I believe it was some time last year, probably in early November before the Conference USA volleyball tournament, that Travis Hudson met with reporters inside E.A. Diddle Arena.
The off-camera conversation turned to Western Kentucky’s football team and its first-year coach Mike Sanford. A three-game losing streak had brought forth a wave of criticism for the new coach.
“Man,” Hudson said. “I’m glad no one paid much attention to my first season.”
In 1995, a bright and bushy-tailed young man from Edmonson County took the floor as WKU’s fourth ever head volleyball coach. About to turn 25 that December, Hudson's team went 7-26. His squad won just one Sun Belt Conference match. It had two losing streaks of nine and six matches.
Perhaps if 1995 would have been 2015, and Hudson would have endured that year in this volatile age of social media and impatience and irrational narratives, he may not have been afforded a Year Two in Bowling Green.
What a shame that would have been.
“When you realize where this program’s come from – my mind’s racing through all those people,” Hudson said Friday. “All those kids that have come through here over my time. I’m certainly appreciative of ‘em.”
Hudson celebrated 600 career wins Friday, and while that’s nice and all, he’d be the first to tell you there have been so many more victories off the court over the past quarter of a century that 600 wins should be a footnote.
Hudson’s former players are doctors and lawyers and businesswomen and teachers and now coaches themselves. I remember speaking to many of them a few years ago when Hudson crossed the 500-win mark and each echoed the same sentiments: Hudson was a father figure to them, a man who demanded so much more off the court than what he demanded on it. A coach concerned with your family and your grades and your professional career and your well being all while making you a champion athlete.
A few weeks ago one of Hudson’s all-time greats, Alyssa Cavanaugh, announced she had been diagnosed with leukemia. One of the first persons there in Louisville to check on her? Hudson.
“Travis is a father figure to me,” Cavanaugh said. “Even though I’m not on the team anymore he texts me all the time, he comes and sees me all the time, he makes sure that I’m taken care of. I’m so happy that he was my coach and I got to be a part of this program.”
Hudson, of course, nearly didn’t make it to 600. And it had nothing to do with a tough schedule or a weak team.
The type of attack on Hudson’s heart in April was one in which only 12 percent of humans who experience it survive from. AND THE DUDE DROVE HIMSELF TO THE HOSPITAL WHILE IT WAS HAPPENING.
And speaking of heart attacks, in 2010 Hudson and the Hilltoppers were headed south to Mobile, Ala., when the team’s bus driver suffered a fatal one. Hudson, in the greatest win of his career at that point, grabbed the wheel, steadied and stopped the bus, saving his life and so many more.
Want to guess what Hudson did after each harrowing episode? He coached volleyball.
“It’s very difficult to get him to slow down,” wife Cindy Hudson said in April.
Travis Hudson has taken his alma mater’s volleyball team to the NCAA Tournament 11 times, each trip further exposing people to a school with a red towel logo and a funny mascot that sits atop a hill in Bowling Green, Ky. He’s won 601 matches and counting, seven coach of the year awards and 27 championships.
Western has won at least 24 matches every year since an 18-14 season in 1999. It’s won an astounding 57 straight at home against conference opponents. The Hilltoppers have dropped just six – count ‘em – six matches in Diddle Arena since 2011.
And all that winning has caught the eyes of athletic directors elsewhere looking to ramp up their own volleyball programs. Hudson could have taken up with them, cashed a fatter paycheck, competed with some of the best in a so-called “power” conference.
But that’s not who Hudson is. It’s never who he is going to be.
“I’m incredibly proud to wear that WKU across my chest,” Hudson said after last year’s NCAA Tournament exit. You can find him saying those emotional words in a now-viral video out there on the inter webs. “I don’t need validation. My kids are what give me the validation.”
Anyone who considers themselves to have the very smallest inclination to cheer for the athletic teams of Western Kentucky should probably take a moment today or tomorrow or whenever to sit back and think about how fortunate they are to call Hudson their own. His pride for his school and his program and his players knows no bounds – your pride for him should match that.
So congrats coach Hudson. Here’s to 600 more.
PREDICTION SURE TO BE WRONG
Injuries are a big part of the game of football.
Sympathy for those injuries is not.
Marshall, who comes to town as 8 1/2-point favorites over Western Kentucky this week, won’t be merciful as it relates to the Hilltoppers’ injury woes. Nor should they be. Nor would WKU feel the same about the Thundering Herd.
But for our purposes you must consider all the young men out for Saturday’s showdown between these two new rivals: Quarterback Drew Eckels, running back D’Andre Ferby, left tackle Cole Spencer and some key defensive reserves just to name a few.
Those are tough losses for an already relative-thin roster.
Marshall, meanwhile, is coming off a 37-20 loss at home to North Carolina State, but don’t let that distract you from the Herd still being one of the favorites to challenge for an East Division crown in Conference USA this year. And despite putting the offense in the hands of a redshirt-freshman quarterback (Isaiah Green), running backs Tyler King and Keion Davis are good enough to carry MU to a second straight win in this series.
The key for the Tops on Saturday – one I believe needs to hold true from here on out – is to play a similarly-fashioned game as the one they turned in at Ball State. It wasn’t flashy, it was by no means flawless, but it was a full four quarters of effort and steadfastness that baited the opponent into making more mistakes by the end of the night.
Can they do that two weeks in a row? Probably, but Marshall is a better team than Ball State. So give me the Herd 21-14.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
Western Kentucky quarterback Steven Duncan on coming off the bench to lead his team to a 28-20 win at Ball State on Saturday: “Playing football and getting a win, there’s nothing better than playing a kid’s game and doing what you love. That’s the best feeling ever."
MUSICAL PICK OF THE WEEK
Happy 15th anniversary to Outkast's double album Speakerboxx/The Love Below:
— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop