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Football: Maggard backs Hudspeth amid UL football program issues

Tim Buckley, The Advertiser, May 19, 2017

For the first four years of Mark Hudspeth’s run as coach of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette football team, the Ragin’ Cajuns were riding high.


Four straight nine-win seasons. Four straight postseason appearances. Four straight New Orleans Bowl victories.


The two seasons since then have had their highlights, including the team’s fifth bowl appearance in six years — no other NCAA Group of Five school has had more — and the New York Jets’ selection of running back Elijah McGuire in last month’s NFL Draft.


The program, however, also has been blemished by matters heaping negative national attention on it and the university over the past 18 months, including the arrest early last month of a now-former player for an alleged rape that happened while he still was a team member and the arrest and indefinite suspension late last month of 13 players each charged with one count of criminal conspiracy to commit felony theft.


One day after the most-recent arrests, new UL athletic director Bryan Maggard was asked if he thought Hudspeth still has control of the program.


“Yes I do,” Maggard said.


“I feel like, I know, based on his comments there’s nobody any more disappointed and frustrated … than he is right now.”


A report on the celebrity website TMZ.com claimed UL’s program at the time of the felony theft conspiracy arrests was in “full meltdown mode.”


ESPN.com carried news of the charges, as did Sports Illustrated’s website and several others.


Hudspeth, named UL’s head coach after the 2010 season, issued an apologetic statement one day after the conspiracy arrests.


On Thursday, Hudspeth declined to answer specific questions for this story.


He did, however, issue exclusively to The Daily Advertiser the following statement:


“I take full ownership of the recent issues within our program,” Hudspeth said.


“I cannot comment on the legal process at this time but can assure our fans that we are working harder than ever to improve and ensure that our players learn from their mistakes and become better for it.


“As hurt as we are when something disappointing happens, in turn we celebrate and are excited when we change a young man’s life and help him become his best academically, socially, athletically and spiritually. As coaches we don’t always succeed, but the victories that our coaches do have in helping these young men succeed in life day in and day out are many and are very rewarding.


“I am proud to say that I am in the position to lead, guide and discipline young men. I feel as though I was put on this earth to motivate, inspire, guide and teach young men lessons that will help them later in life become great husbands, fathers and leaders of their respective communities.


“We have brought many great memories to our university and community in the last 6 years and I have enjoyed being very engaged and a part of Lafayette and Acadiana. We are looking forward to even more success in the near future.”


During an exclusive interview shortly after the arrests, Maggard said Hudspeth “understands this is a situation that brings a negative eye on his program, and that’s the last thing he wants.”


“But I know he takes responsibility as the CEO of the football program,” Maggard added, “and made that statement, I think, very clear (with his post-arrest comments).”  Maggard stood by his earlier remarks but did not have any additional comment when contacted Thursday.


Hudspeth took over a struggling team, turned it into an instant winner in 2011 and has been rewarded with pay raises and contract extensions as a result.


Prior to his arrival, the Cajuns’ last winning season was in 2005. They had not been to a bowl game of any sort since 1970. And they hadn’t won a bowl game since 1944.


UL’s success from 2011-2014 brought plenty of positive attention to a team that had been ranked by Sporting News as the worst in the country before Hudspeth took over, including extensive national-television exposure, and even helped to prompt stadium expansion at Cajun Field.


The 13 felony arrests came after a string of setbacks for Hudspeth’s program, on the field and off, including back-to-back losing seasons.


UL went 4-8 in 2015.


The Cajuns returned to the New Orleans Bowl last year, but lost to Southern Mississippi and finished 6-7.


In late March, UL announced the dismissal of defensive back Artez Williams.


A few days later, Williams was charged with second-degree rape as the result of an alleged incident that occurred March 16, while he still belonged to the team.


Dismissed UL football player arrested after rape investigation


According to a UL Police Department arrest report on the initial investigation, the alleged rape victim wanted to remain anonymous and “did not want to be interviewed” by the investigating officer.


Williams was arrested April 5, just a few hours before the incident in which the 13 Cajuns players allegedly stole $2,400 worth of items from a UL dorm room.


Warrants for the 13 — Robert Hunt, D’Aquin Withrow, Matthew Barnes, Trey Ragas, Jordan Wright, Joe Dillon, Jarvis Jeffries, LaDarrius Kidd, Terik Miller, Damar’ren Mitchell, Denarius Howard, Levarious Varnado and Simeon Thomas — were obtained April 25.


The 13 remain suspended indefinitely because, according to UL athletic department policy, “absent extraordinary circumstances as determined by the administration,” a student-athlete charged with a felony is not permitted “to represent the University in game competition until such time as the charge is resolved and all court, University and Athletic Department conditions for reinstatement have been met.”


Among the items allegedly stolen, according to UL police: an Xbox game system, a television, a gold chain, several pairs of sneakers, underwear, socks, three dollar bills and a toenail clipper.


All of items allegedly stolen were recovered by UL police, who also said “all students cooperated throughout the investigation.”


Motive for the alleged theft remains a public mystery, at least for now.


Williams hasn’t responded to multiple requests for comment.


On April 27, however, he tweeted this, followed by an inquisitive-looking emoji: “Not defending myself or anyone else but how can you release a player for being accused while the other players get suspended for facts”


Keith Stutes, District Attorney for the 15th Judicial Circuit of the state of Louisiana, also did not respond to a request for an interview regarding the cases.


UL declined a specific follow-up request for comment from or interviews with any or all of the current players charged with a felony, saying that after review “the 13 student-athletes and the Department of Athletics will remain respectful of the judicial process and will not discuss the incident that led to the players’ suspension.”


UL’s response came quickly, less than an hour after the request was made.


On April 5, however, one of the 13 who was charged, Mitchell, tweeted this: “Bc one made a terrible mistake we all not like that.”


Another of the 13, Varnado, retweeted Mitchell’s message.


Last November, after another incident that attracted negative national attention, Hudspeth apologized for the actions of four Ragin’ Cajun players shown in a cell-phone video dancing in the team’s locker room and singing the lyrics of YG’s and Nipsey Hussle’s profane rap song "FDT (F— Donald Trump)."


Sanctity of the UL locker room: How private is it?


The video, which went viral, was shot on the same day Trump was elected president of the United States.


The players involved were punished, but none were suspended, and details of what the punishment involved weren’t disclosed.


In October 2015, the NCAA accused ex-UL assistant football coach David Saunders of wrongdoing related to manipulation of ACT scores for recruiting purposes and cash payments to one recruit.


Saunders was accused of steering six prospective student-athletes to a rural Mississippi testing locale, where on three occasions starting in February 2011 an ACT site supervisor allegedly altered their test answers.


Hudspeth and other UL assistant coaches were cleared of any wrongdoing.


In January 2016 the NCAA accepted UL’s self-imposed penalties, including the vacating of 22 wins, and added other penalties, including two years of probation and a $5,000 fine.


NCAA releases ruling on UL violations


Shortly after the recent 13 felony arrests, Maggard also was asked how much he feared developments might hurt an ongoing football season-ticket sales campaign.


Maggard, who was hired by UL earlier this year, said he realizes the latest incident “frustrates people.”


“Absolutely,” he said. “I get that.


“My hope is that people continue to support the program, and buy their season tickets, and get excited for an upcoming football season.”




A look at off-field blemishes on the UL football program over the year-and-a-half:  


Jan. 12, 2016: NCAA issues final ruling on lengthy investigation into alleged recruiting violations and payment to a player by a former UL assistant football coach


Nov. 11, 2016: UL coach Mark Hudspeth apologizes to alumni, fans and program supporters for the actions of four Ragin’ Cajun players shown in a cellphone video dancing in the team’s locker room and singing the lyrics of the profane rap song "FDT (F— Donald Trump)"


April 5, 2017: Former UL football player Artez Williams is arrested and charged with second-degree rape stemming from an incident that allegedly occurred March 16, when he was still a member of the team. 


April 25, 2017: Warrants obtained for 13 UL football players charged with one count each of conspiracy to commit felony theft for an incident that allegedly occurred April 5, a few hours after Williams’ arrest