Mark Hudspeth was a victim of his own early success.
UL-Lafayette fired its seventh-year head football coach Sunday morning after a third straight losing season, with athletic director Dr. Bryan Maggard citing a lack of progress and apathy among fans and supporters.
None of that was the case in 2011 when Hudspeth established himself as a master motivator in his first season, willing a Ragin’ Cajuns team that had gone 3-9 one year earlier to its first-ever appearance in a Division I bowl game.
The Cajuns went 9-4 that year and won the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl with a thrilling final-play 32-30 victory over San Diego State. The next three years, UL-Lafayette matched that record and bowl success, becoming the first team in NCAA history to win the same bowl game in four consecutive years.
“As he and I talked today, he jokingly said maybe he should have gone 5-7 or something like that his first year,” Maggard said Sunday. “He came out of the chutes and set the bar really high.”
Unfortunately, that success wasn’t sustained. The Cajuns slumped to 4-8 in 2015, went 6-6 in the regular season the next year and lost to Southern Mississippi in the New Orleans Bowl, and finished 5-7 this year, including a disastrous 63-14 loss at Appalachian State in the season finale.
“It wasn’t our night,” Hudspeth said shortly after that Saturday debacle. “We didn’t play as well as we would have liked, especially for the seniors. They’ve meant a lot to us, and I wish we could have done better for them.”
The Cajuns could have advanced to a bowl game for the sixth time in Hudspeth’s seven seasons with a win in either of their final two games. A surprising 34-24 loss to previously 1-9 Georgia Southern in the final home game came seven days before Saturday’s finale loss.
Maggard said the recent struggles were a disappointment, especially after the success of Hudspeth’s first four years.
“He established a level of relevance that certainly heightened the expectations of Ragin’ Cajun football fans,” Maggard said, “and he’s leaving the program in better shape than when he arrived.”
The Cajuns were more relevant than at any time in program history between 2011-14; their 36-16 record was the best four-year run in history. UL-Lafayette drew an average of 29,171 fans in Hudspeth’s first year in 2011 and drew a record 154,652 fans in 2014. The Cajuns averaged 25,947 fans for home games during that four-year stretch.
That attendance success extended to the New Orleans Bowl, which had its four highest-attended games during that run topping out with a crowd of 54,723 in 2013 when the Cajuns beat Tulane.
But attendance steadily declined over the last three seasons, dropping to an average of an announced 15,751 per game in 2017 — the lowest since 2006. At most of the five home games this season, actual in-stadium attendance was significantly lower than announced figures.
“This decision was based on the lack of progress made throughout the season,” Maggard said, “along with a sense of apathy that has surrounded our program. That had a major impact. When you look at the state of our program in my short eight or nine months here, we saw a decline in ticket sales and attendance from the previous year, and the same in that year previous to the others.
“That creates residual decreases in revenue areas such as concessions, giving, parking. When those things happen, there’s somewhat of a business decision involved in it. When that does happen, your brand starts to get negatively impacted.”
The program was also impacted negatively by two off-field instances in the past 13 months. An Election Day video shot in the Cajuns locker room last November contained several profane references to President Trump and quickly went viral, and Hudspeth’s initial reaction to fan negativity left a bad taste in the mouths of many ticket holders and significant financial donors.
Last spring, 13 members of the football team were arrested after a dormitory room break-in of a former team member jailed at the time on rape charges. Those charges were later dropped, and Hudspeth said the accused players were disciplined in-house, including suspension of at least one game.
“I’ll be really candid with you, the Trump video incident had no bearing on my decision,” Maggard said. “That was before my time. Some may argue that had some residual effect with the apathy or lack of interest in our team moving forward, but I can’t speak on that because it had no bearing at all.
“The 13 arrests, was that unfortunate, absolutely. It was something we don’t want to have happen in our program, but at the end of the day that really didn’t have any bearing on this decision. I really felt like the judicial system and the internal disciplinary actions we took addressed that.”
UL-Lafayette’s five wins this season came over FCS member Southeastern Louisiana by a 51-48 margin to start the season, plus Sun Belt Conference victories over four teams that failed to finish with winning records. The Cajuns’ seven losses came to teams that compiled a 36-47 record. Only three of 12 Cajun opponents in 2017 — Texas A&M, Arkansas State and New Mexico State — are playing in bowl games.
Hudspeth was unavailable for comment Sunday. He was asked following Saturday’s game about his future.
“I don’t control any of that,” he said. “That’s for someone else to decide. It’s been a fun seven years, but as far as all of that you’re asking the wrong person.”
Maggard was asked Sunday whether a Cajuns win in one of the final two games and a subsequent bowl trip would have changed his decision.
“I don’t know if I can answer that,” he said. “It would all depend on how we would have done. All I can do is move forward based on the decision we made today. I was evaluating all along, and I did want them to finish the season and just focus and see how we could do, and we kind of just tapered off in the last part of the season. The inconsistent play throughout just solidified the decision.”