The remarkable story of WKU coach Travis Hudson, “the unluckiest luckiest guy alive”

0
Travis Hudson coaching in a scrimmage last week against Kentucky/Steve Roberts, Cal Sport Media

So much of it makes no sense, that a guy from Bee Spring, Kentucky — he’s quick to tell you it’s right near Nilan Lake — who never touched a volleyball before he was almost 20, who actually dived in and grabbed the steering wheel to save the day and survive a team bus crash, who had two cancer surgeries for melanoma and then the scariest of all heart attacks, would be the coach of one of the top mid-major volleyball programs in the country.

Yet here is Travis Hudson, about as Kentucky through and through as you can be, heading into his 24th season at the helm at Western Kentucky. That same WKU that has won four conference titles in a row, won two NCAA Tournament matches along the way, and last December took Kentucky to the limit in the second round before losing 16-25, 22-25, 25-19, 25-21, 15-12 in a match that lasted 2 hours, 17 minutes.

And almost 11 minutes into his post-match news conference, one question pushed his button. Hudson got teary-eyed.

“I’m in a profession where I’ve been at the same institution for 23 years,” Hudson said, his white oxford dress shirt open at the collar and his bright red tie long loosened. “And I can’t tell you how many times in those 23 years there have been people in this profession who think I need to move somewhere else and put different letters on my chest to be good at what I do.

“I believe that the kids you coach are the same no matter where you coach them. They’re the same kids with the same problems and the same issues and they’re trying to grow and become adults and do things with their lives and I don’t think you have to have a certain set of letters across your chest or coach in a certain conference to be a quality volleyball coach and be good at what you do.”

He got choked up.

“I’m incredibly proud to wear that WKU across my chest. I don’t need validation. My kids are what give me the validation.”

Let’s start there, because WKU went 31-4 last season, 13-1 in Conference USA, and was tied with Kentucky 12-12 in that fifth set.

“Certainly it wasn’t scripted,” Hudson said of that diatribe six months later. “It just came out of me.”

And the sports world loved it. You can watch the entire news conference here.

“It was pretty remarkable. It really touched a nerve with people. It really did.

“I get a lot of questions about why I’m still at Western Kentucky after 23 years. I’ve had plenty of opportunities. But at that moment, that kind of question didn’t sit real well with me.”

Forbes magazine wrote about him with an article aptly headlinedThe Coach Who Has What Everybody’s Chasing.”

“I got emails and phone calls from coaches in every level in every sport from coast to coast,” Hudson, smiling and shaking his head. “Football coaches from California and baseball coaches in Texas. Just got to the core of why someone coaches.”

Why indeed.

Just consider his unlikely story. And trust us, we’ll get to defying death in a bit.

Travis Hudson during a time out/WKU photo

Hudson was originally from Louisville, but grew up in Bee Spring, which is only about 32 miles from his office at WKU.

The tall, skinny kid was a football-basketball guy in high school.

“I was a better football player but loved basketball more,” he said. “Pretty good football player. Did some college visits, kind of got exposed to college athletics. But long story short, didn’t do either.”

But he was determined to become the first person in his family to get a college degree.

So Hudson went to WKU, working two jobs to afford it.

“But I missed competing,” Hudson said. “Pickup basketball didn’t appeal to me.”

Then one day he met a guy named Jeff Hulsmeyer, who is now in his fourth year as the associate head coach at Florida State. At the time, he was the WKU women’s volleyball coach.

“I was a sophomore in college and had never touched a volleyball in my life,” Hudson recalled.

But he started playing in men’s games.

“Used to get my brains beat out every day, but just loved it,” he said with a smile. “Loved the sport, loved the competition. I thought I might coach some day, but thought it would be football, basketball, you know.”

But he started getting better in volleyball and Hulsmeyer had no assistant coach.

“He was only the second coach in the history of the program. The program was young and hadn’t had a ton of success … and he and I became friendly and he knew I was a student and asked if I’d be interested in coming and helping, shagging balls, tossing balls, hitting balls, I wouldn’t say student assistant by any stretch. I was a manager.”

Perhaps, but a coaching career was born.

All while still working two jobs.

“I learned a lot from Jeff.”

A couple of seasons later, Hulsmeyer left for Arkansas State when now-Florida State coach Chris Poole left ASU for Arkansas.

Hudson became the de facto WKU coach that spring.

“There was no one else,” he said.

The school gave him a few hundred bucks for his effort.

Eventually WKU hired Mark Hardaway, now an assistant coach at Cleveland State.

Hardaway kept Hudson on.

“I stayed my last two years until I got my degree. I was the first person in my family to get a college degree. And right after I graduated, the job opened up at the University of Evansville, which was (Hardaway’s) alma mater.

“Here we were again. I took them through the spring while I was looking for a job. I had my degree in business management.”

But Hudson figured what the heck, although a WKU senior women’s administrator told him he wouldn’t be considered. Hudson applied for the job.

“This will tell you how un-inflated my ego is: I got the job because nobody cared. They had no business hiring me. I was 24. I had never coached in my life, but the players, they were getting ready to go on their third coach in four years. I was the constant. I had gotten to know all the families real well, and all of the parents went to bat for me.”

It was 1996. He got the job and the $19,000 a year that came with it.

This would be a good time to mention his wife, Cindy, whom he married that year. She was a former setter at WKU and ended up in Louisville at physical therapy school, but when Hudson became the WKU coach, Cindy played a key role.

The first recruiting call Hudson made was to legendary Louisville Assumption High and KIVA coach Ron Kordes, asking if any Louisville area players were still available. One player in particular, Melissa Starck (1996-2000), was a huge component.

“My first year we went 7-26 and it might have been the best coaching job I’ve done in my life,” Hudson said with a laugh.

His second year the Hilltoppers went 18-17, but then dropped down to 9-22 before bouncing back with the best record in school history at the time, 26-10 in 1998.

“I just became a junkie. I went to every camp and clinic I could. When I first went recruiting I had to take my wife because she was the only one of the two of us who had ever been to a club tournament before. I didn’t know what I was doing.”

WKU has never finished below .500 since and has won 30 or more matches eight times, including the past years.

A big key?

Ball control.

“We live in this world of metrics, but I can tell you that I built the program flying in the face of that. Where everybody else worried about how high a kid touched all I cared about was what kind of kid they were and if they could play the game.”

He put defensive specialists on scholarship, which wasn’t the norm back then. Two defensive specialists were huge components, he said.

A couple of defensive specialists, Tracy May and Beaven Hill, changed things in the back row, Hudson said.

“I was better than you at something and it just so happened to be the most important part of the game,” Hudson said, never understanding why anyone wouldn’t invest in ball control.

“We’ve built our program on great ball control and defense. We weren’t getting any athletes. No athletes. But man, we could handle the ball. We were getting destroyed in warmups and then just go out and ball-control people to death.”

He laughed.

“I went years without having a kid on our roster who could touch 10 feet.”

But he never got an NCAA Tournament bid until 2002. Since then, there’s been no looking back, on or off the court.

“I’m 24 years in and we have a 100-percent graduation rate,” he said proudly.

And a pretty high rate of success on the court. The list of All-Americans is pretty long for a program that once dominated the Sun Belt Conference and now does the same in C-USA. Last year’s team had three in Rachel Anderson, Jessica Lucas and Alyssa Cavanaugh.

Hudson said the key was that ball control. Because of it, he got some outstanding middles. WKU could get them the ball, they got lots of sets, and it grew from there.

A big one was Kim Carpenter, who transferred from Louisville and then Megan Argabright, a four-time All-American middle (2005-08) who was a key in WKU taking it up a level, Hudson said.

Last year, Penn State led the nation in hitting percentage at .339. Second? WKU at .322, just ahead of Stanford (.319).

“We’ve achieved at a high enough level that we’re getting some pin hitters who can carry you for a while,” Hudson said.

In all, WKU’s been to 11 NCAA Tournaments and won first-round matches three times, in 2012, 2015 and 2017, when it swept Notre Dame.

And with the volleyball out of the way, let’s get to defying death.

“I’m like a cat,” Hudson said with a laugh.

Start with learning he had melanoma in 2009.

It was, he said, “pretty scary and pretty severe.” He has the scars to prove it.

And then in October 2010, WKU was in the team bus heading south on Interstate 65. The driver, who died, had a heart attack. The bus went off the road near Athens, Ala.

This is from the Kentucky New Era newspaper account:

After veering out of control and out of the southbound lane, the bus eventually found its way into the ditch-like median. It nearly entered oncoming traffic in the northbound lane, but the bus drifted back through the grass, across the southbound lane and onto the right shoulder of the highway.

Being in the back section of the bus and having no vision as to what was happening at the wheel, Hudson then sprang into action.

“I grabbed the curtain, pulled it open to see what was going on and the driver was laid over toward the steps but was still strapped in his seat,” Hudson said. “By that time, we were in the grass on the outside of our lane on the right-hand side. I kind of laid out over top of him, grabbed the wheel, got us steady and had to try to get him out of the seat.

“I crawled over top of him, got into the seat, found the brake and was able to get us stopped. By the grace of God, our bus didn’t flip.”

Cindy Hudson joined her husband in pre-match ceremonies during senior day of his 20th season in 2014/WKU photo

Fast forward to this past March 31.

Hudson, the 6-foot-5, 225-pound 47-year-old, who three days earlier ran four miles, was taking a Saturday break from recruiting and working in the yard.

“Catching up on my honey-do list,” he said.

He needed a few things and told his wife he was headed to the hardware store just down the road.

He wasn’t gone from the house five minutes when his chest started to hurt.

“And all of a sudden it felt like when you’re on the end line when you run a bunch of sprints. You get that burning in your chest. That tight burning. I was out of breath and I was like, what the heck? I didn’t think much about it. It passed and I kept driving but then it started radiating in my arms.

“So I called my wife. And she knows my disdain for doctors and all that. I said, ‘Hey, I’m not feeling right. I think I’m gonna duck into a clinic or the ER and get checked out.’

“My wife’s a physical therapist. She knows something’s not right. “

Cindy told him to pull over.

“Classic husband-wife exchange, because I say, ‘Hell, no, I’m not pulling over. I gotta get there.’ I stayed on the phone with her, drove right past the hardware store, pulled into the hospital, left the keys in the car and walked in.”

He told the ER receptionist he needed to get checked out.

“They took me back, there were two nurses in the room, one of them puts the blood-pressure cuff on me, and the other one stuck those things on my chest and looked up at the monitor and her face just went flush. She’s scrambling around making calls in code-something and the next thing you know there’s a dozen people in my room and they’re ripping off my clothes and giving me aspirin and stuff and I said, ‘This isn’t good.’

“And she said, ‘No, sir, you’re actively having a heart attack.’

“My world changed in a second.”

Understand that while he’s telling this story, Hudson is smiling and laughing a bit.

He said a nurse took his phone and called his wife, who came to the ER with their youngest son, Drew, who is 12. Their other son, 16-year-old Tyler, was out of town.

“That was rough when they came in,” Hudson said, eyes widening. “But at no point was I scared or nervous. But my son, when he came in, he was so upset. I told him I would be fine.

“I never lost consciousness. Not even during the procedure.”

They went in through his leg and put in a stint and didn’t need to open his chest. He started cardiac rehab soon after and has never looked back. And certainly when you see him, Hudson looks as fit as ever.

Hudson said he was nearly 100 percent this summer. Before the heart attack, he worked out six days a week, had low blood pressure, low cholesterol, said he eats well, nor does he drink too much.

“As you might think, I’m not your typical heart-attack case.”

His doctor told him months later, “you got hit by lightning.”

“There no blockages,” Hudson said. No narrowing arteries, no plaque buildup. Just a piece of plaque that ruptured off the wall of the artery and fell down perfectly and caused 100 percent blockage.”

He laughed again, knowing that this type of heart attack is referred to as the “widowmaker.”

“I keep telling everybody I’m the unluckiest luckiest guy alive,” Hudson said.

Which isn’t bad for a kid from Bee Spring, right near Nilan Lake.

“I’ve had a very unlikely life,” Hudson said. “To come from where I come from and to be in this profession, it’s incredible.”

LEAVE A REPLY