LAFAYETTE — At 5:30 a.m. on National Signing Day, Louisiana-Lafayette football coach Mark Hudspeth was in his office wearing sweats, leaning back in his chair at his desk and scrolling through Twitter on his phone, looking for any sort of indication of how his day was about to go.
Hudspeth didn’t sleep a wink. He was up talking to recruits and their families until nearly 2 a.m., making last-minute pitches and assurances.
If he was tired, he didn’t show it. He excitingly spoke about what the day had in store for his team, about the quality of players he was about to rope in thanks to that same tireless energy that had him rocking early Wednesday morning.
But before he could focus on the future, he had the present to deal with. He went to the weight room, where his players were gathered — including the five early enrollees of the 2015 signing class. Leading from the front, Hudspeth ran them through the rain and the predawn darkness to the indoor practice facility, where they went through a rigorous military-style conditioning session in groups of eight.
As has been the Cajuns’ mantra during Hudspeth’s tenure, hard work gets rewarded — or perhaps more accurately, winning gets rewarded. Those teams of players who finished in the bottom half of conditioning drills and a tug-of-war contest ran sprints after the workout was over.
By 7 a.m., all the coaches were back in the football offices. They hardly talked to each other. Most were glued to the phones, refreshing Twitter or sending texts. Practically the only sound was of fingers hitting iPhone touch screens. Hudspeth did the same after ditching his sweats in favor of a pinstripe suit and red tie.
The early hour was the busiest. Recruiting coordinator Reed Stringer was posted up near the fax machine in the anteroom of Hudspeth’s office and pulled four or five letters of intent off the fax in the opening minutes of signing day, sending them over to the school’s NCAA compliance administrators to get approved.
When a recruit signed the dotted line, the recruiting coach would call the player and congratulate him before handing the phone off to Hudspeth. Between sips of coffee and bites of a breakfast sandwich, Hudspeth let his newest players know how excited he was to have them.
“We got your fax in, and I dropped down and did 20 pushups, I was so excited!” Hudspeth told one signee.
“Big Kevin!” Hudspeth said to massive Plaquemine left tackle Kevin Dotson after his paperwork arrived. “Man, you’ve got me fixin’ to do a back flip!”
If the pressure of securing the future was getting to the Cajuns’ coaching staff, it didn’t show. They were getting downright cocky about their class and made sure to keep it light.
At one point, offensive line coach Mitch Rodrigue started yelling obscenities from his office. Still unsure of the status of a couple big recruits, Hudspeth sprinted over to Rodrigue’s office to see what was wrong.
False alarm. Gotcha, Coach.
The Cajuns were rolling. All of their chips were stacking up right where they thought they’d be. After big Texas offensive line prospect Robert Hunt signed, Rodrigue strolled through the main office and bellowed, “Tick, tick, freakin’ boom, baby!”
But there was one major chip still in play, and as the morning stretched toward noon, the excitement and confidence of the first hours started to feel more like nervousness.
The Cajuns were in play for big-time junior-college cornerback Treston DeCoud, a Hammond native who had several connections to the team. He’s close with senior receiver Al Riles and is junior linebacker Otha Peters’ cousin. The Cajuns thought of him as a future pro prospect.
DeCoud told the Cajuns on several occasions he was committing to them, including once on a face-to-face visit. He told Stringer in the opening hours of signing day that his paperwork would be in shortly. It never came.
Riles and Peters served as the Cajuns’ primary recruiters on the morning of signing day, and Hudspeth would check in occasionally to see if they heard any more news. As the hours stretched on, the waters were muddied more and more.
While they were waiting on DeCoud, the staff members got their minds off recruiting for a bit. Offensive coordinator Jay Johnson diagrammed plays on a white board in his office with receivers coach Jorge Munoz. Stringer took a peek at his schedule and took note of the fact he’d be able to watch his kids play soccer on a rare day off. He told Hudspeth his kids were excited for the upcoming birthday party at Sky Zone, an indoor trampoline park, for Hudspeth’s young son Major. The time that flew by in the morning started to drag.
Hudspeth, knowing he’d done everything he could, changed into workout gear and hit the gym to kill time and his somehow still-present energy.
At noon, DeCoud announced his intention to sign with Oregon State. One junior member of the staff took the paper placard featuring a picture of DeCoud in a Cajuns uniform and folded it into a paper airplane before sending it on a see-sawing journey to a trash can in the corner of the room.
It wasn’t the only defeat the Cajuns took on that day, but it seemed to be the most deflating. Losing DeCoud so late put a temporary damper on what had been a wildly successful day to that point.
Stringer was upset, but he took it in stride.
“It’s not the ones you don’t get that get you beat,” Stringer said. “It’s the ones you do get that can’t play.”
His day was virtually done, and it was obvious the excitement was starting to wane and give in to exhaustion. He leaned back in his office chair, plopped his feet up on his desk and allowed himself to sag. He pointed to the map of Louisiana and Mississippi in his office, the one with a picture of a bull taped to it.
“You know what that bull means, don’t you?” Stringer asked.
Stringer has been tirelessly beating the recruiting trails lately, usually updating his Twitter profile after he visits a recruit with the same cryptic picture of the bull and the accompanying hashtag #BullRecruiting.
He said he didn’t personally grow up on a farm, but his family did, and it taught him a lesson. Every farm has cows, he said, and the cows all serve a purpose. But the ones that truly make the farm run, the ones that keep it successful?
Those are the bulls, not the ordinary cows.
“Everybody comes to see the bulls,” Stringer said. “We recruit bulls.”