Why former coach Matt Luke walked away from the ‘anxiety and pressure’ of college football

ATHENS, Ga. — Matt Luke lost his phone. It was glorious. He disappeared for hours and he didn’t even realize it, he still doesn’t know what happened to him. Maybe his kids picked him up to play a game. All he knows is he was cooking dinner, he had friends, and he didn’t need his phone in case a recruit texts him or someone calls to arrange a recruiting visit. He didn’t feel the need to be on top of this 2023 rookie, or this 2024 rookie, or wonder what Alabama or Florida or some other school was doing with this rookie.

It was great. And that validated the career decision that the lifelong footballer made this spring: to give up this career.

Twenty-three years as a coach, in his prime at 45, working for the reigning national champions, earning just under a million a year, and Luke has just passed away.

“I think most people who know me are like, ‘OK, we get that.’ But I think some people are like, ‘OK, what really happened?’ “Luke said with a laugh. “All my coaching friends called and said congratulations, and everyone called and said, what happened, are you okay, are you dying?

It was exactly what people were asking Luke to his face. On message boards and social media, news of Luke’s resignation as Georgia the offensive line coach was fodder for nefarious explanations: NCAA violations? Was he really fired and Kirby Smart letting him go on his own terms? Other reasons, and use your imagination.

But one late spring evening, you could see exactly why Luke had done it: a Little League game at the Bogart, Georgia Sports Complex, and there was Luke, standing and watching, talking to the parent of a another player, relaxed in his T-shirt and shorts, not looking at his phone. If he had it with him.

There’s a big resignation going on, and Luke is 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 that had to be put in if you really wanted to get ahead of the game.

“It’s not unique to Georgia. It’s college training,” Luke said. “It’s the anxiety and the pressure you put on yourself to be as good as you can be.”

An example: Last summer—July 20, Luke remembers exactly—he was at his son’s 10th birthday party, queuing up for a Harry Potter ride. But Luke was also on the phone trying to secure a season opener against Clemson, as the Georgia staff had just been able to secure tickets.

“I try to set up guys who come to the Clemson-Georgia game, and he’s like, ‘Dad,’ and I’m like, ‘Hold on.’ It’s part of your free time, but you’re always working to recruit,” Luke said. “I think if you want to be good, there’s just that innate pressure.

It all happened relatively quickly. In fact, the last five years of Luke’s life were a blur.

A week before the start of pre-season training in 2017, Ole Miss fired Hugh Freeze, then asked Luke to take over. He guided the Rebels to a respectable 6-6 record in his first season, then went 5-7 and 4-8. He thought he’d get a fourth year, but while he was on the road to recruit after the Egg Bowl loss – the game revolved around Elijah Moore’s infamous dog pee penalty – his boss called him: ‘We need you back in Oxford. ”

Luke knew what that meant. But he wasn’t out of work long: The hiring of Sam Pittman at Arkansas left Georgia in need of an offensive line coach, so Luke took the job and coached the Sugar Bowl for a few weeks later. Then came the pandemic, during which Smart instituted so-called “skull sessions,” where players and coaches told everyone what their “why” was, like why they were doing this, what pushed them. Luke’s why has always been his family. It helped crystallize things for him.

Coaching is a lot like parenting, Luke said, and people want your time. An offensive line coach has about 25 kids on his team — purses and extras — and all the rookies he’s trying to recruit as well. He could have continued to do so, but he felt he had to make a choice between being at his best as a coach but sacrificing his family, or trying to have both and be average at the same time. his personal and professional life.

“When I was home sometimes, even though I was there, I wasn’t the, if that makes sense,” Luke said. “Or I was rushing to something (with my kids), and I was rushing to get to the end just so they could see me there, and then I was going back to the office. I just had that feeling, and I prayed a lot about it, and I felt like after a national championship, and I felt like we were recruiting well, and there was a good hall in Georgia, and the definition of success I learned was trying to leave a better place than we found it. And I felt like we were able to accomplish a lot of great things, and shooting, that was just kind of an attraction for me. And the more I thought about it, the more I felt like that was what I had to do.

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

Changes to college sports – NIL and the transfer portal – were not factored into the decision. Luke said he would have walked away regardless. He’s also not looking to get a job in the NFL, which some coaches are pursuing due to lack of recruiting, but Luke sees it creating the same problem: the football season conflicts with his team’s football seasons. own sons. He wants to see them grow up and be part of their childhood, not the man in the background on his phone or the man on the TV dragging other parents’ kids around.

But there were also reasons why Luke could do it now: finances, for one. Between the last two years at Georgia, his three years as head coach of Ole Miss, plus the buyout there, he’s banked at least $10 million. There’s also what Luke accomplished: he was the head coach of his alma mater, Ole Miss, for three years, and while it didn’t end the way he would have liked, he always had the post. And he followed that up by going to Georgia and winning a national championship. Luke has reached a point of professional accomplishment.

Now he does things like go to Best Buy to get ink cartridges. He was working with his son on a book report on Lou Gehrig, and his son asked to print a picture of the iron horse. It was only then that Luke realized he didn’t have a working printer at home, as he had just done so at the office. So he went to a mini mall.

When Luke spoke to this reporter one night the week after spring training in Georgia, he had just dropped off one of his sons 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 led by a former Georgia player, and Luke takes him to practice and hitting 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 couldn’t watch his sons play before: his boss, who has three school-aged children himself, gave his staff members wiggle room, like leaving after football practice in the spring to pick up her son at baseball practice.

“Kirby was awesome about it all,” Luke said.

But now, rather than missing a Saturday game at a travel-ball tournament, Luke can see it. And he can go back and forth to school more. 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 bonded over that.

Luke won’t say if Smart tried to talk him out of it, saying he would 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 another job or more money, that made it right. different.

” It was not easy. Because I’ve never done anything else,” Luke said with a laugh. “I have been a football coach all my life. But at the same time, I’ve been blessed in my career, and I’ve been around some really good people, and I’ve been to some good places, and financially of course as well. So all of 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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