Hudson leads Lady Toppers to new heights

Head Coach Travis Hudson directs his players during the Lady Toppers’ win over UTSA on Oct. 9 at Diddle Arena. Abbey Tanner/HERALD

Matthew Stewart

As he wraps up his 21st regular season at the helm of the WKU volleyball program, Head Coach Travis Hudson and his Conference USA Championship team found out Sunday night that they are slated against Arizona (19-13) in Utah this upcoming Friday in the opening round of the NCAA tournament.

The team is ranked 19th nationally heading into the tournament and has finished four of its last five seasons with 30 wins or more — a track record Hudson is proud of considering where the program was more than two decades ago.

It hasn’t always been 30-plus win seasons with national attention, and the journey to building a program that demands and expects success began when Hudson was a freshman at WKU.


“I had never touched a volleyball until the summer after I graduated high school,” Hudson said, who captained his high school football and basketball teams. “Where I grew up, there was no volleyball.”

After high school, Hudson yearned for the competitive environment that football and basketball had offered.

Hudson found it in an unexpected place.

“I was looking for a competitive outlet, and I met some guys that played volleyball, and I immersed myself in it and quite honestly was their punching bag for the longest time,” Hudson said. “I was terrible, terrible but competitive, until I started to pick up on the game.”

Playing locally with a group of friends was enough to spark interest in Hudson. Through these games, he met Jeff Hulsmeyer, who was then the head coach of WKU volleyball. 

“We started playing against each other and together some,” Hudson said. “He didn’t have an assistant coach at the time and asked me if I would help him in the gym, and that’s how it all started.”

However, the transition into a coaching role came with turbulence. While Hudson was still a student, Hulsmeyer left WKU’s program for a coaching position at Arkansas State.

Hudson was all the program had in the way of coaching at the time, so as a student, he was named the interim head coach. WKU then hired Mark Hardaway, and Hudson was demoted to student assistant coach.

“I had some familiarity with the kids and the program, and he didn’t have an assistant, so he kept me on as a volunteer student assistant or manager —  whatever you want to call me,” Hudson said of Hardaway.

When Hudson graduated with a degree in business management, he stayed for an extra year as an assistant while looking for a job.

Needing a second job to make ends meet, Hardaway left WKU after just two seasons and left Hudson again as the interim head coach.

“If I’m being honest, I think they probably interviewed me more as a courtesy than anything else,” Hudson said.

Hudson applied for the permanent position despite being discouraged from doing so.

“I’ll never forget having a conversation with an administrator who said to me, ‘You know, Travis, we really appreciate all you have done for the program, but I hope you understand you’re probably not going to be a top candidate for the job,’” Hudson said. “I’ll never forget my response, which was, ‘I appreciate you letting me know that, and I hope you know that that’s not going to keep me from applying.’” 

Hudson said he believed he initially landed on the interview list out of courtesy and because it was free; WKU didn’t have to pay to fly him in for the weekend.

Hudson was also familiar with the program and had support from players and their families. Supporters even wrote letters to the athletic department saying they thought Hudson was the man for the job.

“I’d like to say they saw a star in the making, but I think I ended up getting the job because it was convenient. The players and the families of the players really supported me at that juncture,” Hudson said.

When Hudson got the permanent job in 1995, he was the youngest coach in the nation at just 24 years of age.

In retrospect, this is one of the best career moves Hudson ever made, but because he was the first in his family to graduate from college, relatives met his decision with some animosity.

“My first year as a Division I head coach, I was making $19,000 a year with no assistant,” said Hudson. “Here I am, the first person in my family to get a college degree … and then I proceed to tell them I’m going to be a volleyball coach making $19,000 a year, and it wasn’t a super popular decision at the time with my family.”

But Hudson stood by his decision and by 2000 had begun to build the skeleton of the program Hilltopper fans see today.

Hudson is currently 528-195 with a .730 win percentage as the head coach for the Lady Toppers. He led WKU to 10 Sun Belt Conference regular season titles and seven straight titles from 2000 to 2006.  

Hudson has been named the SBC Coach of the Year five times and named a finalist for the AVCA Coach of the Year three times. In each of those finalist years, he was honored as the AVCA South Region Coach of the Year.

As Hudson brought the program to great heights in 1995, he also learned during every step of the way and interacted with some of WKU’s greatest coaches.

“Coach Sanderford [former WKU women’s basketball coach] said, ‘Now you’ve done it. You build the beast, and then the beast turns on you.’ I’ll never forget that quote because it is so true,” said Hudson of the success he found early with the team. “You keep getting bigger and better, and people begin to expect that year-in and year-out.”

Hudson holds his student-athletes to high standards in everything they do. By doing so, he has built a program that has won at least 25 games in every season over the last 10 years and a team that has a 100-percent graduation rate. His team has won the AVCA Team Academic Award nine times.

After sharing the C-USA regular-season championship in its inaugural season in the league, WKU now holds sole ownership of that title and will compete in the NCAA tournament for the second straight season.

Hudson and the Lady Toppers hosted a NCAA selection show party this past Sunday at Overtime Sports Bar for fans, players and coaches to find out who and where they will play in the tournament.

The Lady Toppers were selected to play Arizona in Utah at Brigham Young University at 6 p.m. Dec. 4. If WKU wins, the Lady Toppers will play the winner of Ohio and host school BYU.