Hugh McCutcheon gets settled in at Minnesota
MINNEAPOLIS -- Anyone who watched Hugh McCutcheon coach the U.S. women's volleyball team going into the Olympics knows his reliance on technology. McCutcheon's omnipresent headset allowed him to talk with a coach behind the end line, and he viewed in-match video and statistics on a tablet PC strapped to his forearm. The electronics made him easy to spot, in case being 6-foot-5 with a shaved head wasn't enough.
Wireless issues at the volleyball venue in London prevented McCutcheon from using the tablet at the Olympics, where the U.S. lost in the gold-medal match to Brazil. Now that he has moved on, leaving the international game to coach at the University of Minnesota, McCutcheon walks the sideline unencumbered by devices. It's not by choice: The NCAA prohibits wireless communication during matches.
So McCutcheon makes do. During a recent match against Miami of Ohio at Minnesota's aging Sports Pavilion, Gophers volunteer assistant coach Dave Ganser monitored match statistics on a large-screen laptop and carried it into the coaches' huddle during timeouts. McCutcheon, dressed casually in a black Minnesota T-shirt, gray sweat pants and white Nikes, noted his observations the old-fashioned way, writing in a small notebook he kept in his pocket.
"We're looking to find ways to leverage technology a little bit better with the way we're running things right now," McCutcheon said before a practice last week.
"But the other thing to be considered is, the margins on the international level are much thinner than they are here. Things we're working on right now, I don't need a PC to crunch out that we need to work on our passing. I can see that just fine."
And that's where McCutcheon's international experience takes over.
"He's very knowledgeable of the game, and he sees everything as good as any coach I've ever played for or been with," said Minnesota assistant Chris Tamas, who played for McCutcheon on the U.S. national men's team in 2005-06. "What it comes down to is, you just rely on what you see a little bit more."
Even with McCutcheon arriving after the season began, the Gophers started 9-2 and are No. 12 in the rankings after an early season split at Texas, then No. 4. Minnesota opens its Big Ten season Friday night at No. 20 Illinois.
Road to Minnesota
The New Zealand-born McCutcheon tired of the international grind after coaching U.S. teams through two Olympic cycles -- the men to a gold medal in Beijing in 2008 and the women to silver in London. He wanted a college job that afforded him more time with his wife, 2004 U.S. Olympian Elisabeth "Wiz" Bachman, and their growing family. (Bachman gave birth to their second child, a girl, in April.) McCutcheon negotiated a deal with Minnesota's then-athletic director, Joel Maturi, in the winter of 2010-11 that met his personal and professional wishes.
Maturi allowed McCutcheon to finish his Olympic duties before starting at Minnesota. Laura Bush, lead assistant to retiring coach Mike Hebert, agreed to fill in as interim coach in 2011 and return to her old job when McCutcheon arrived. NCAA rules prohibited McCutcheon from contacting Minnesota players and recruits until he took over, which was fine with him.
"Not only could I not be involved, I didn't want to be involved," McCutcheon said. "We get done with London, I don't want to be thinking then, 'I regret that five percent of my day I was spending on University of Minnesota stuff. I could have given more to get over the hump.'"
But it meant a mad post-Olympic scramble from London after the Aug. 11 final to Irvine, Calif., where the McCutcheons had been living, to Minnesota. The Gophers had played and won their first two matches when McCutcheon arrived to run his first practice Aug. 30.
"We're living a life in full, that's for sure," McCutcheon said. "Been a lot going on. We've done a pretty good job, with my wife organizing the logistic side of things. Given all the things that could have happened, it's gone pretty smoothly."
That he landed in Minnesota, where Bachman grew up, was a bonus unrelated to their horrible memory of Beijing, when a knife-wielding attacker murdered Bachman's father, Todd, and wounded her mother, Barbara, at a tourist site a few days before the Olympics. Barbara recovered, and the McCutcheons are living with her until they find their own home. Bachman's pregnancy scuttled plans to look for a house in advance.
"Obviously it's nice to be closer to extended family, too, but the decision to come to Minnesota was not driven by Elisabeth's family," McCutcheon said. "It was driven by the professional opportunity, the caliber of the program here, the university. Certainly Joel and Regina [Sullivan, Minnesota's senior woman athletics administrator] had a lot to do with it.
"All that other stuff was gravy -- good gravy, don't get me wrong. But it was never about -- we've got to get back to Minnesota. It was about, hey, we've got to get off this international volleyball treadmill here, and we've got to look for something that will allow us to spend more time together as our kids go through their formative years. And this happened to be the best fit. So it worked out great."
A new puzzle
Bush and Tamas spent last season teaching McCutcheon's system and techniques. Though McCutcheon calls the Gophers "a new puzzle to solve," Hebert left him the bones of a strong program. Last year the Gophers finished 20-12 and reached the Sweet 16, their 12th consecutive NCAA tournament appearance and 14th in 15 seasons.
Their best players, outside hitter Ashley Wittman and middle blocker Tori Dixon, are back. Both are juniors. Bush and Tamas added seven recruits and transfers to provide skill and depth, among them powerful-serving freshman Daly Santana, a 6-1 outside hitter from Puerto Rico, who can play all six positions.
"I cannot give them enough props or enough kudos for what was a really difficult position, especially for Laura," McCutcheon said.
Dixon said the players anticipated McCutcheon's arrival with excitement and nervousness.
"Obviously, we all knew he was the national team coach, a big deal, won a gold medal and a silver," Dixon said. "Going into it, I didn't know a ton about his coaching style. It was more a Hugh McCutcheon, volleyball genius kind of a thing. We really didn't know what to expect. We didn't know if he was going to come in here really calm, like he did with national team, or come in here kicking or screaming.
"He came here, and it's been really good so far. I was surprised most about his calm demeanor, how he is, his character, showing us a lot of different things. His deal is, give someone your trust until they do something that gets rid of it. He focuses on that, and tells us to trust the process and the system and what he's trying to do."
McCutcheon said he will raise his voice when required, but prefers an even-keel approach. "If you yell all the time," he said, "how do they know if you're really angry?"
The Gophers reached three Final Fours under Hebert, most recently in 2009, without winning an NCAA title. Wittman thinks McCutcheon could take them back.
"I think this team can make it to the championship final," Wittman said. "I have no doubt in my mind we can win a national championship and a Big Ten conference championship. We have a ton of talent. We have a great group of girls. We have chemistry on the court. It's just how hard we're willing to work, and the effort we're willing to put in."
McCutcheon approached the same topic with more caution.
"I know what I know about us, but I don't know about the rest of the world yet," he said.
"I think we have a chance to be good. I certainly see a lot of weaknesses and I see a lot of things we need to improve on. But I think there's some good talent in this gym. And it's a good group of kids. They don't know enough to know, but they're prepared to want to learn."
With or without all the technology.