Football: Louisville, Miss. – A 7,000-person cradle of coaches
Louisville, Mississippi sits at the crossroads to nowhere in particular, a good 40-minute drive in any direction before hitting a main highway. Even by Mississippi standards, it’s a small, rural, out-of-the-way town, with nothing to indicate that it would eventually become a cradle of high-level college coaches.
But when Louisiana-Lafayette goes for an upset Saturday at No. 15 Ole Miss, it’s a moment that could potentially be career-changing for head coach Mark Hudspeth while highlighting connections and coincidences that border on absurd.
Long before Hudspeth started his ascent from high schools to Division II football to becoming the highest-paid coach in the Sun Belt, he was merely a backup quarterback at Winston Academy, a school of roughly 350 total students from kindergarten through the 12th grade.
The upperclassman he was trying to beat out? That would be Andy Kennedy, who went on to play college basketball and is now entering his ninth season as head coach at Ole Miss.
And the younger quarterback was trying to mentor? That would be Matthew Mitchell, who found his niche coaching women’s basketball and has taken Kentucky to the NCAA Tournament five straight years.
"It’s really a thrill because we’ve all been intertwined," said Robert Herring, who coached Winston Academy to private school state titles in 1975 and 1983 and has remained close to all three ever since. "I think they came from great families that had a great work habits and great morals, and those guys just took that to another level and had that desire to keep on winning like they had done coming up."
The football field at Winston Academy in Louisville, Miss., where Mark Hudspeth, Andy Kennedy and Matthew Mitchell played quarterback.(Photo: Courtesy of Winston Academy)
Still, the odds of three contemporaries from the same high school football team in a town of 7,000 growing up to become highly successful college coaches in three different sports? It’s so improbable it defies explanation.
There’s little doubt, however, that in a community so small and so centered around high school sports, the three of them grew up relentlessly pushing each other and ultimately helping each other once they started their career paths.
It’s also true that all three looked up to Herring, who eventually left Winston Academy and won three more state titles in Alabama at powerhouse Oxford High.
"Coaches were really some of the most respected people in our town, and I wonder if all of us being around him had something to do with it, " Mitchell said. "We were right there at the end of a generation where there was no cable TV, no Internet in a small town that didn’t have a lot of entertainment options. We were just about ball."
Of the three, only Kennedy seemed destined to be a star — but not necessarily in coaching. Though he didn’t come from a particularly athletic family, the 6-foot-7 Kennedy was a natural at pretty much everything, including taking that three-step drop and zipping passes over the middle.
"He was going to be the best throwing quarterback I ever had," Herring said.
Remarkably, Kennedy said his best sport growing up was baseball, but the game moved too slow for him, and after starting at quarterback for Winston Academy in 10th grade he decided to transfer to the local public school and focus on basketball.
"I decided, hey, if I’m going to be serious about basketball and play it to my fullest potential and see what opportunities could open for me, I should start focusing on it," said Kennedy.
Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy predated Mark Hudspeth and Matthew Mitchell as the quarterback at Winston Academy in Louisville, Miss.(Photo: Dale Zanine, USA TODAY Sports)
It turned out to be a good decision for everyone. Kennedy became a blue-chip recruit, went to North Carolina State under Jim Valvano and then transferred to UAB, where he is still regarded as one of the best players in school history. Meanwhile, his departure from Winston Academy opened the door for Hudspeth to start at quarterback.
"I never would’ve played until my senior year," Hudspeth said. "That guy could’ve played college quarterback, pitcher, whatever. He was the best athlete to ever come out of Louisville, Miss. I wouldn’t be very high (on that list), but I stuck it out and was proud that I ended up being a two-year starter in Division II (at Delta State)."
Though Hudspeth was athletically limited, the team was so good with him at quarterback that it regularly built big enough leads for Mitchell to play in the fourth quarter.
But that was also around the time Mitchell’s parents gave him a copy of Rick Pitino’s first book, Born to Coach, and the seed was planted. First, though, life got in the way.
After a bout with mononucleosis during his senior year, Division I schools recruiting him as a quarterback suddenly backed off and he instead decided to attend Ole Miss as a preferred walk-on. Before he could enroll, though, Mitchell found out his girlfriend was pregnant so he married her, went to a Division III school and tried to figure out how to make some money.
"Then my marriage got in trouble, and I was floating around, dealing with all that stuff," Mitchell said. "I thought I was on my way to being a good college quarterback, and it just never materialized."
By 1996, both Mitchell and Hudspeth had ended up back in Mississippi; Hudspeth getting his first head coaching job at his alma mater and Mitchell coaching both boys’ and girls’ basketball at Central Holmes Academy in Lexington, Miss.
Then out of the blue, Mitchell was told he would also have to be the defensive coordinator for the football team despite knowing nothing about how to be a defensive coordinator.
Kentucky women’s basketball coach Matthew Mitchell watches his team play during against Wright State in an NCAA tournament first-round game last season.(Photo: Mark Zerof, USA TODAY Sports)
Though the two football programs technically competed in the same classification, Hudspeth agreed to give Mitchell a six-week crash course in coaching the defense. Every Sunday night during the season, Mitchell would make the 60-mile drive back to Louisville, and Hudspeth would watch film with him and essentially draw up his gameplan.
"I ended up with a pretty salty little defense," Mitchell said, laughing. "We won five straight, and I learned a lot that year about coaching. He saved my butt in that situation. At the time, I just didn’t even realize how absurd it was."
At that point, their careers took wildly different paths. Mitchell got his big break in 1999 when he worked as a graduate assistant at Tennessee under Pat Summit. Hudspeth bounced around the assistant coaching circuit from Central Arkansas to Delta State and Navy before settling at North Alabama, where he went 66-21 over seven seasons.
Louisiana-Lafayette coach Mark Hudspeth high fives with fans as he leads the team to the stadium prior to kickoff against Louisiana Tech last Saturday.(Photo: Crystal LoGiudice, USA TODAY Sports)
Though he took the long road to the Football Bowl Subdivision, Hudspeth has made the most of it. Each of his three teams at Louisiana-Lafayette have finished 9-4, and despite a 48-20 loss to Louisiana Tech last week, it wouldn’t be a surprise to those who know Hudspeth’s history if the Ragin’ Cajuns gave Ole Miss some trouble this weekend.
"Hopefully we can have our team prepared and go play awfully well," Hudspeth said. "I’ve got a lot of ties there, a lot of friends. But I don’t think I’m going to have many friends for about three hours on Saturday afternoon."
If Louisiana-Lafayette were to pull the upset, however, it would only increase the likelihood that Hudspeth might one day join Kennedy and Mitchell in the SEC. Though Hudspeth has gotten a few nibbles from bigger programs, he has thus far been content to stay at Louisiana-Lafayette, which bumped his salary to an average of $1.075 million over six years — a massive contract for the Sun Belt.
Still, if he continues winning at Lafayette, his allure for major programs will only get stronger.
"I say this in all seriousness, I think he’s one of the best coaches of any sport in America," Mitchell said. "If you threw him into the fire to coach basketball, he’d be one of the best basketball coaches. He’s an incredible coach and has just done an amazing job and amazing things. If he wants to, he can go wherever."