LAFAYETTE —Practice time is over, and dad time begins. They must be kept separate for this to work.
Last fall was Gunner Hudspeth’s first as a college student and as a college football player. He went through the same drills as his teammates with the same scrutiny. The difference was he may not have gotten as much praise for a job well done.
The other difference is what can be done after practice: Gunner, a freshman quarterback, and his father, Mark, Louisiana-Lafayette’s head football coach, hung around one fall evening in the indoor facility to play a casual game of catch. Time that wasn’t there before was now afforded to them, and they took advantage.
So did a few others on campus.
Not far away, senior Matt Marlin was gearing up for his lone season playing under his dad, Cajuns men’s basketball coach Bob Marlin. After completing most of his undergraduate studies at the University of Texas, he called his father last summer with a question.
“I was a little bit surprised when he called me and said, ‘Do you think I’d still be eligible to walk on? I’d like to come play every day and spend time with you,’ ” Bob Marlin said. “I thought that was exciting.”
Freshman Chelsea Lotief knocked around softballs in the indoor batting cages under father Mike’s watchful eye as some of those football practices went on. She had grown up around the softball team.
“Now it’s not much different, except she’s wearing the cleats and catching the balls,” Mike Lotief said.
Baseball coach Tony Robichaux had been through all of that. Two of his kids, Justin and Austin, enjoyed a lot of success playing under their father in college. Austin, a pitcher in the Los Angeles Angels organization, is still playing.
How did it happen that the four leaders of some of Louisiana-Lafayette’s most high-profile sports coach or have coached their kids at the college level? Is it something about the university, or perhaps it’s something about this portion of southwest Louisiana that makes it not only possible, but encouraged?
Maybe it’s both.
“Some places, they would look at that as nepotism or favoritism, or the university or fan base would maybe look at it unfavorably, but here it’s exactly the opposite,” Mike Lotief said. “We’re so much about family and we’re so much about the relationships and taking care of each other. That’s something that is welcomed.
“I never thought twice about my daughter coming to school here, that it would add any additional scrutiny to my job or that it would bring into question my integrity. I felt very comfortable with my daughter. I felt very comfortable that this is where she belonged.”
Mark and Gunner Hudspeth always envisioned teaming up when Gunner came of age. Whether it was in his genes or because of his environment, Gunner always gravitated toward football. Like his dad, he was a high school quarterback — and a good one, too. He had scholarship offers to some smaller schools, but this plan had been set for a while.
“Since I can remember, I’ve been wanting to come play for my dad,” Gunner Hudspeth said. “Wherever he was coaching at the time, that’s where I was planning to go to catch up and spend some time with him. It ended up being at UL, and it ended up working out really good for both of us.”
It has worked out, but that’s not to say it goes without its challenges. In those early days of summer workouts and preseason practices, Gunner felt compelled to prove he belonged.
“It was hard at first, because that was the perception when I first came in,” he said. “But I think now, especially after being in the program for more than a year, I’ve kind of grown out of that shadow for a bit. I get kidded around sometimes with the ‘coach’s son’ jokes, but for the most part I’ve grown out of it and made my own name.”
His father felt compelled to prove it in his own way, even though it’s hard to do.
He had to distance himself from being Dad when the whistle was around his neck. When Gunner’s teammates make a good play in practice, Hudspeth is there to offer vocal words of encouragement. When Gunner makes the right read of the defense or threads a spiral through a tight window, the coach finds himself restraining his inner father.
“You battle with that a little bit,” Mark Hudspeth said. “It’s not fair if he does a good job and you don’t say ‘good job’ to him, too, but that’s just part of being able to coach your son, and it’s what you have to live with. I don’t want to discourage him, either, but you don’t want people to think that you’re over-rewarding him. It’s hard to juggle that, so basically what I do is treat him like any other player. On the field, he’s one of our players. Off the field, I’m Dad.”
Yes, the community and university make coaches feel comfortable bringing their kids into the fold. But a line must exist between coach and Dad, player and son or daughter, for this relationship to work.
Both of Robichaux’s sons were solid players. Justin appeared in 44 games as a pitcher, compiling a record of 8-4 with a 2.41 ERA. Austin was the Cajuns’ Friday night starter for most of his career and went 17-5 in his last two seasons.
Even though they were good players, the line of demarcation still needed to be drawn for everyone involved to know there was no preferential treatment when his kids were on the field.
“It’s something that on the surface looks great, but there’s a lot of things that can happen once you get into it,” Tony Robichaux said. “Both parties have to be very clear. The lines cannot be skewed or foggy; they have to be very clear. You have to spend a lot of time, especially as the father, and make sure you know the lines between coach and Dad is clearly separated for this to work. If those things are handled, then I think it can be a very good situation. Not many times does a father get that opportunity.”
Bob Marlin struggled with this at times this past season. Matt usually did not appear in games until the outcome was largely decided. He finished his one season in a Cajuns uniform having played a total of 35 minutes over nine games.
“It’s challenging to coach your son,” Bob Marlin said. “It’s like raising a child: Until you’ve done it, you don’t really know. Other people can have opinions, but it’s a different situation that you put yourself in. It was a challenge sometimes — certainly from a playing standpoint. I think anyone that knows me, and I got criticized for this, being too hard on him, because I didn’t want to show that favoritism.”
There are politics in sports, and coaching your child can be like walking into a political minefield. Play your kid too much, and you’re showing undue favoritism because of their name. Don’t play your kid enough, and you’re being unfair to him or her because of a name.
It’s a challenge, sure.
But it’s so worth it.
“To be there on a daily basis as he’s still growing and turning into a young man was very satisfying,” Bob Marlin said.
Getting time back
Mike Lotief was a lawyer before he became a softball coach. The reason he left his practice is a problem familiar to those in the coaching profession.
“Believe it or not, the reason why I left practicing law was to be able to spend more time with my kids and my family,” Lotief said. “This job has afforded me that opportunity more so than when I was practicing law.”
The Lotief family life revolves around softball. Stefni Lotief was an acclaimed pitcher for the Cajuns in her athletic prime and now shares office space with her husband. Their kids, Chelsea and Andrew, share their passion for the sport. Dinnerconversations usually wind up finding their way back to softball.
But the Lotiefs’ case is a special one. The demands on a college coach’s time are enormous, and the sport often serves as the dividing line between coaches and their families. Lotief understands how lucky he is in that regard.
“It’s always tough on coaches, I think, when they have to spend so much time on their sport, and then their spouse or their kids or people around them are not interested in what they’re doing,” Mike Lotief said. “Then you have to try to find some balance between getting your job done and spending time with your family. But when those two things intersect — I’m doing my job and I’m spending time with my family, and I don’t feel guilty because they love what I love — it’s a blessing. It’s been a blessing for our family.”
The intersection of sports and family has been a blessing for his coaching brethren as well.
It still hurts Tony Robichaux that he was not able to see his sons pitch in their state championship games. It still hurts him that he missed important dates in his daughter Ashley’s life, too. But through baseball and being able to coach his sons, he was able to get seven years’ worth of experiences — four with Justin, three with Austin — that he otherwise would have been deprived of.
Bob Marlin left to coach the Cajuns when Matt was a senior in high school. He only got one year to share with his son, but he’s grateful for that opportunity.
“It’s time you don’t get back,” Bob Marlin said. “Even if it’s just for one year.”
The Hudspeths are relishing the time they get to spend with each other. Their bond is strengthened through their shared passion, and Gunner envisions being a coach like his father one day.
Football was often how they connected. Mark Hudspeth would somehow find time in his busy fall schedule to make it to Mississippi and watch his son compete in high school games.
Afterward, they’d get in the car and talk shop: what happened this week, what the game plan is for next week.
“It’s kept us close, even though I grew up so far away,” Gunner Hudspeth said. “I think it turned out as a great bridge for me and him to share.”
Now they get to share it on a daily basis.
This fall, Gunner Hudspeth will take snaps in practice as his father tries his best not to let his pride show. On the sideline, young MajorHudspeth will mimic his older brother with a miniature football, and Captain, the youngest of the Hudspeth brood, will be there, too. Hopefully, Mark Hudspeth said, his daughter, Carley, will one day be a Ragin’ Cajun too.
This is the intersection of fatherhood and livelihood.
It’s not without its difficulties, but the reward is far greater for the four Cajuns coaches who are winning the battle with time.
“I’ve been coaching since 1992. What is that — 24 years? I’ve been coaching 24 years spending every ounce of my energy on everybody else’s children,” Mark Hudspeth said. “I just feel like this opportunity to spend a little time with my child has been real rewarding. I’m glad I have the opportunity to do it.
“And I’ll be honest with you: I envision the same scenario for Major. He’s just like Gunner; he loves the game and loves being around the players. I can honestly say I think he’ll play for me one day, too.
“Who knows? Maybe Captain also. We’ll take ’em one at a time.”