coverWednesday, May 4, 2011

Mark Hudspeth hasn’t coached his first Cajun football game yet, and there’s already talk about raising more money to keep him here. That’s how optimistic Cajun fans fed up with mediocrity are about his ability to turn the program around. By Dan McDonald

There’s an aura of intensity constantly whirling around Mark Hudspeth.

So much to do. So little time. Something has to be accomplished every second, or that moment is wasted, gone forever, and in the world of “Coach Hud” that’s not tolerated.

It shows in all parts of Hudspeth’s public life. When he’s working the room at one of the many meet-and-greet events he’s attended since being named UL’s football coach last December, he closely listens to every word said to him, and he remembers the name of each person he meets. That task alone is a daunting one, since the numbers of Ragin’ Cajun supporters desperate for a winning football program are legion.

He is no less forceful in his approach at civic club meetings and other events designed to raise funds for the football program/athletic department/Ragin’ Cajun Athletic Foundation. He is not bashful about asking for help from those who have helped the program financially in the past, or from those who haven’t.

“I’ve got friends that have joined the RCAF because of him,” says longtime Cajun backer Kenny Crockett. “They may have been to football games occasionally just because they live here, but now they’re buying season tickets and they’re sending money to the RCAF.”

Robby Waguespack was a four-year Cajun letterman from 1990-93, his team winning a conference title as a senior. But he hadn’t been involved with the program since his return to Acadiana four years ago — until he attended one of Hudspeth’s social gatherings. Now, he’s pushing his friends to buy season tickets.

“A buddy of mine is a dyed-in-the-wool LSU supporter,” Waguespack says. “Now I’ve got him buying tickets, and he’s coming to our games this fall.”

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Hudspeth encourages players James Butler, left, and
Jesse Broadnax at study hall. His coaching contract includes
significant bonuses for team GPA increases.

“People have come up to me and asked what they can do to help the program,” Hudspeth says. “That has helped us get a kick-start to where we want to get with this program. And we’re going to get there.”

Those words echoed around a newly-refurbished head football coach’s office in the Cox Communications Athletic Center. The new glass walls scream “big-time,” a leap from the old plywood and sheetrock that served as virtual boundaries for a program that has ranged from ordinary to decrepit for decades.

Those walls are symbolic of Hudspeth’s vision, one that has the Cajuns breaking loose from the bonds of mediocrity and not wasting any time about it.

“I’ll be disappointed if we’re not one of the top teams in the Sun Belt Conference year in and year out,” he says when asked for his five-year vision, “and hopefully we will already have won a bowl game by then.”

The construction continues around the athletic center, which is undergoing a total interior renovation. And, in contrast to the moribund pace of most state-affiliated construction, the work there is flying so fast that it’s hard to keep track of who’s in what office on any given day. But there was no question as to whose office would be finished first, and whose would become the model for the entire program.

The bullhorn rarely stops blaring at the Cajuns’ football practice fields during spring drills.

cover1“Compete! … Compete! … Compete!”  “Practice at a high level, guys, a high level, all the time.”  “Hurry, hurry, hurry … as fast as we can go.” “We better pick it up, we better be running; we’re gonna start the whole period over if you’re not running!” “We cannot walk off this field and not get better today!” “The biggest day in the history of Ragin’ Cajun football is today!”

Hudspeth is seemingly everywhere on the three 100-yard fields the Cajuns use for practice sessions. One moment he’s behind the defensive line drills, barking out instructions for alignments. A heartbeat later, he’s half a field away, encouraging the tight ends to look the ball into their hands.

It’s almost 80 degrees on a gorgeous spring day. “It’s a great day to work, men,” he yells into the bullhorn, but one gets the idea that if it was 35 degrees and sleeting, the words and the tone would be the same.

The tone is already radically different from any previous set of Cajun football drills. The sounds of Eminem and Lil’ Wayne boom out of speakers in the middle of the practice complex, and the only time the music fades away is when Hudspeth calls his troops together for a quick in-practice meeting.

On this particular late-March afternoon, Hudspeth has invited David Fisher, a veteran Cajun staff member and a football letterman more than 60 years ago — who doesn’t look anywhere close to his mid-80s — to address the team. His voice is still powerful and commanding — and perhaps Hudspeth sees some of his own intensity in that.

“You’re representing every football player that ever played here,” Fisher tells the current squad huddled and kneeling around him. “You may not have thought about that, but it’s true.”
The players listen. There’s a feeling that if Hudspeth thought it important enough for Fisher to talk to the team, it was important enough for them to hear.

“The players aren’t a bit different now,” Hudspeth says later. “When it’s all said and done, they need discipline and they want discipline. It’s harder on today’s players than when I played or everyone else played. There are so many more distractions and more opportunities to get in trouble. They’re at a disadvantage.”

At times, practice does have some throw-back moments. Defensive coordinator Greg Stewart, a bald bear of a man and a former collegiate nose guard, doesn’t hold back when something doesn’t measure up.

“That’s horseshit,” he screams. “Get your ass lined up right!”

Almost every day during the spring, there’s a ritual that would warm the hearts of players from decades past. It’s commonly called “bull in the ring,” made famous at Oklahoma and other places, and pits offensive and defensive players against each other, one-on-one, with the rest of the team in a tight circle around them.

It’s gladiator-like, it’s violent, it always has a clear winner, and nobody is exempt — even the quarterbacks who often are protected from contact in practice. On this day, senior QB Brad McGuire was one of those called into the “ring.”

Nobody is safe in Hudspeth’s practices. “What the hell are you doing?” he screamed at a cameraman who was lax at filming a pass skeleton drill. “Get that water out of the way!” he barked at a couple of trainers when a drill quickly changed direction.

cover3
Hudspeth confronts defensive end Jesse Broadnax about
missing a practice drill earlier in the day, telling him he will
have to make it up that same day.

Practices are generally restricted to the general public. But they are almost always open to former Cajun players or to anyone who has helped the program through contributions to the RCAF. And every practice visitor gets a badge identifying them as an ex-letterman, an RCAF member or other group. “That way, the coaches know who we are even if they don’t know us yet,” says Brad Hamilton, another former UL player who was at a recent practice. “And they make sure to come over and acknowledge us, thank us for being here.”

At the end of practice, the coaches do “gassers” – extended sprints to improve conditioning – with the players. It’s one of the few times Hudspeth puts down the bullhorn.

“He runs the show,” says former UL tight end Buck Moncla. “But he’s out there getting dirty along with everybody else, getting sweaty and having fun.”

Bryan Hanks admits he hasn’t been overly enthusiastic about the UL athletic program in the past, even though his former American Legion baseball coach Gerald Hebert — now UL’s director of athletic development — tried to get him more deeply involved.

That hesitation changed quickly, once Hanks heard and met Hudspeth and some of his coaches at an early meet-and-greet.

“You can tell from a handshake, from his voice, he’s special,” says Hanks, president of BETA Land Services in Lafayette. “He’s intense, but he’s also a joy to be around. He wants the best for this university and the football program. It’s genuine.”

Hanks and his wife Michelle recently hosted a social/fundraiser that included the coaching staff and their spouses, one designed to introduce them to more of the community and raise funds for additional facility work around the athletic complex.

It’s one of several such gatherings held around Acadiana since Hudspeth was named as the Cajuns’ 25th football boss.

Moncla staged one of those at Oakbourne Country Club. Moncla played for the Cajuns for four years from 1990-93 and held UL’s record for receptions by a tight end until current Cajun standout Ladarius Green topped that mark last season.

“The passion he’s got when he’s talking, it’s hard not to buy into it,” Moncla said. “He’s really tried to bring the alumni back into it.”

Moncla’s gathering raised significant dollars — well into the five-figure range — and most of the many outings that Hudsepth has attended have had similar success.

The next steps are to continue that increase in excitement into more ticket sales, into more success in recruiting high-level student-athletes into the program, and eventually into more on-field success for a program that hasn’t hit the seven-win plateau since 1993.

“That’s my job first and foremost, to sell this program,” Hudspeth said. “The easiest way to put people in there is to win, but right now we need more people to get behind us, we need more people to buy tickets and we need the people that buy tickets to buy more. We need more people to come out and tailgate and then come into the stadium. If we put a good product on the field, they’re going to be proud of us and they’re going to reap the rewards.”

It’s a long way from the ill-advised statements of former coach Jerry Baldwin a decade ago, when he told a press conference that it “wasn’t his job” to put fans in the Cajun Field seats. Not surprisingly, he was fired two weeks later after finishing off a three-year run with a 6-27 record.

Rickey Bustle came aboard as head coach in 2002 and will likely never get the credit he deserves for turning the UL program away from the abyss of the previous half decade. His teams won six games four times in his final six seasons before he was let go last December after a 3-9 campaign, and the university engaged the search firm of Carr and Associates to identify candidates to fill the post.

As it turned out, UL interim athletic director Scott Farmer already knew where to look.

cover4
Mike Richard, Jeff Damico (white shirt), Buck Moncla
and Hudspeth on the golf course

Hudspeth spent the last two years on the coaching staff at Mississippi State, serving as passing game coordinator and wide receivers coach and helping guide the Bulldogs to a surprising 8-4 record and a berth in the Gator Bowl against Michigan. Prior to that, the 42-year-old native of Louisville, Miss., was head coach at North Alabama for seven years, compiling a 66-20 record and taking UNA to the Division II national semifinals three times.

He’d also been offensive coordinator for a national D-II champion at his alma mater Delta State in 2000, but it was during his stint at UNA that Farmer first became acquainted with Hudspeth.

“Every year when they would go to play Valdosta State, they’d stop at Troy to work out,” Farmer says. “I met him his first year there. It wasn’t anything official, but I got to know him a little. A lot of people can put it together when you’re interviewing them, but he put it together a long time before that.”

Farmer made sure Hudspeth was on the list Carr and Associates used, and he was among the few Farmer and then-AD David Walker contacted directly soon after the position came open.
“We contacted him,” Farmer says, “but we also talked to athletic directors about him, talked to former assistant coaches of his. We felt like we did a lot of background work, and everyone told us the same thing — that he was the right guy for this program.”

One of the first people Farmer contacted was Joel Erdmann, who was the athletic director at North Alabama for five years and is now AD at fellow Sun Belt member South Alabama. Erdmann, ironically, also served as athletic director at Southeastern Louisiana for two years before going to USA.

“He has an incredible amount of pride in his craft,” Erdmann says of Hudspeth. “He takes pride in his abilities, pays a great attention to detail and expects good things from his coaches and athletes. That may be his strongest point; he communicates very clearly and very well about expectations and accountability.”

There was much work to be done in a tight time window when Hudspeth arrived. He was still assembling a staff in the heart of recruiting season, but in six weeks he and the mostly-new staff managed to put together a solid recruiting class by the early-February national signing date.

“Everything we do is built around recruiting,” Hudspeth says. “Putting fans in the stands impresses recruits. Better facilities help recruiting. That’s the most important thing we do.”

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"I've got friends that have joined the [Ragin' Cajun Athletic
Foundation] because of him," longtime Cajun backer
Kenny Crockett, above,  says of Hudspeth.

It wasn’t a surprise that almost half of the team’s 29 recruits in the newcomer class were from Mississippi, since Hudspeth had extensive contacts. But almost as many, 11, came from Louisiana despite the late start. Among his first recruiting class is running back Qyen Griffin of Batesville, Miss.-South Panola High, who was named Mississippi’s “Mr. Football” and rushed for 2,670 yards and 37 touchdowns as a senior.

“For the amount of time we had, I really believe we signed an outstanding class,” Hudspeth says. “They’re the foundation of our future. We’re going to be very young this year, but the more we play the better we’re going to get.”

That youth showed at many moments during the Cajuns’ spring game in April, but that’s standard operating procedure for most college football teams as coaches try to get a last look at every player who could be a factor in the fall. After the spring game, by NCAA rule, the coaches can have no on-field interaction with players until August and the start of fall drills.
Hudspeth, as usual, is trying to coax every second out of the spring wrap-up, one attended by more than 5,200 fans. The bottom half of Cajun Field’s west side held more fans than many recent November regular-season games.

cover6
Four-year Cajun letterman Robby Waguespack, 1990-1993,
had not been involved with the program since returning to
Acadiana four years ago. That changed after he attended
a social gathering for Hudspeth put on by supporters.

“I’ve been doing these games for 15 years,” says Tommy Garrett, one of the area’s most respected football officials, “and I’ve never seen a crowd like this.”
Hudspeth’s son Gunner was visiting for the weekend from his Mississippi home, and the two had spent much of the morning together before the game. And not surprisingly, it was athletic-related.

“A lot of dads, you’d go fishing or go bowling with,” Gunner says. “Today, we went and lifted weights.” He says it with a smile, obviously enjoying the time and the surroundings like most kids in their early teens would. Gunner’s tall and athletic and is probably going to be a good football player soon. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

His son watching from the sidelines, Hudspeth at this moment is clearly focused on the older kids — the ones he’s trying to mold into a respectable college football team. He gave the fans a taste of the “Bull in the Ring” before kickoff, but for the rest of the game he stood behind the offensive formation, much calmer than his practice demeanor. Gone was the bullhorn, replaced by a headset that gave him constant communication with assistant coaches watching from the press box.

He was pleased with some things he saw and not so pleased with others. In particular, he called out the quarterbacks, saying that none had elevated their games enough to cement a starting role. But he knows there’s time between now and the Sept. 3 opener at Oklahoma State.

“We didn’t show the no-huddle at all,” he says. “We’re saving a few cards for the fall.”

He gave many followers a similar message at halftime. While the players were resting and the other coaches were preparing for the second half, Hudspeth sprinted to the elevator and to Cajun Field’s sky boxes, where he talked briefly with two different groups of invited supporters.

“We feel like our kids have a fighting chance,” he says of spring practice. “With all of us teamed up, we can do some good things.”

Hudspeth could have spent the rest of his life as head man at North Alabama, where he had resurrected a previously-successful program and made it a legitimate national title contender. And he could have stayed at Mississippi State for a while, with the Bulldogs rapidly becoming an established SEC contender.

“I wanted to compete at the highest level,” he says of leaving North Alabama for an assistant’s slot at MSU. “We had a lot of success at UNA, but the opportunity at State was too good to pass up. Here, I had the opportunity to be a Division I head coach, and my whole life I’ve wanted to do that. I know that’s what I do best. But I wanted to stay close to my roots. I’ve lived in Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas and Alabama. And I like taking a program and building it from the ground up, not just taking over one that’s accustomed to success.”

If that’s what Hudsepth was after, a challenge, he’s got it here. The Cajuns have had one winning season since 1995, that coming in 2005 when UL went 6-5 and shared the Sun Belt title. That limited success has caused more than one long-suffering Cajun fan to wonder if the goals Hudspeth has set for the program are attainable — and Hudspeth himself wondered the same.

“I was concerned, especially when you go back and look at the last 25 years or so,” he says. “But once I came down here to interview, I realized there’s a new enthusiasm here. Everybody I talked to wanted to do whatever it took to be a winner. A lot of people are buying into what we’re selling, but we need a lot more, and that means that everybody has to get out of their comfort zone a little.”

That’s the reason for all the off-field gatherings, because Hudspeth saw two major shortcomings when he arrived — not enough people involved with the program, and not enough money available to do the things that separate consistent winners from the also-rans.

“We’ve told him that this town loves a winner,” Crockett says. “If he wins, we’ll make him happy to be here. He’s going to get opportunities down the road. In my opinion, he is going to get hired away from us, but that won’t happen until he accomplishes his goal here. But if that happens, we’re going to make people get really serious if they want him.”

Just having people talk about another school hiring Hudspeth away marks a significant step. No Cajun head football coach has left the school for a better coaching job in more than a half-century.

“I asked him straight up about that,” Hanks says about Hudspeth’s long-range plans. “He said he’s here to stay and make this a career. His goal is not to be a competitive mid-major; it’s to build a football program that can compete at the highest level. Obviously if he does as well as everybody hopes, we’ll have to step up and pay him what he’s worth.”

Hudspeth’s annual salary is $360,000, which includes $175,000 from the state-allocated budget and $185,000 from the Ragin’ Cajun Athletic Foundation. (See related sidebar.)

Can all of that hoped-for success, all of those goals, actually happen here?

“No question it can,” Hudspeth said. “There’s so much here that we haven’t tapped into yet.”


Quite the Social Media-lite
It’s easy to join coach Hud’s team … at least, his social media one.

Hudspeth is a regular on Twitter (twitter.com/ulcoachhud) and Facebook (facebook.com/ulcoachhud) and gives constant updates — not just about Ragin’ Cajun football but other facets of the UL athletic program and from his life.

Mid-April, during a family trip, he tweeted, “Beautiful day at the beach! Ran into some UL fans last night!!! Geaux Cajuns!”

Six days later: “In my hometown of Louisville, MS, playing golf with my son!! Got to show him dad still rules!! 2011 Schedule on web this week!!”

And last week: “Just got a little take out from Longhorns since my wife is out of town getting ready to run Music City Marathon in Nashville!!”

Hud’s wife, Tyla, is a marathon runner; she completed the St. Jude Marathon in Memphis last December, finishing 56th in her 25-29 age group with a 4:15.32 time in the more than 26-mile event. The couple has a son, Major, who turned 1 in February.

Money Talks
Mark Hudspeth’s salary package is considerably higher than the one paid to Rickey Bustle, his immediate predecessor as UL head football coach. But Hudspeth is still well below the average for major-college football coaches.

Hudspeth’s contract calls for a $360,000 salary, which includes $175,000 from the state-allocated budget and $185,000 from the Ragin’ Cajun Athletic Foundation, which is privately-raised funds. Bustle’s salary was also $175,000 in state money, but he received only $50,000 annually in RCAF funds for a total $225,000 salary package.

Bustle’s salary was the fifth-lowest in the country among the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS, formerly I-A) members, according to last year’s USA Today survey of college football coaches’ salaries. A total of 110 of the 120 FBS members responded to the survey, and the only lower salaries reported were at Arkansas State, Bowling Green, Kent State and UL Monroe.

Hudspeth’s $360K salary would move him up on that list, but not much. According to the survey, only 14 of the 110 responding schools paid a lower salary to its head football coach during 2010. Eight of those were in the Mid-American Conference and five were in the Sun Belt Conference. In the Sun Belt, Hudspeth’s salary is in line with longtime Troy coach Larry Blakeney ($356,000), whose team has won or shared five straight Sun Belt titles.

A total of 59 of the 110 responding schools (53.6 percent) listed coaches’ salaries over the $1 million level.

Two other Sun Belt schools will have salary increases for the coming season with newly-hired coaches at North Texas and Arkansas State. Todd Dodge was earning $289,161 at UNT, and Steve Roberts pulled down $223,078 at ASU before both were fired in December.

Salaries paid to Middle Tennessee’s Rick Stockstill ($491,580), Florida International’s Mario Cristobal ($437,382) and Florida Atlantic’s Howard Schnellenberger ($407,905) are still higher than Hudspeth’s package. At Louisiana’s only other comparable FBS school, Sonny Dykes earns $450,000 at Louisiana Tech.

Hudspeth’s contract has incentives that could boost him over $400,000 in total compensation, but on-field success is only a small part of the bonus package. The contract has significant bonuses for team grade point average increases, gains in the team’s NCAA Academic Performance Rate and increases in season ticket sales.

Then-athletic director David Walker said at Hudspeth’s hiring that the pool of money for the nine assistant coaches’ salaries was also increased from $754,000 to $850,000 (an 11 percent boost). Walker said the 2010 figure ranked UL third among Sun Belt schools and that the $850K mark would be the highest in the league.

“I’m going to take up a collection around the room,” Walker said at Hudspeth’s introductory press conference, which was attended by many Ragin’ Cajun fans and followers.

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