LAFAYETTE — To see the unseen, the potential power stored in every plot of underdeveloped land or yet-to-be-tapped resource, is to hold the club that wakes a sleeping giant.
What separates the dreamers from the doers is the constitution to crack the giant over the head and ride the ensuing fury, and the man who was mildly annoyed that summer vacation had sapped 25 pounds off his 365-pound bench press keeps his club hand strong.
Mark Hudspeth can’t sit still, never has been able to. He hates the idle time brought on by the offseason, when his normally regimented schedule is instead pocked with a fundraiser here, an interview there. In between, there’s a lot of time for nothing, and Hudspeth doesn’t understand how to do nothing with his time.
He grabs a pen and paper and begins a systematic walk through the Louisiana-Lafayette football facility, through the offices, the locker room and the weight room, looking for anything that falls outside his realm of acceptability. Nothing is too insignificant to be improved, and if the coach finds a candy wrapper lying next to a trash can, he’ll make a note. Hudspeth is a fan of lists, because lists give you something to accomplish, and Hudspeth lives to accomplish.
The small stuff leads to bigger stuff, of course. Sometimes on his wanderings he’ll cover his crew cut with a hard hat and make his way across the street to see how those big dreams are unfolding. For a serial achiever like Hudspeth, the progress on the Ragin’ Cajuns’ $30 million Athletic Performance Center feels like it’s dragged on even though it’s scheduled to be completed on time. His hard hat is always accessible in his office, and Hudspeth was burdened with proximity and time, so he frequently made the short walk to see what he has always envisioned being erected.
Hudspeth couldn’t turn off those visions of grandeur where others only saw the wreckage of a football program. This is both his blessing and his burden to bear. When he arrived at Louisiana-Lafayette nearly five years ago, he saw the daunting mountain in front of him, yes, but he also saw the route over it that had evaded his predecessors.
You see dilapidated facilities in major need of overhaul or replacing; Hudspeth sees a financially stable community hungry to support a winner as the means to that end. You see a team going nowhere, turning in a winning record four times in the two decades prior to his arrival; he sees a clear path to winning through the bountiful resources on the prep fields of Louisiana and Mississippi. The visionary shines light on the specks of gold buried in the pile of muck.
“When I walk around, I don’t see it as it is,” Hudspeth said. “I see it as it’s going to look. I envision everything that I see. When I’m walking down the hallway and it’s all old and nasty, I don’t see that. I see what I’m going to do to it.”
About those eyes that see what others don’t: They’re electric blue, which makes them feel a little less unsettling as they’re boring right through you. Engage him in conversation in a crowded room, and he’ll make you feel like the only one there. When it’s just you and him, the effect is, like almost everything with Hudspeth, focused intensity.
Those eyes lock on and don’t let go. They work in tandem with his relentlessly charismatic demeanor and swaggering physical presence. They’re simultaneously arresting and disarming, and they’re lethal to those guarding the gold during fundraising sessions. Wallets seem to have a way of opening for Hudspeth.
“If Coach Hud wasn’t a head football coach, I would tell him he needs to get into insurance sales or car sales,” said assistant head coach Reed Stringer, who has known Hudspeth for nearly two decades.
No matter how great the pitch, nobody’s buying anything if the product isn’t right. Hudspeth has been the architect of a football revolution in Lafayette, drawing and then executing a master plan that has reversed the course of a perennially losing program. He’s a muscle-bound and self-assured tour de force equipped with a whistle and a loudspeaker and veins popping in his neck. He demands his players bring the same amount of energy — what he calls “juice” — as he does when he’s leading them from the front at 5 a.m. offseason workouts. And you know what? They return the favor.
“I mess with him all the time and say, ‘Coach, you look dead today. Where’s your juice at?’ ” senior offensive lineman Mykhael Quave said. “He’s like, ‘Mike, I’ve got my juice!’ ”
What’s resulted is success of the like the Cajuns have never seen. Four consecutive nine-win seasons after three in program history before his arrival. Four straight bowl victories for a program that hadn’t enjoyed one. A massive athletic training center and football office space with Hudspeth’s fingerprints all over it that will put the Cajuns, not long ago operating with facilities that Hudspeth pegged as worse than some Division II teams, on par with some power conference schools.
But success comes at a price. By watching his visions unfold in real time, Hudspeth has set in motion the countdown clock that nobody can see but everyone can feel. With each new achievement, the seconds tick away until one day there won’t be any time left.
When will Mark Hudspeth’s vision be employed elsewhere? And why hasn’t it happened yet?
The when is impossible to answer, even for someone with Hudspeth’s foresight, but the why? To answer that question requires an understanding of the nature of a man, to know the forces that forged him, to know what he holds most dear and to know what he fears.
Hudspeth, above all else, fears his vision failing him.
“I want to succeed at what I’ve started out in,” he said. “I fear letting people down. I fear failure.”
PART II: Louisville, Mississippi
The first thing to know about Louisville, Mississippi, is that the salt-of-the-Earth folks there won’t be bothered with silent letters.
You pronounce the “s.”
Louisville is a swath of Americana cut from the backwoods of central Mississippi. To get there, turn off the well-worn stretches of Interstate 55 and ride a roughly 90-mile ribbon of asphalt through the wilderness on State Highway 25. Drive through the endless forests and small towns, past the dirt roads and the mom-and-pop convenience stores that sell live bait and horse feed until you see the big sign for Lake Tiak-O’Khata on the southwest corner of town. That’s where Hudspeth used those blue eyes to talk to pretty girls during the summers of his youth.
Talk to the man about his small-town upbringing, and it’s clear it left an indelible impression on him beyond his appetite for using southern phrasing like “fixin’ to.”
Hudspeth wants to tell you everything about Louisville, so, of course, he makes a checklist. He lights up as he grabs a pen and paper, and for 15 minutes he drifts into nostalgia while making notes about all the important people and places to see. He wants to tell you about Mrs. Sinclair, his sixth-grade teacher at Winston Academy. He tells you about how he was Ole Miss basketball coach Andy Kennedy’s backup quarterback, and how his backup was Kentucky women’s basketball coach Matthew Mitchell. He writes down his parents’ home address and tells you to eat at Mary Lou’s Biscuit Bar, where the eggs are cooked in bacon grease.
He wants to tell you about Cully Hudspeth, who he reckons is “about my fourth cousin,” and how they used to cruise around town blasting Hank Williams Jr.
“You think my accent’s bad?” Hudspeth said with his lopsided smile. “Oh, my God. Brother, you will know you’re in deep-woods Mississippi.”
Though it is thick, it’s not so much his accent that gives you a sense of where you are. As Cully Hudspeth pulls up in his pickup truck with a lift kit and big tires, a fat wad of Levi Garrett in his lip and the Hank Williams Jr. station queued on his iPhone’s Pandora app, that’s when you know that, yes, you’re in deep-woods Mississippi. Then again, it could just be the Southern hospitality and Mississippi manners. Cully is a warm personality, all crooked smiles and positive thinking, and as he spends an hour and a half navigating you through a winding tour of the small town where they grew up, he wants to make sure one thing is abundantly clear.
“Mark’s never forgot where he came from, and I’m proud of that,” Cully said. “You never know when you’ve got to go back, or when you want to go back.”
There’s so much to cover in Louisville despite it being such a small town, but the most important place is the first stop on the Cully Hudspeth grand tour: Winston Academy, Cully and Mark’s alma mater. The school sweeps into view as Cully crests a hill on a narrow two-lane road leading out of town. Rather, it’s Winston Academy’s athletics facilities that dominate the eye. It looks like the campus of a small college, not a high school in rural Mississippi.
Almost 20 years ago, those facilities weren’t there — at least not the well-manicured current versions. It looked much different that night in 1996 when Cully received a call from new Winston Academy head coach Mark Hudspeth telling him to come over and meet him on the field. Cully pulled into the parking lot and walked through a pedestrian gate to see Hudspeth standing on the 20-yard line of a run-down field, looking at things not as they were but as they could be.
Winston Academy had fallen on lean times. Cully said the once-proud program had won just one game in the two years before Hudspeth took over for his first head coaching job. The place was, in Cully’s words, at “rock bottom.”
“I said, ‘What in the hell are you thinking?’ ” Cully recalled. “He said, ‘Well, Cully, they ain’t got but one way to go, and that’s straight up.’ ”
There was other motivation there that Hudspeth didn’t let Cully in on. He also was returning to Winston Academy because it was the site of his most public failure. The last time he’d left the Winston Academy locker room, it was through a window. He didn’t want to face the people whom he felt he let down.
Farrell Rigby has been headmaster at Winston Academy for nearly 30 years. His first school year in that position was the fall of 1986, the beginning of Mark Hudspeth’s senior year. Rigby is the type of man who says “nineteen hundred and eighty six” and loves single-word definitions of character. He’ll pause until he finds the right definitive term — charismatic, focused, intelligent — then expounds on it. Industrious is another adjective that comes to mind with young Mark Hudspeth.
When Rigby took the job, one of his first orders of business was to meet the most important people at the school: the secretary, the janitor, the drum major and the starting quarterback. When he asked Hudspeth, the quarterback, to get something done, it got done — no questions asked.
“He doesn’t take ‘I can’t do,’ ” Rigby said. “He says, ‘I will do,’ and he finds a way.”
Later he would learn the benefit of delegating authority, but during his youth, finding a way to get things done often meant Hudspeth stubbornly doing them himself. Hudspeth grew up in a quiet and heavily wooded subdivision a short bike ride away from Winston Academy. When his parents, Doug and Diann, went off to work at their auto parts business, Hudspeth went to work, too.
“When he was in high school, when the other kids could’ve cared less, he would go over in the summer and clean up the weight room,” Diann Hudspeth said. “He’d take my vacuum cleaner and vacuum up all the sod and chipped paint. Doug would have to furnish him paint, and he’d paint the locker room and clean it up. He just always liked the place to look nice.”
On Thursdays, father and son took the lawnmower to school and cut the practice fields. “I’ve still got that mower,” Doug Hudspeth said. “I’ve had it 40 years.”
Even at a young age, Hudspeth was defined by his successes and the lengths he took to achieve them. Maybe that’s why, almost 30 years later, people still get uncomfortable when they describe the one time they ever saw Hudspeth fail. Rigby wasn’t even going to bring it up. Neither was Cully, who shoots a look that seems to ask, “Now, why’d you have to go there?” He doesn’t want to talk about it, but he says he can still see it plainly in his memory as if it’s happening all over again. For the first time, Cully is not engaged or smiling.
It was 1986, and Winston Academy was hosting Marvell Academy of Arkansas in the Mississippi Private School Association Class A state championship game. Hudspeth was the team’s quarterback and free safety, and he had put the Patriots in position to win their second state title in five years. Less than a minute remained, and Marvell needed a touchdown to win.
Then it happened. A lobbed pass down the sideline, a mistimed jump, devastation.
“I can see Mark jumping for that ball right now in my eyes,” Cully said. “I can remember where I was on that field. It took me 10 years to get over it.”
“He went up to either intercept it or knock it down, and it went through his arms,” Rigby said.
“It still sticks with me to this day,” Hudspeth said.
The ball slipped through Hudspeth’s hands and into the receiver’s arms, allowing him to coast into the end zone for the winning touchdown. That was the night Hudspeth left the locker room through the window; that was the night Hudspeth made a vow to make up for letting people down.
After cutting his teeth as a graduate assistant for a couple of small colleges, Hudspeth accepted an offer from Rigby for $31,000 per year to head the Winston Academy program — “I thought I’d won the lottery,” Hudspeth said — and he immediately repaid the faith fivefold. Hudspeth wore out his shoe leather visiting local businesses, using his charm to raise money for a needy program. Rigby estimates Hudspeth drew $150,000 out of the small community to change the face of the program overnight, just as he envisioned on that night with Cully on the football field.
“He built this place,” Cully said in front of the sprawling athletic complex that wasn’t there 20 years ago. “Mark built this place right here. None of this was here like it is now. He built it by himself, by asking for donations, asking for people to help. He put pride back in the program.”
Ten years after his personal failure on his home field, in his first season as head coach, Hudspeth had built a winner again. The next year he made good on the promise he made to himself, delivering a state championship to Winston Academy in a 41-20 drubbing of Tri-County Academy in 1997.
“My only reprieve, and one of the main reasons that I ever went back to take over that job, was to make up for that state championship (loss),” Hudspeth said. “After I won that state championship and walked off the field, I felt a little sigh of relief that I’d finally brought that state championship to them.”
His quest completed, Hudspeth left Winston Academy and returned to the college game. He is quick to point out that the program he left was better than the one he inherited; his beloved Patriots won three straight state championships after he left. Rigby and Cully are quick to point out that Hudspeth never really left Winston Academy, for better or for worse.
“He set the bar, and it’s hard for people to follow him,” Rigby said. “We have coaches that have done well who couldn’t meet those expectations. … He set such a high mark for himself and for our school that a lot of people are still living up to it. It took 10 or 12 years for his name to pass into the sunset.”
Cully’s not sure that day has arrived.
“The worst part about when he left, they’re still trying to replace him, and they can’t,” Cully said. “He’s irreplaceable.”
PART III: Success stalker
The thing about chronic accomplishers like Hudspeth is that there must always be a goal to work toward. Hudspeth is purpose-driven, unable to fathom the notion of standing by and simply hoping success finds him.
“If I just had to get up and go punch a clock, I wouldn’t punch it very good,” Hudspeth said. “But if you give me a goal, something to work towards, I feel like I can outwork anybody in the country.”
That started when the goals were small. When he was a graduate assistant at Central Arkansas, Hudspeth’s duties were menial but backbreaking. In addition to learning how to coach, he was tasked with cutting and fertilizing the practice and game fields, painting the yard lines, editing game footage on old VHS tapes and driving a van filled with players to road games. Hudspeth’s lengthy to-do list always found a way to get done.
The goals progressively grew larger as Hudspeth gained greater responsibility, and they kept falling. Hudspeth took his first coordinator job at Delta State, his alma mater, and in his last game — the 2000 Division II championship game — his offense set title-game records in rushing yards (524), total yards (649) and first downs (36) en route to a 63-34 win.
North Alabama gave him his first chance to run a program in 2002, and Hudspeth immediately went to work establishing an identity and culture for his team. After a rough first season, Hudspeth guided North Alabama to 10 or more wins in five of his last six years, including five appearances in the Division II playoffs.
Goals sometimes shift. Feeling that he wasn’t growing as a coach, Hudspeth directed his attention away from program-building and landed a job under Dan Mullen at Mississippi State for two years of intensive coaching he called “medical school.”
Now, after four successful seasons at the helm of the Cajuns program, Hudspeth is more focused on the goals he has yet to attain than those already accomplished. That’s because the flip side to his dogged pursuit of checking another item off the list is out-pacing that nagging voice in the back of his mind screaming to not let people down. The race against failure has been one Hudspeth has been winning for some time now, but he doesn’t dare take a victory lap because he’s convinced the race is still on and that his old nemesis could still chase him out the window.
A surefire way for Hudspeth to inoculate himself against failure, to stay ahead in that race without a visible finish line, is to hold everyone around him to the same astronomical standard he holds himself to.
Reed Stringer was a sophomore left tackle at Delta State when he met Hudspeth. In walked the coach with forearms that looked like they belonged to an All-America linebacker, and he immediately implemented a rigorous physical training regimen aimed at weeding out the weak and identifying the tough. About that team, Stringer said, “You might be willing to walk out on that field to play us, but you definitely wouldn’t walk out of the stadium into the parking lot with us.”
That standard wasn’t just reserved for physical toughness, and it wasn’t just reserved for the players. Stringer won’t ever forget the day Hudspeth asked a graduate assistant to staple a couple sheets of paper together and the reaction Hudspeth had when he saw the finished product.
“All four of the corners weren’t perfectly behind one another,” Stringer said. “Hud got all upset at the guy and said, ‘Go re-staple it; I don’t want it stapled like this.’ ”
It sounds petty, but for Hudspeth, the size of the gap between achievement and failure depends on the amount of attention paid to the smallest of details. One slip, and that gap starts to narrow. Allow those slips to start piling up, and the goals start getting lapped by the failure to achieve them.
The Cajuns football program is littered with Hudspeth’s fingerprints, from the uniforms the players wear to practice to the meals they eat after a game. Each detail is meticulously planned and executed as he envisions it, but he knows his energy is a finite resource. Everyone around Hudspeth is held to the same standard he holds himself to, because he knows he can’t accomplish his goals alone.
“He keeps his thumb on everything because he wants to know this is his program and he wants to know what’s happening,” Stringer said. “But he’s not a micro-manager. He doesn’t look over your shoulder at everything you do. He expects you to do your job and do it well.
“He demands that from you. I love that in him.”
This is how Hudspeth’s grand vision comes to reality. The small victories, stacked on top of one another, are the bricks that eventually result in something great. Trust is the mortar that keeps all those bricks together.
PART IV: The future
On Saturday, for the 53rd time as the Cajuns’ head coach, Mark Hudspeth will work himself and his players into a frenzy in the locker room before a game. Hudspeth will bring the juice. His face will be red, his veins in his neck will strain, his blue eyes will lock on to a player and make him not only willing to run through a brick wall but believe that it’s physically possible.
When he reaches his fiery crescendo, in his customary visor and too-tight shirt, he’ll lead them from the front onto the field where they’ll try to execute the vision that’s made them a winner 36 times in his tenure. And at that moment, there will be nowhere Hudspeth would rather be than on the sideline with his team competing against Kentucky.
But there are other sidelines, other teams, other places that could use a man who has a history of turning programs around.
It’s not as if Hudspeth’s successes have gone unnoticed. There have been offers, Hudspeth said, but he hasn’t found a convincing reason to leave. And perhaps more importantly, there have been several convincing reasons to stay right where he is.
For their part, the Cajuns have made themselves easy to be loyal to. They’ve essentially eliminated a parallel move from the equation by compensating Hudspeth as well as they have. At $1,064,500 per year, he is the highest-paid coach among those in the Sun Belt, Conference USA, Mountain West and Mid-American, and his deal was recently extended through the 2020 season.
Hudspeth is utterly convincing when he says it’s not about money, but athletic director Scott Farmer wanted to ensure that it never would be about the money while Hudspeth was coaching the team. He’s worth every penny of that salary, Farmer said, not only for the program, but for the community at large thanks to the exposure brought on by a successful football program.
The community has done its part keeping Hudspeth around, too.
“I have learned through my young age and as I mature now, that quality of life is worth something in itself,” Hudspeth said. “I’ve had other opportunities, but here, there’s a great quality of life and we have a great university, a great place to live. I enjoy coaching here, I love our players and our coaches, I’ve created so many friendships, it’s like where do you go? Why?”
But still, as Hudspeth’s successes continue, the countdown clock ticks away steadily toward its unknown end date. Maybe it comes this year, maybe it comes later, but it seems like a formality. At some point, some team could swoop in and make Hudspeth an offer he can’t turn down.
When the coaching carousel begins its slow spin at the end of every season, Farmer just wants to turn his phone off and pretend like nothing is happening. He knows that one day the Cajuns won’t be able to compete for Hudspeth’s services. And for Farmer, that’s OK.
“I always framed it this way: Take the good (Southeastern Conference) job,” Farmer said. “There are bad SEC jobs, and he’s too young to take a bad SEC job. If he was on the twilight of his career and a bad SEC job came open, and they wanted to pay him $3 million or $4 million a year to go coach for three or four years, then, ‘Go do it, Mark, go ahead.’
“But he’s too young for that. Wait and get the really good one, and I think he’ll get a chance to do that.”
There’s only one place the people in his hometown are rooting for.
“We don’t want him in Lafayette, of course,” Rigby said. “We want him 30 miles north of here.”
Stay on Mississippi Highway 25, past the Lake Tiak-O’Khata sign, for roughly 30 miles. Ride it through the Tombigbee National Forest, and you’ll arrive in Starkville, home of Mississippi State University.
“The big question from everybody who knows that I know Mark is, ‘When is he going to Mississippi State?’ ” Cully said. “They’re about to have a fit for him.”
For now, Mississippi State and any other potential suitor will have to wait. There’s still so much Hudspeth has envisioned that hasn’t come to pass. Where one sees a program that’s good for its level, Hudspeth sees one that’s capable of so much more. He sees the sleeping giant where others only see the words “mid-major program.”
“Coach Hud has a dream of what he wants this place to become,” Stringer said. “I know, he knows, we all know we’re close to where we want to be and what we can make the University of Louisiana be. … We feel there’s unfinished business here.”
There is one more defining moment from Hudspeth’s childhood in Louisville, a time he often thinks back on when others insist there’s something he can’t do.
Hudspeth was a 400-meter runner for his Winston Academy track team. On this particular day, Winston Academy already had locked up a team win when the 400-meter race came up, so Hudspeth planned on sitting the race out.
No chance. His coach, Bud Turner, saw him sitting around instead of warming up for the race. Turner approached Hudspeth and called him chicken. You’re scared you’re going to lose the race, Turner said. What’ll it be, Mark: race ahead or accept failure?
“By God, I went out there and smoked them all,” Hudspeth said.
Every day is a new day to beat failure to the finish line.
Follow Luke Johnson on Twitter: @LukeJohnsonAdv.