Why former coach Matt Luke left college football’s ‘fear and pressure’ behind – Advice Eating

ATHENS, Ga. — Matt Luke lost his cell phone. It was wonderful. It was gone for hours and he didn’t even notice, still not sure what happened to it. Maybe his kids took it to play a game. All he knows is that he cooked dinner, had friends over and didn’t need his phone in case a recruit texted or someone called him to set up a recruiting visit. He didn’t feel the need to stand over that recruit of 2023 or that recruit of 2024 or wonder what Alabama or Florida or any other school was doing to that recruit.

It was great. And it confirmed the career decision that the footballer had made this spring: to give up this career.

Twenty-three years coaching, in the prime of his life at 45, working for the defending champion, making close to a million a year, and Luke just walked away.

“I think most people who know me say, ‘Okay, we get that.’ But I think some people are like, ‘Okay, what really happened?'” Luke said, laughing. “All my coaching friends called and congratulated, and everyone else called and asked: What happened, are you okay, are you dying?”

That’s exactly what people asked Luke to his face. On message boards and social media, news of Luke’s retirement as Georgia offensive line coach was fodder for the shameful declarations: NCAA violations? Was he really fired and Kirby Smart let him go on his own terms? Other reasons and use your imagination.

But on a late spring evening you could see exactly why Luke was doing it: A little league game at the Bogart, Ga. Sports Complex, and there Luke was standing, standing and watching, talking to another player’s parent, relaxed in his T-shirt and shorts without looking at his phone. If he had it with him.

There is a great resignation taking place and Luke is a part of it. Like many everywhere, the quarantine during the pandemic made him realize what was missing at home. Like many college football coaches, he was fed up with the workload, the time commitment it took to really get ahead of the game.

“It’s not unique to Georgia. It’s college coaching,” Luke said. “It’s the fear and the pressure you put on yourself to be the best you can be.”

For example, last summer – on July 20, Luke remembers clearly – he was at his 10-year-old son’s birthday party, waiting in line for a Harry Potter ride. But Luke was also on the phone trying to get a season-opener recruit against Clemson because Georgia’s staff just managed to secure tickets.

“I’m trying to arrange guys to come to the Clemson-Georgia game and he’s like, ‘Dad,’ and I’m like, ‘Wait a minute.’ It’s part of your free time, but you’re still working on recruiting,” Luke said. “I think if you want to be good, there’s just this innate pressure.”

That all happened relatively quickly. In fact, the last five years of Luke’s life have been a blur.

A week before preseason practice began in 2017, Ole fired Miss Hugh Freeze and then asked Luke to take over. He led the Rebels to a respectable 6-6 record in his debut season, then went 5-7 and 4-8. He thought he was getting a fourth year, but while he was out recruiting after the Egg Bowl loss – the game centered on the infamous Elijah Moore dog pisselmeter – his boss called him: ‘We need you to go after to return to Oxford. ”

Luke knew what that meant. But he wasn’t out of work for long: Sam Pittman’s hiring at Arkansas meant Georgia needed an offensive line coach, so Luke took the job and was coaching at the Sugar Bowl a few weeks later. Then came the pandemic, while the Smart instituted “Skull Sessions” where players and coaches told everyone what their “why” was, why they were doing this, what drove them. Luke’s why has always been his family. It helped him crystallize things.

Coaching is a lot like parenting, Luke said, and people want your time. An offense coach has about 25 kids on his team—scholars and walk-ons—and all the recruits he’s also trying to enlist. He could have gone on but felt he had to make a choice between trying his best to be a coach but sacrificing his family or trying to still have both and be average in both his personal and professional life be.

“Sometimes when I was home, I wasn’t even though I was there there, if that makes sense,” Luke said. “Or I would rush to something (with my kids) and I would rush to the back end just so they could see me there and then I would go back to the office. I just had this feeling, and I prayed about it a lot, and I felt like I was coming out of a national championship, and I felt like we were recruiting well, and there was a good space in Georgia, and the definition of success, that what I learned was try to leave a place better than we found it. And I felt like we were able to do a lot of great things and shoot, it was just kind of a pull on me. And the more I thought about it, the more I felt like I should.”

Luke with his wife Ashley and sons Harrison and Cooper. (Photo courtesy of the Luke family)

The changes in university sports – NIL and the transfer portal – played no role in the decision. Luke said he would have resigned anyway. He’s also not pursuing an NFL job, something some coaches are pursuing due to lack of recruiting, but Luke sees the same problem: football season clashing with his own sons’ football season. He wants to see them grow up and be a part of their childhood, not the man in the background on his phone or the man on TV coaching other parents’ kids.

But there were also reasons why Luke could do this now: First, finances. Between his last two years at Georgia, his three years as head coach at Ole Miss, and the buyout there, he’s raked in at least $10 million. Add to that what Luke accomplished: He was the head coach at his alma mater, Ole Miss, for three years, and while it didn’t end the way he would have liked, he still got the job. He then went to Georgia and won a national championship. Luke reached a point of career fulfillment.

Now, for example, he drives to Best Buy to get ink cartridges. He was working with his son on a book launch about Lou Gehrig, and his son asked that a picture of the Iron Horse be printed. It was only then that Luke realized he didn’t have a working printer at home because he’d just done that in the office. So he drove to a mini mall.

When Luke spoke to this reporter one evening the week after spring training in Georgia, he had just dropped one of his sons off at baseball practice. Harrison plays for Team Elite, the same organization Kumar Rocker played for when he was at Vanderbilt. Cooper plays for a team managed by a former Georgia player, and Luke takes him to practice and work. In the fall, Harrison plays for a football team coached by former Georgia All-American and current ESPN analyst David Pollack.

It’s not that Luke didn’t get to see his sons play before: His boss, who has three school-age children of his own, gave his employees leeway, like going to pick up his son from baseball practice after a spring soccer practice.

“Kirby was great with all of this,” Luke said.

But now, instead of missing a Saturday game at a travel ball tournament, Luke gets to see it. And he can do more pickups and drops at school. His youngest is at Athens Academy, about 15 minutes away, his eldest is at Malcolm Bridge Middle School, which is a few minutes from his home. His youngest son started listening to ’90s country right in Luke’s wheelhouse, so they connected through it.

Luke won’t say if Smart tried to talk him out of it and says he will keep those discussions private. The hardest part was telling his Georgia offensive linemen, but when they realized he was leaving to be with his family, not for another job or more money, it made everything different.

“It was’nt easy. Because I’ve never done anything else,” Luke said, laughing. “I’ve been a football coach all my life. But at the same time, I’ve been blessed in my career and I’ve been around really good people and I’ve been in some good places, and of course financially. So anything that helps. But I think whenever you put your family first, I don’t think you can make a bad choice.”

(Top Photo: Tony Walsh / UGA Athletics)

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