LAFAYETTE — It’s two days short of a year ago that Mark Hudspeth was just one of several names mentioned prominently as the possible new head football coach at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
Then on Dec. 13, 2010, Hudspeth embarked on what he now calls one of the most special seasons of his college coaching career.
At Division II North Alabama, Hudson led that program to eight playoff appearances — two of those were in the semifinals.
So what makes this year at ULL so personally significant? Is it the 8-4 record or long-coveted R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl appearance Saturday against San Diego State?
It’s all of that, but there’s also something more, Hudspeth said Saturday following a morning practice.
“The thing for me is that coming into the season, no one gave us a chance,” Hudspeth said. “We were picked number 120 out of as many Division I (FBS) teams.
“To see us be able to come together and improve week after week, has been really a great experience. As far as special seasons, it’s one of the most ever for me, up at the top.”
ULL had 17 senior players this season, something Hudspeth said is responsible for the team’s success.
“I think they are part of the reason why we are where we are,” Hudspeth said. “Those guys could have easily not bought into some of the ideas that we were trying to implement here. We started early (last December) and in January with them preparing them, and I thought that would take awhile.
“I think even from the start those players absolutely trusted me, and they appreciated what the coaches were doing and they had an understanding from the very start, that if we all pulled together, we could have a good season.”
Senior linebacker Devon Lewis-Buchanan said Hudspeth’s approach was certainly different than the previous ULL staff.
“It was new,” Lewis-Buchanan said. “This team was so accustomed to knowing what to expect, getting ready for the next season. What they brought was something that took a lot of adjusting to. The new coaches came in with the attitude, and the players got aboard the ship and went with it.”
Senior tight end Ladarius Green said the players started believing early. ULL won a weather-delayed game at Kent State (20-12) Sept. 10, and confidence began to develop, he said.
“We knew then we could go far,” Green said. “Our defense played well, and we thought the offense was going to come around.”
Green said Hudspeth’s physical energy has never waned, even through the Cajuns’ six-game winning streak during September and October.
“He’s kept us focused on one game in addition to all the hard training we go through and went through to get to that point,” Green said. “If you have a good game, (with Hudspeth), it’s you never have a perfect game. It seems like we practice harder after a win.”
Hudspeth also introduced loud music at practice, ranging from the Cajuns’ fight song to rap and more recently, country music, Green said.
Since his hiring, Hudspeth said, “it’s been a grind,” at creating interest in a program that barely filled half of the Cajun Field seats the year before.
Four days a week between January and August, Hudspeth said his days usually included appearance before civic groups and other organizations promoting his program.
“I went just about everywhere that I could to preach the gospel about UL,” Hudspeth said. “It has been a challenge. You can tell that by looking at my eyes and my hair that this has been just an absolute grind since December.
“When we’re not practicing, it’s been recruiting, rallying support and fundraising like crazy to improve our facilities. It’s been very tough since last December months, but it’s also been rewarding seeing the record numbers coming to games, seeing the fans happy, the students happy and the smiles on the faces of our players.”
Hudspeth said there were early signs that even ULL fans had accepted what he was promoting.
“They were there on opening night (28,741),” Hudspeth said. “That tells me they didn’t wait for us to be successful. I feel that in some ways they were waiting for someone to make (the fans) feel included and make them asked to be part of something.”
Hudspeth said a special ceremony will be held either Thursday or Friday for his players who are scheduled to attend fall graduation ceremonies Saturday at the Cajundome.
Hudspeth said plans are being made to have the Cajuns walk across a stage in caps and gowns at ULL’s Marriott Hotel headquarters in New Orleans.
ULL president Joseph Savoie plans to be on hand to give each of the graduating players their diploma, said Hudspeth.
Activities in New Orleans that precede Saturday’s 8 p.m. kickoff have been planned for ULL’s fans.
Included among those are an appearance by the school’s band, which will march down Bourbon Street and several second line-style parades that will begin at the team’s hotel and move down Canal Street and into the French Quarter.