coach Mike Norvell, but it looks like — as of today — that Norvell could be named the head coach at Florida State early next week. So I will turn my attention to Bill Clark, who has done a masterful job through some difficult circumstances at UAB. Consider the following: In 2017, he guided the Blazers to an overall record of 8–5 and a 6–2 mark in Conference USA — after the program had been shut down for two years! And then, in 2019, UAB repeated as champs of C-USA's West Division despite suffering key personnel losses on both sides of the ball. In the last three years, UAB is 28–11 overall and 19–5 in league play. The jump from C-USA to the SEC West would no doubt be a big challenge, but Clark is a very good coach who has enjoyed success at every stop.
Rob Doster (@AthlonDoster)
A rumor to this effect briefly swept through Twitter thanks to a fake account, but Internet trolls aside, I think Mike Leach to Ole Miss makes a lot of sense. He showed a willingness to move South during Tennessee's last coaching search, and he runs a pass-heavy offense that would play well in Oxford, where receiving talents like Laquon Treadwell, DK Metcalf, and A.J. Brown have recently cycled through. Leach has won in two places where winning is very difficult, and he would no doubt love a chance to prove that his offense can succeed in the SEC.
Mark Ross (@AthlonMarkR)
It sounds like Ole Miss players and others weren't happy with the decision to fire Matt Luke, so whoever is next he better be a guy that can get everyone on the same page and instill some passion and energy back into the program. For that, I am looking at Billy Napier. He's done an incredible job at Louisiana, leading the Ragin' Cajuns to back-to-back Sun Belt West Division titles and 10 wins and counting this season. Napier is young (40 years old), has a background on offense (something that has seemed to work at Ole Miss), and is familiar with the SEC after serving as an assistant under Nick Saban for four seasons (2013-16). Plus, his time at Louisiana has helped him build relationships in that state and the surrounding area, which should pay off on the recruiting front.
Ben Weinrib (@benweinrib)
After striking out by hiring someone with no head coaching experience last time, Ole Miss may want to bring in someone with a track record of success. They won’t have to look far, as Louisiana's Billy Napier would be a strong candidate. He owns a 17-9 record with the Ragin' Cajuns and also has recent experience on the Clemson and Alabama staffs. Given how important recruiting in Louisiana is to Ole Miss' success — in addition to his creativity on offense — Napier would be a strong target for a program that is on a major downswing.
Antwan Staley (@antwanstaley)
Everyone will mention Mike Norvell and Bryan Harsin as a candidate, but a person to keep an eye on is not too far from the state of Mississippi.
Skip Holtz, who has done an excellent job reviving the Louisiana Tech program, checks a lot of boxes. He knows the region, already has relationships with high school coaches and has had success in multiple stops.
Prior to coming to Louisiana Tech, Holtz turned around an East Carolina Pirates program that was among the worst in the FBS at the time and led them to back-to-back Conference USA Championships. Yes, folks will bring up his lack of success at South Florida, but only received three years in Tampa before being let go.
Holtz also has experience coaching in the SEC as he the offensive coordinator at South Carolina under his father, Lou Holtz.
(Top photo courtesy of @RaginCajunsFB)