Following the 2019 NCAA Volleyball season, the coaching carousel kicked into high gear. Previously, volleyball had been immune to massive coaching changes. Moving on to bigger paychecks, Power 5 conferences, and supposedly greener pastures was something reserved for football and basketball. But with millions of dollars in network revenue share and massive television contracts for Power 5 conferences, athletic departments were looking for ways to spend money. New facilities. New leadership. Anything to win right now. Following the 2019 season, coaches were let go as schools looked to bring in a new name and face.
Year after year, Travis Hudson's name appears on the short list. The Head Volleyball Coach at Western Kentucky University said that it's an annual song and dance for him over the past several years. Schools call and offer more money and the chance to coach in a more prestigious conference. Year after year, Travis Hudson turns them down. "I've never felt I fit in this world of college athletics," he told Forbes Magazine. Despite offers, he stays.
Hudson was a student at Western Kentucky. It's his alma mater. It's where he met his wife. His family members are within a two hour drive, and Hudson has built the culture and the program from the ground up. The 2020-2021 season will be his 26th at WKU. The Hilltoppers are a regular fixture in the NCAA Volleyball Tournament, a consistent contender in Conference USA, and often ranked in the Top 25. He's had only one player transfer out of the program in all his years. He must be doing something right. Legendary Michigan Head Softball Coach Carol Hutchins once told John U. Bacon, "Even in a bad year, a good program is a good program. And you spend years to get to that point." WKU has built a good program. And, so far, Power 5 schools can't lure him away.
He's incredibly loyal to his players and the institution he represents. Because he stays, he's considered an oddity in his profession. When asked about jumping to jobs in Power 5 Conferences, he said, "I can't get to a position in my mind where my personal gain is more fulfilling than a promise that I've made to these families during the recruiting process."
No matter the school, they are the same kids with the same problems. In a podcast with Gold Medal Squared's Chris McGown, Hudson talked about coaching camps across the country when he was working his way into the coaching profession. He worked camps for Division II schools, major Division I schools, all sorts of schools. He told McGown, "As I would get to know everybody's players, what I realized is they're all just 18-year-old kids. And they all were trying to be teachers or accountants or whatever it is they're trying to do with their life. And they have boyfriend problems, and they have doubts about their own ability, and who they want to be, and all that. And I don't think you have to be at a certain place to be able to help those kids navigate those things and that's the reason why I love what I do. It's not about wins and losses and trophies and all that. Those are a byproduct of the reasons why I really love to do this."
Travis Hudson is a man fulfilled. He doesn't need a Final Four or a larger stage. Jerry Barca wrote an article for Forbes Magazine about Travis Hudson. Barca titled the article, "The Coach Who Has What Everybody's Chasing." Hudson told Barca, "I spend more of my time feeling blessed to be where I am than feeling disappointed and wanting to be somewhere else." Coaching at a Power 5 school won't improve his lot in life. He doesn't aspire to make $450,000 a year. Different things matter to him. In the same Forbes article he said, "This world is full of people who are chasing success, but I believe if you do the right things and you do it every day, success will find you." He knows why he coaches. It's not about money or prestige. He does it to help kids grow, to see them graduate, and to develop them as people.
He loves WKU and he's loyal to his player. For Hudson, staying put is also a wise career move. In his conversation with Chris McGown, he elaborated more on why he stays at Western Kentucky. He said, "I’ve watched a lot of good coaches, throughout my career, coaches that I really respect, that I know can coach the game, that have had success places. And they start hopping, you know, climbing the ladder. And again, there’s nothing wrong with moving up and taking a bigger job and a bigger paycheck. I certainly am not condemning that in any way. But I see coaches that are making moves based on those things and they end up in situations where they can’t be either A) happy, or B) successful. And, all the sudden, it doesn’t work out there. Now they’re having to coach in places they don’t want to be, in situations they don’t want to be in. And I just feel like I’ve been blessed to never have to make that decision and to continue to be in a place that I love."
The 2017 WKU volleyball team was probably the best team Hudson ever had. In the second round of the NCAA tournament they faced Kentucky. It was probably the best volleyball team Kentucky ever had. Kentucky's senior class was loaded with impact players, like All-Americans Ashley Dusek and Kaz Brown. They had Final Four dreams. Kentucky's outside hitter, sophomore Leah Edmond, was a first team All-American and looked to be one of the best players in the country. They were the No. 4 overall seed in the tournament. This was Kentucky's year. Meanwhile, WKU beat Notre Dame 3-0 in the first round and now drew UK on the Wildcats' home floor. Western Kentucky had won 31 matches and lost only 3. The winner would advance to the Sweet Sixteen.
A few years later, I still say it was one of the best volleyball matches I have ever seen. Kentucky came into the match winners of 22 of their last 23, but you had to root for WKU. Outside hitter Alyssa Cavanaugh was the first All-American in the history of WKU volleyball. The two-time Conference USA Player of the Year led WKU with 23 kills. She hit .405 for the match. The Hilltoppers had talent at every position. This was not an underdog story. Hudson had built a program that could compete with anyone in the country. They won the first set 25-16. Before long, the team from the mighty SEC with all the All-Americans was down 0-2. The entire match was a battle, but the Wildcats came back and won sets three and four. In the decisive fifth set, Kentucky won 15-12 and moved on to the Sweet Sixteen. Afterwards, Kentucky Head Coach Craig Skinner said, "That's probably the toughest I've ever seen Kentucky volleyball play since I've been here. I'm really proud of the team for finding a way to get it done."
It was a tremendous volleyball match, and afterwards Travis Hudson became one of my favorite coaches, right up there with the likes of Chris Petersen. After the five set battle, his post-season press conference went viral. A choked up, teary-eyed coach, sat at the NCAA post-match press conference and talked with pride about his team. "You know, I'm in a profession where I've been at the same institution for 23 years," he said. "And I can't tell you how many times in those 23 years, there have been people in this profession that 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 that 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 or be good at what you do. And so, I'm incredibly proud to wear that WKU across my chest. And I don't need validation. My kids are what give me the validation. And to see them go out and play at the level that they played tonight, is all the validation that I need."
He could go big time, but Western Kentucky University is home. He's not chasing a bigger paycheck or a bigger stage. He started out as a glorified manager and only got the WKU job because back then nobody cared. He's won conference coach of the year eight times and owns a record of 642-215, a winning percentage of .749. A good program is a good program. And he's spent years to get WKU volleyball to that point. Success has definitely found Travis Hudson. He's volleyball's version of Chris Petersen or Tim Corbin. WKU volleyball players are built for life, and their head coach represents everything that is good about college athletics.