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

ATHENS, Ga. — Matt Luke lost his phone. It was glorious. It was gone for hours and he did n’t even realize it, he still is n’t sure what happened to it. Maybe his kids from him took it to play a game. All he knows is he was cooking dinner, had friends over, and did not need his phone from him in case a recruit texted, or someone called him about setting up a recruiting visit. He didn’t feel the need to be on top of this 2023 recruit, or that 2024 recruit, or wonder what Alabama or Florida or another school was doing with this recruit.

It was great. And it validated the career decision the football lifer made this spring: To give up that career.

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

“I think most people that know me are like, ‘OK we understand this.’ But I think some people are like, ‘OK what really happened?’” Luke said, laughing. “All my coaching friends called and said congratulations, and everybody else called and asked: What happened, are you okay, are you dying?”

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

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

There’s a Great Resignation going on at large, and Luke is part of it. Like many everywhere, quarantine during the pandemic made him realize what he was missing at home. Like many college football coaches, he had tired of the workload, the time commitment required if you truly wanted to be ahead in the game.

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

An example: Last summer — July 20, Luke remembers it exactly — he was at his son’s 10-year-old birthday party, in line at a Harry Potter ride. But Luke was also on the phone trying to get a recruit to the season opener against Clemson, because Georgia’s staff had just been able to secure tickets.

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

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

A week before preseason practice started in 2017, Ole Miss fired Hugh Freeze and then asked Luke to take over. He guided the Rebels to a respectable 6-6 record his first season, then went 5-7 and 4-8. He thought he would get a fourth year, but while out on the road recruiting after the Egg Bowl loss — the game turned on the infamous Elijah Moore dog-peeing penalty — his boss called him: “We need you to come back to Oxford. ”

Luke knew what that meant. But he wasn’t unemployed long: Sam Pittman’s hiring at Arkansas resulted in Georgia needing an offensive line coach, so Luke took the job and was coaching in the Sugar Bowl 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, as in why they were doing this, what pushed them. Luke’s why he was always his family. It helped crystalize 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 — scholarship and walk-ons — and all the recruits he’s also trying to bring in. He could have kept doing it, but he felt he had to make a choice between being at his best as a coach but sacrificing family, or trying to still have both and being average at both his personal and professional life.

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


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

The changes in college sports — NIL and the transfer portal — didn’t figure into the decision. Luke said he would have stepped away regardless of that. He’s also not looking to get an NFL job, something some coaches pursue because of the lack of recruiting, but Luke sees as creating the same issue: Football season conflicts with his own sons’ football seasons. He wants to watch 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 Luke could do this now: Finances, for one thing. Between the last two years at Georgia, his three years as Ole Miss head coach, plus the buyout there, he’s banked at least $10 million. There’s also what Luke has achieved: He was the head coach at his alma mater, Ole Miss, for three years, and though it didn’t end the way he would have liked, he still had the job. And he followed it up by going to Georgia and winning a national championship. Luke reached a point of career fulfillment.

Now he’s doing things like driving to Best Buy to get ink cartridges. He was working with his son on a book report about Lou Gehrig, and his son asked to print out a picture of the Iron Horse. Only then did Luke realize he didn’t have a working printer at home, because he’d just done that at the office. So I have hauled off to a mini mall.

When Luke spoke to this reporter one night, the week after Georgia spring practice, 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 run 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 see his sons play before: His boss, who has three school-age children of his own, let his staff members have Leeway, like leaving after a spring football practice to pick his son up from baseball practice.

“Kirby was great about all that,” Luke said.

But now rather than missing a Saturday game at a travel-ball tournament, Luke can see it. And he can do more pick-ups and drop-offs at school. His youngest of him is at Athens Academy, about 15 minutes away, his oldest of him is at Malcolm Bridge Middle School, which is a couple minutes from his house of him. His youngest son has started listening to ’90s country, right in Luke’s wheelhouse, so they’ve bonded over that.

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

“It wasn’t 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 been around really good people, and been in some good places, and financially obviously, too. So all 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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