Face of the Program: Volleyball coach Hudson leads WKU on and off the court

Head coach Travis Hudson hugs Harlie Bryant after winning the 2012 Sun Belt Conference Volleyball Championship. WKU won the 2012 Sun Belt Conference Volleyball Championship 3-0 against North Texas on Saturday Nov. 17, 2012 at Diddle Arena.

Austin Lanter

Travis Hudson has built the best winning percentage of active Sun Belt Conference coaches, sitting at .712 after 19 years as coach of the WKU volleyball team. Winning, however, did not always come naturally for Hudson, and neither did the game of volleyball.

Hudson had a successful high school athletic career growing up in nearby Edmundson County, serving as captain on his school’s football and basketball teams and earning all-state honors in football. In high school he visited several colleges in hopes of earning a football scholarship — one of those schools was WKU.

When he learned there were no football scholarships available he came to WKU to pursue a degree — the thrill of competition kept Hudson in and around sports once he got to college, though. Intramurals and pick-up games were regular for him but when that got old, he found the game of volleyball.

“I met some guys who played volleyball so I thought I’d give it a shot,” Hudson said. “It was brutal. They used to make fun of me because I was so bad, but I kept coming back. These guys used to embarrass me, but they’re two of my great friends to this day. If there’s one characteristic about me, it’s when I put my mind to something, I just kept coming back and getting better.”

Hudson stuck with volleyball, and he got better. He met Jeff Hullsmeyer, the coach of the WKU volleyball team at the time, as he played in weekend tournaments. The two began to play in leagues together and formed a friendship

At the time there was not a lot of money in the volleyball program so Hullsmeyer didn’t have an assistant coach. Hullsmeyer asked Hudson for help — he started out as a student manager and eventually became an interim coach when Hullsmeyer left.

“He left and they didn’t have a coach one spring,” Hudson said. “So I just kind of stepped in and took them through drills even though I didn’t have a clue as to what I was doing.”

Hudson continued to help out when WKU hired Hullsmeyer’s replacement, Mark Hardaway, but left to find a career with his business marketing degree. When he heard the coaching job at WKU was open again, he applied.

“Really, and I’ve said this my whole life, I ended up getting the job because they didn’t really care that much about it at the time,” Hudson said. “There was no money in it and the program wasn’t very good. The kids and their families that were in the program at the time went to the AD (Athletic Director) and spoke on my behalf. At 24 I became the youngest head coach in Division I volleyball and didn’t have a clue. I had never recruited a day in my life and that’s where it all began.

Hudson struggled in his first year, going 7-26. His team took off the next season, though, winning 11 more matches than the previous season. The culture around the team had changed by his fourth season — the Lady Toppers have won 24 or more matches every year but one since then.

Last year was the best season in program history. WKU won its first NCAA Tournament match and finished the season ranked No. 21.

Hudson has collected four Sun Belt Coach of the Year honors and three American Volleyball Coaches Association South Region Coach of the Year awards. However, he said working with players at his alma mater is what matters most to him.

“As we’ve got more successful I’ve had a lot of opportunities to go make more money, to go to a ‘bigger name’ but I am a person of loyalty,” Hudson said. “I get that I got the job here when there was no reason to give me the job here. I get that it’s special to be at your alma mater… I don’t know if I could do it as well somewhere else because of the love I have for this place.

Hudson is not only close with his players on the court but off the court as well. Every player he’s coached in his 19-year career has graduated, and none have transferred.

“That’s one thing that he’s probably more proud of than anything and that’s the 100% graduation rate,” assistant coach Kristi Griffin said. “That says a lot about how we recruit. When kids come on campus we show them exactly how it’s going to be and they love it.”

Senior setter Melanie Stutsman came to WKU in 2010. She said Hudson knows how to recruit good people.

“I think he has a very good sense of someone’s character and he can tell if they’re going to fit in here,” she said. “He puts a big emphasis on school. I think the whole family feeling is something you can’t find anywhere else, so why would you want to leave.”

For many of the players Hudson is not simply a coach and someone who pushes them to do well in school, but he is also a fatherly figure to his team.

“He’s like a second dad to me,” senior defensive specialist Ashley Potts said. “He cares about us as a person which is huge because we always have that trust in him and respect for him. He doesn’t just care about what we do on the court, he cares about how we’re doing in school and boy situations and everything. He always talks to us openly.

“He knows everything. You can’t hide anything from him, he’ll find out. He knew I almost had a boyfriend before I even had a boyfriend.”

Hudson often has his team over for dinner and to watch sporting events that the players would not be able to get at their dorm or apartment. Recently the team went over to his house to watch the WKU football team play Louisiana-Monroe.

Because of the closeness he has with his team, his family plays a large role with the Lady Toppers as well. Hudson’s wife, Cindy, was a former volleyball player at WKU when he was just a student. The two met when Hudson came to matches to watch the team play. He now describes her as his rock and his top assistant. Their two sons have spent their whole lives around the program as well.

Hudson has had to show his true character in his 19-year career. One of the scariest moments the Lady Toppers ever experienced came on a road trip to South Alabama in 2010

On the way to Mobile, Ala., the team suddenly felt the bus hit the strips outside the lanes on the side of the road. When the bus did not change course, Hudson knew something was wrong. He felt the bus go into the grass in the median heading for traffic going the opposite way.

The bus driver had a heart attack at the wheel — no one knew it because of the privacy curtain that separated the driver from the passengers. When Hudson pulled back the curtain and saw the driver slumped over in the seat, no longer steering the bus, he jumped into action.     The coach grabbed the wheel and got the bus in the emergency lane, away from traffic. He then reached over the driver and was able to apply the break and stop the bus, according to an article written by the NCAA.

The coach has a framed copy of the bus accident story in his office that reminds him of that day three years ago and how lucky he is.

“That’s my perspective check,” Hudson said. “When I think it’s frustrating being a coach, that’s my perspective of how fortunate I am to be here and be doing it. It was a miracle that we survived it. So many things had to happen right and even have a chance to live through it.”

On another road trip a few years ago, as Hudson sat in his hotel room watching TV, he heard about a foundation called The Friends of Jaclyn. This organization takes young children who have brain tumors and partners them with nearby collegiate athletic teams, giving teams the chance to adopt the kids as members of their team. Hudson signed WKU up that night.

It wasn’t until about a year later that Hudson received a phone call about a girl in Beaver Dam, Ky., named Harlie Bryant that the foundation wanted to match his team up with. After talking to the founder of the foundation, Jaclyn’s father, Hudson decided his team would adopt Harlie to be a member of the WKU volleyball team.

Harlie often comes to WKU volleyball games where she can be seen on the end line standing with the team. Even whenever she is not able to attend, her name and video plays alongside the rest of the players in the intro video and every game she is announced with the team.

“The idea behind it is that those kids know nothing but hospitals and chemotherapy and nurses and doctors and they’re kind of the outcasts at school,” Hudson said. “Through Friends of Jaclyn now she’s the cool kid because she’s on the Western volleyball team. It’s just a magnificent foundation that just gives a quality of life to these kids.”