No easy answers: Ex-UL coach Mark Hudspeth's rise, fall
Before he was fired by UL athletic director Bryan Maggard last Sunday, Mark Hudspeth exited as the dean of active Sun Belt Conference head football coaches.
Seven full seasons, five trips to the New Orleans Bowl, four New Orleans Bowl wins on the field, four straight winning seasons all at 9-4 on the field from the get-go, three consecutive losing seasons to end it, an on-field record of 51-38 overall and 36-19 in Sun Belt Conference games.
Those are the numbers he leaves behind.
But what is the real legacy of Hudspeth’s reign as coach of the Ragin’ Cajuns? And how in the heck did it all unravel so fast after so much went so well early on?
They’re questions to be pondered as UL moves on, and Hudspeth does, too.
Ask him about both and Hudspeth does not hold back much when speaking publicly — in an exclusive interview Thursday night with The Daily Advertiser — for the first time since he was relieved of his duties with three more seasons remaining on a contract that paid around $1.1 million in 2017.
More:UL fires head football coach Hudspeth
But not all of the answers are easy.
Maggard cited inconsistent play and declining attendance and financial program support of as reasons for his recommending to UL President Joseph Savoie that Hudspeth be let go.
Other stains — the cloud of NCAA sanctions, an anti-Donald Trump video that leaked from the locker room, the offseason arrest this year of 13 players originally charged with a since-reduced felony for allegedly removing belongings from the dorm room of a teammate charged with rape — played a part, at least to some degree.
But the successes, on balance and over time, give the blemishes quite a fight.
What’s Hudspeth most proud of?
His initial response starts short-and-simple, then grows quickly.
“I think, obviously, you would start with the four straight nine-win seasons, four straight bowl wins,” he said.
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'NONE OF THAT WOULD HAVE HAPPENED'
All was hunky-dory then.
There’s much more to it, however.
“On top of that,” Hudspeth said, “being integral in the development of the APC” prompts much pride.
The Cajuns’ Student-Athlete Performance Center — which houses football locker rooms, football coaches’ offices, a state-of-the-art weight room used by athletes from all sports and more — center didn’t exist when Hudspeth arrived at UL.
Its construction was spurred in large part by the Cajuns’ success early in his run, and Hudspeth was the only UL coach with a significant hand in its design.
While Hudspeth was in charge, UL also traded apparel suppliers from Russell to higher-profile Adidas.
New end zone seating and a Jumbotron video scoreboard were added at Cajun Field as part of an athletic facilities masterplan that’s also seen a major baseball stadium renovation project, soccer/track facility renovation and more.
A capital campaign to fund it all kicked off after Hudspeth’s arrival, too.
Related:UL to consider new athletic facilities masterplan options
“None of that would have happened,” Hudspeth said, without the football program’s winning ways.
Off the field, Hudspeth also beams about his players’ work in the classroom.
By winning the highest football GPA award two of the last four years and having the highest football graduation rate last year at 83 percent, he said, “We ending up being one of the top academic institutions in the Sun Belt Conference.”
“That’s something you’re really proud of,” Hudspeth added, “that doesn’t get the exposure that the wins do.”
Finding someone who can produce the academic success Hudspeth’s teams did, Maggard suggested, is a high priority as he considers candidates for the job.
“Coach Hudspeth and his staff,” the Cajuns athletic director said, “did a very, very good job in that area, making sure that our young men took care of business academically.”
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WHERE DID IT GO WRONG?
On the field, Hudspeth had incredible stability on his offensive line throughout his first four seasons. Starters rarely, if ever, missed a start. That, though, crumbled the final few years, and so too did UL’s offensive success.
The Cajuns also had stellar quarterback play in those early years, first from holdover Blaine Gautier and later Houston-transfer and two-time New Orleans Bowl MVP Terrance Broadway — one of the first players Hudspeth lured to UL.
Since Broadway left, though, the QB situation has been a mess; not grooming a high school quarterback into a proven, dependable starter perhaps is a large reason.
In 2015, UL couldn’t settle on Brooks Haack or Jalen Nixon and finished 4-8; Haack later transferred.
In 2016, not confident signee Jordan Davis could handle the job as a third-year sophomore, the Cajuns brought in LSU graduate-transfer Anthony Jennings.
The ex-Tigers starter arrived one day before the start of preseason camp, and never really got totally in synch with his new teammates. UL went to the New Orleans Bowl again that year, but lost to Southern Mississippi and closed 6-7.
Davis began as the starter this year, then hurt his knee.
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Junior-college transfer Andre Nunez played a lot and started a couple of mid-season games, then sustained a concussion.
Hudspeth then took the redshirt of off true freshman Levi Lewis for the season’s eighth game, a controversial move.
Lewis won his first start at South Alabama, then later sprained an ankle, and Davis opened the last game of the season, a 63-14 loss at Appalachian State that made UL 5-7.
Some also felt Hudspeth took too much control away from his offensive coordinators, of which he had three over the final three seasons — Jay Johnson, who held the job five years; Jorge Munoz; and his former quarterback at North Alabama, ex-West Georgia and West Alabama coach Will Hall.
On the defensive side, Hudspeth rolled through coordinators — and schemes — left and right.
Greg Stewart was fired after two seasons despite having the Sun Belt’s second-ranked defense in both 2011 and 2012.
Former NFL player James Willis left after two seasons, then returned as a consultant when the defense struggled this season.
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Hudspeth fired longtime SEC assistant Melvin Smith, one of his mentors, after the first game of Smith’s second season, a lopsided loss to Boise State.
And ex-Southeastern Louisiana coach Mike Lucas stood standing at the end, though it’s unknown if he would have returned had Hudspeth kept his job.
An over-reliance on juco quick fixes, some of whom barely started contributing when it was time to leave, cost the Cajuns too, especially defensively.
Not enough building from the ground up, in other words.
Too few younger players were developed at several key positions, including inside linebacker, where it especially showed after standouts Otha Peters and Tremaine Lightfoot finished their senior seasons in 2016.
Some also feel too many Cajun players had a hard time grasping defensive concepts, sometimes putting them out of position this year.
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THE SLOW DECLINE
Off the field, things were even worse on occasion.
By and large, Hudspeth didn’t have the volume of arrest issues some similar-sized — and bigger — programs do on what sometimes seems to be a frequent basis.
But there were some issues, legal and otherwise.
In January 2016, the NCAA sanctioned Hudspeth’s program due partly to ex-assistant coach David Saunders allegedly arranging fraudulent college entrance exams to recruits.
Hudspeth was exonerated of any of wrongdoing.
But 11 scholarships were lost, recruiting restrictions were put in place and all victories from the 2011-14 seasons in which ineligible players took part — 22 in all, including UL’s 2011 and 2013 New Orleans Bowl wins — were vacated.
That left Hudspeth’s official Cajuns record at 29-38 overall, including 22-20 in Sun Belt play.
“It definitely played a big role in our slow decline. Without question,” Hudspeth said of the scholarship losses and loss of the ability to sign midyear players.
More:Hudspeth talks NCAA probation period ending
The Cajuns also faced negative recruiting from some opponent programs as a result.
But, Hudspeth said, “We still maintained a level of, I’d say, competitive play — even though going through that.”
The Cajuns no longer have scholarship restrictions, and they’ll come off probation in January.
“Finally we’re out of the corner,” Hudspeth said. “Luckily for the next head coach, he won’t have to deal with this.”
Actually, he will.
UL’s new hire inherits a cupboard that’s somewhat more bare because of the hits the Cajuns took.
Still, Hudspeth feels he’s handing off a good product to UL’s next coach.
“He rolls in here with the best facilities in the country, and a team that’s got nine starters back on offense and a team that went to five bowls in the last seven years,” he said. “You couldn’t say that when I came in here seven years ago.”
Related:Will any of Hudspeth's commits be left in the lurch?
When Hudspeth arrived, The Sporting News tapped UL as the nation’s worst team.
There were no seats in the south end zone at Cajun Field, no performance center.
Now, the job is much more attractive than it was then.
“When we took over, we definitely had the worst facilities in Division I,” Hudspeth said. “I almost didn’t take the job because of it.
“But I just had a vision. … And then when I leave we have the best facilities in Group of Five, bar none.”
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'WATER UNDER THE BRIDGE NOW'
In November of last year, a profane video leaked out of the Cajun locker room showing a small number of UL players dancing and singing along to YG and Nipsey Hussle’s anti-Trump rap song FDT (F--- Donald Trump).
The video was filmed on Election Day in the United States, shortly was Trump was elected President.
The team caught heat for what got out, and Hudspeth was scorched in some corners for his handling of the matter’s aftermath.
He chastised his players.
But also defended them by lashing out at certain unnamed boosters, saying criticism of the immature actions of 19-year-olds was hypocritical because it came from people who voted for Trump, who has “done much worse," and that it was "hurtful" that some of his players were labeled as "thugs."
Hudspeth later apologized and expressed regret that He "may have offended some voters in the recent election."
But some Cajun conservatives weren’t happy, even after the apology.
Asked how he’d handle things with a mulligan, Hudspeth was introspective.
More:UL coach apologizes after Trump-song video
“Definitely there are a lot of individuals that contribute to our program, and really had a hand in helping our program get off to a great start,” he said Thursday, four days after his firing. “We were sorry we let them down, and wish we hadn’t disappointed them.
“And, yeah, you know, when you go back, you look, you always wish maybe you could have done things differently. But that’s water under the bridge now.
“We did apologize; we were very sincere about it. And our players definitely had to live through that, too,” Hudspeth added. “It was a difficult time for everybody. Like I said, disappointed it happened. But that’s life. Sometimes you make mistakes, and you’ve got to move on and try to get better.”
Maggard, new on the job this year, was asked what role the incident and its aftermath played in his decision.
“For me, I’ll be very candid with you, the Trump video had no bearing on my decision,” he said. “That was before my time.
“Some may argue that had some residual effect, you know, with maybe the apathy, or lack of interest in our team, moving forward. But I cannot speak to that.”
It did impact fan support of both Hudspeth and his program, without a doubt.
Without the situation, more backers may have been on board through tougher times and donations would not have dropped as they did.
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But the backlash might not have been as bad as it was, Hudspeth agreed when asked, if UL had not been coming off a 4-8 season in 2015 and struggling to get back to a bowl when it happened.
“I definitely think our record at the time did hurt,” he said. “You see other universities across the country that are winning, and having issues, and everybody just sort of sweeps it under the rug.
“When you’re not having a great season, it amplifies things that happened. And unfortunately they did. We regret that those did happen. Disappointed that they did.
“And if I had to do it over again,” Hudspeth added, “I would do everything in my power to make sure those didn’t happen.”
In the few days, weeks and even months after the video surfaced, some called for Hudspeth to be fired then.
Offended boosters with big bucks tried to use the withdrawal of their financial support to push him out, but it didn’t work then because at the time he had the backing of both Savoie and then-athletic director Scott Farmer.
Eventually, they did get their way.
What really may have pushed their ouster bid over the top, though, wasn’t just a wealthy few. Rather, it was when Cajun fans spoke en masse.
Attendance at Cajun Field plummeted in Hudspeth’s last few years, dropping from an averge high 29,171 in his first season to 15,751 this season — including an announced crowd of just 12,993 (actually attendance really was much, much lower than that) for UL’s final 2017 home game, a loss to then 1-9 Georgia Southern.
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'DISAPPOINTED IT HAPPENED'
Maggard, meanwhile, also suggested this year’s legal matters involving Cajun players did not impact his decision.
“The 13 arrests — was it unfortunate? Absolutely,” he said. “That’s something we don’t want to have happen in our program.
“But, at the end of the day, that really didn’t really have any bearing on this decision, because I really felt like, through the judicial system and the internal disciplinary actions that we took, that we addressed that.”
The player accused of rape was dismissed from the team after his alleged crime and shortly before his arrest.
The 13 initially charged with one count each of felony theft — later reduced to a misdemeanor, with the charge to have the chance dismissed following completion of community service and a diversion program — were each suspended one game.
Hudspeth secretly spread the suspensions throughout the early part of the season, and then — amid some degree of controversy — he suspended the final four, all starters, for a loss at Ole Miss.
“You’re disappointed it happened,” he said of the arrests, “although I do feel it was handled inappropriately — the investigation.”
More:UL suspends four for Ole Miss game due to prior arrest
Some feel the 13 were overcharged when arrested.
“But, nevertheless, I’m disappointed that the players, obviously, were involved in that,” Hudspeth said, “and we just wish they had made better decisions.
“If they had made better decisions, they would have been suspended and missed games.
“But they learned … some invaluable life lessons that I think will help them in the future,” he added, “because I definitely don’t think they will ever make the same mistake twice.”
A SLIP IN RECRUITING
Recruiting is another matter some point to as problematic in the demise of Hudspeth and his coaching staff, and it may not solely be because of the NCAA restrictions.
With his first quickly assembled recruiting class, Hudspeth scored big.
“We hit on some very productive guys,” he said.
For that, Hudspeth largely credited longtime recruiting coordinator and assistant head coach Reed Stringer.
Three of the signees — defensive lineman Christian Ringo, now with the Detroit Lions; defensive lineman Justin Hamilton, who was claimed by Kansas City on Friday from the Detroit Lions practice squad and signed to the Chiefs’ 53-man active roster; and running back Alonzo Harris, formerly with the Green Bay Packers — made it to the NFL.
Quarterback Broadway and standout juco-transfer slot receiver Harry Peoples were a part of the same initial class.
The Cajuns also currently have running back Elijah McGuire in the NFL with the New York Jets.
McGuire and Harris both won Sun Belt Freshman of the Year Awards, and McGuire was SBC Player of the Year as a sophomore in 2014.
UL’s production of Hudspeth-signed NFL-quality talent, however, dwindled after that first class.
Related:Cajun players react to Hudspeth's firing by UL
Several made it into training camps and/or onto practice squads, and one, linebacker Dominque Tovell, played in the CFL this year. Peters, a transfer from Arkansas, currently is a rookie on the Washington Redskins’ practice squad.
But the volume dropped off, perhaps reflective of how UL classes — once ranked tops in the Sun Belt — slipped along the way, ultimately impacting win-loss success.
HEAD HELD HIGH
Toward the end, Hudspeth and his staff closed ranks and the circle of those he truly trusted seemed to grow smaller and smaller as time passed.
At some undefined point, some of his players — despite his willingness to back them in times of turmoil — seemed to lose faith in his ability to guide them.
That certainly wasn’t the case for all, as many had terrifically kind words to say after learning he’d been fired.
In at least a few instances, however, some Cajuns questioned his unwillingness this season to let coordinator Hall truly run the offense.
Yet, even amid the negativity, and in some cases its rehash, Hudspeth leaves with his head held high.
He even went out saying that he “agreed” with Maggard’s decision, and — in stand-up fashion — he expresses no animosity.
More:Amid report of new job, Hudspeth 'agreed' with firing
To the contrary, he looks back fondly on much of what happened — both on the field and off — during his days in Lafayette.
And he puffs his chest when talking about community involvement, and the — pardon the word play — the "mark" he’s left on UL.
“I’ll be honest with you: I’m pretty, just, proud of the relationships that I developed over the course of our seven years there,” he said.
“You’ll remember the victories. And you’ll forget some of the victories. But you’ll never forget some of the relationships that (will) continue on even after we leave.
“It was awful fun while it lasted. A great ride,” Hudspeth added. “Proud to say I was a part of it. Wish it would have ended a little better. But just proud to be a part of it.”