PARTSCH: Another embarrassment for Cajuns
Managing Editor Raymond Partsch III
Mark Hudspeth is getting quite good at apologizing for his team’s behavior away from the football field, even more so than he is at coaching the group of young men on the artificial turf of Cajun Field.
The longtime Louisiana-Lafayette head coach, who just wrapped up his seventh spring at the helm of the program, found himself addressing yet another controversy involving his Ragin’ Cajuns.
A little past nine o’clock on Tuesday night of last week, news broke that a total of 13 football players had been arrested on charges of criminal conspiracy to commit felony theft. University of Louisiana-Lafayette police stated that 13 students went to a dorm room on April 5 (three days before the team’s Red-White Spring Game) and allegedly took several items worth roughly $2,400. Police said the students were identified through video surveillance. The items were recovered and all 13 had been released from custody.
Not long after, Hudspeth released a statement through the university that stated the following, “On behalf of our football program, I would like to apologize to Cajun Nation and the University. We do not condone the behavior that was represented and we expect higher standards of our student-athletes.”
Hudspeth continued, “We work diligently every day to guide, educate and develop these young men, so it is disappointing when we do not meet those standards. We will be respectful of the legal process as it runs its course.”
The 13 players who are serving an indefinite suspension for violation of team rules are: Matthew Barnes, Joe Dillon, Robert Hunt, Denarius Howard, Jarvis Jeffries, LaDarrius Kidd, Terik Miller, Damar’ren Mitchell, Trey Ragas, Simeon Thomas, Levarious Varnado, D’Aquin Withrow and Jordan Wright.
At least seven of those players are projected to be starters in the fall, including freshman All-American Dillion, while Wright and Ragas were expected to compete for playing time at running back, and Thomas meanwhile just added to his lost time in Lafayette.
The senior cornerback, who missed nearly two years due to academic issues, finally got to play last year but will enter this fall having been suspended again for the first two games of the season, due to what else? Academic issues.
This couldn’t have occurred at a worst time for Hudspeth and the program, especially considering the athletic department is in the midst of asking members of the community on what the university can do to improve the gameday experience.
What about have your players stay out of the police station and your program out of the NCAA’s doghouse?
The past few years has seen the enthusiasm and support for the program that was quickly built up with four very successful and unprecedented years begin to erode for a multitude of reasons. There was the disappointing 4-8 season of 2015 which many a bandwagon Cajuns fan (i.e. a die-hard LSU fan in disguise) jumped ship on the program.
That setback of a season, though, pales in comparison to a few incidents that have placed the Cajuns in the national spotlight for all the wrong reasons.
The first was, of course, the program being forced to vacate 22 total wins from a four-year period, including stripping the team of its New Orleans Bowl championships in 2011 and 2013, as well as its shared Sun Belt Conference championship from 2013.
The crystal trophies of the Superdome that were once proudly displayed were put away into storage closets, the banners that once hung in the indoor practice facility proclaiming those bowl wins have been altered.
The unprecedented level of success (four straight bowl wins) had been tarnished due to former assistant coach David Saunders having been accused to have orchestrating a scheme in which prospective student athletes take ACT exams in Mississippi, where the tests would then be altered into passing grades. Five of the six athletes identified in the investigation ultimately signed with the Cajuns.
Even though Hudpseth and the university were found not guilty of any crime or violation, and the program was not found of lacking institutional control, the damage had been done. The program’s effort to join a bigger and better conference (Conference USA to be exact) had been damaged.
Hudspeth guided the team through that storm and looked to put it behind them with a return trip to a bowl game in 2016.
But then a cell phone video was leaked and all hell broke loose.
The video, which was released two days after Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton for the U.S. presidency, showed four players inside the locker room rapping along to a song by YG and Nipsey Hussle titled “F**k Donald Trump.”
Local residents, as well as many prominent supporters which include members of the very powerful fund raiser arm of the university’s athletic department, the Ragin’ Cajun Athletic Foundation (RCAF), denounced the video and were equally outraged by the content but also by Hudspeth’s initial reaction to the video.
The Cajuns coach said, “It’s also disappointing that so many people have vilified a few 19-year-olds making some immature decisions, and then they were the same ones that voted for someone that has done much worse by grabbing a female in the private areas …”
Hudspeth later issued another statement expressing regret for his comment stating, “my response to a reporter’s question after … that may have offended some voters.”
Fans expressed themselves with vigorous anger and displeasure stating that they would no longer support the team and that the team’s actions were shameful and that they were appalled by the entire situation.
Even though the four players were suspended, and the team rallied to earn a bowl berth, the damage from the video seemed to linger as ticket sales for the bowl game and attendance for the spring game were less than expected, as talk of Hudspeth’s future as head coach continued to be an unavoidable talking point with supporters.
Is it Hudspeth’s fault that his some of his players don’t dedicate themselves enough to the classroom to stay on the field? No, because no matter how much he preaches at practice to his players to make the grades, it is ultimately up to those individual players to study.
Is it Hudspeth’s fault that an assistant coach was attempting to cheat the system to get players to sign with the Ragin’ Cajuns? No. Hudspeth doesn’t spend 24 hours per day with his assistants and there is no way to no what they are doing behind closed doors.
Is it Hudspeth’s fault that his players rapped along to a song disrespecting the future president? No. Rap music to him is probably just white noise anyway, and I doubt he or the majority of any other major college coach who is white has actually spent time listening to rap lyrics.
And finally, is it Hudspeth’s fault that 13 of his players decided to go out and rob someone on campus? Once again the answer is no. It is ultimately up to those young men not to commit felonies.
But that doesn’t excuse Hudspeth from being tainted by these incidents. At the end of the day, the Ragin’ Cajuns program is his and the old saying is that a team serves as a reflection of its coach.
Then what does this reflection say about the culture Hudspeth has inspired and enforced in Lafayette?
The optics of all of these issues is that the program became successful because it was lawless, that the head coach had cheaters on his staff and that they recruited players who have criminal aspirations, ones possibly that other schools may not have taken.
At the end of the day, those optics are probably not true or factually accurate. Nearly every one of the 100-plus football programs in the Football Bowl Division has a percentage of players that are borderline signees for either grades and off-the-field conduct, and there are coaches everywhere that try to manipulate the system.
That is the nature of the beast known as college football.
But in the world we live in, and in particular the world of big-time college athletics, perception is reality and the negative perception of the Ragin’ Cajuns for many fans right now is one that won’t be changed with another well-worded apology from Hudspeth.
He’s already given too many of those.