• 72°

It’s crunch time for Ross Bjork, Ole Miss in coaching search

Nearly 72 hours have passed since Ole Miss won the Egg Bowl.

It’s given the Rebels — and specifically athletic director Ross Bjork — time to move on.

Don’t get me wrong. Ole Miss’ latest win over its bitter rival will be remembered for a long time. The Rebels, a two-touchdown underdog in Starkville on Thanksgiving night, produced just enough big plays on offense, five turnovers on defense and ended a tumultuous season with a virtual victory lap around Davis Wade Stadium after shocking Mississippi State in a game that means a whole lot to a whole lot of people in this state.

But the outcome doesn’t mean much as it relates to the long-term prospects of Ole Miss’ program unless you’re one of those who thinks interim coach Matt Luke strengthened his case for the permanent gig. I’ve written before that Luke did about as good a job as could be expected given when and how he was asked to fill in following Hugh Freeze’s abrupt resignation.

But did one game really move Luke higher up Bjork’s list of candidates as he looks for Ole Miss’ next coach? I highly doubt it.

Whether directly or indirectly, Bjork has been vetting candidates for months, but now that the season’s over, his search has begun in earnest. Ole Miss is leaning on the search firm Turnkey Search to help, but not much information about who Bjork’s targeting and who may have serious interest hasn’t leaked — a sign Bjork is handling this search almost exclusively.

But there’s been some. Oregon’s Willie Taggart, South Florida’s Charlie Strong (a former Ole Miss assistant), Memphis’ Mike Norvell and Texas-San Antonio’s Frank Wilson (another former assistant) are among those who’ve reportedly been vetted by Bjork. SMU’s Chad Morris, Colorado’s Mike McIntyre, Troy’s Neal Brown and even Lane Kiffin, who’s 8-3 in his debut season at FAU, are others who’ve been bantered about.

Ole Miss needs a quality coach but perhaps even a better recruiter given the Rebels’ scholarship reductions as a result of the NCAA investigation and more that could possibly be coming. Efficiency on the recruiting trail will be vital.

Ole Miss saved almost $16 million with Freeze’s forced resignation amid a female escort scandal, so Bjork will be able to put together a lucrative package for his top target. But there are already four jobs open around the Southeastern Conference with more possibly becoming vacant soon while there’s also an early signing period looming Dec. 20, so I expect Bjork to move quickly over the next few days in trying to secure his guy.

Of course, exactly how fast that happens depends on when the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions issues its final ruling in the Rebels’ infractions case. It’s been nearly 11 weeks since Ole Miss had its hearing without a word from the COI as to whether it will accept the school’s self-imposed penalties or tack on additional sanctions that could make it tougher for Bjork to lure his top choice to Oxford.

Could Bjork make a hire without knowing the final verdict? It’s possible depending on who it is and what that package would be, but it’s hard to envision any candidate committing to it not knowing if the NCAA case will be a proverbial bump in the road or turn the job into one that will require a rebuild.

It’s a pivotal moment in Ole Miss’ football program. It could turn into a defining one for Bjork.

The real work begins now.

Davis Potter is the Ole Miss beat writer for the EAGLE. Contact him at davis.potter@oxfordeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DavisEPotter.