John Kessel went to New Zealand looking for the catch of a lifetime. On a trip to the island nation in the late 1980s, the USA Volleyball coach spent much of his time hip-deep in a trout stream, in between the clinics he was conducting.
Kessel doesn’t remember what he pulled out of the water on that visit. It was overshadowed by the whopper he found in the gym: a 6-5 teen from Christchurch who announced his ambition before he even mentioned his name. “He came up to me, and he was pretty bold,” Kessel recalled. “He said, ‘Mr. Kessel, I’d like to come to America to play volleyball.’ ”
Hugh McCutcheon got his wish, competing at Brigham Young University before moving on to a pro career. That turned out to be just the start. Now one of the game’s most recognizable and respected coaches, McCutcheon begins his seventh season with the Gophers on Friday, looking to add his first NCAA title to a trophy case stuffed with national and international awards.
At 48 years old, McCutcheon already has coached the American men to an Olympic gold medal in 2008 and the U.S. women to Summer Games silver in 2012. He is president of the International Volleyball Federation’s technical and coaching commission — one of the most influential positions in the sport — and will be inducted into the International Volleyball Hall of Fame this fall. Two years ago, he was awarded the New Zealand Order of Merit, among his native country’s highest honors.
“Hugh’s impact on the sport has been pretty significant,” said Doug Beal, the retired CEO of USA Volleyball who hired McCutcheon to coach the Olympic and national teams. “He’s a guy who’s been successful every place he’s been, at every age level and with both genders. What he’s done is exceptional.”
The towering Kiwi might appear intimidating, with his shaved head and the piercing glare that burns through the most intense moments of a match. His formula for success, though, relies as much on the tight personal bonds common to New Zealand as it does on the American appetite for competition.
McCutcheon has endeared himself to the Gophers by being a good listener and a bad teller of jokes. His “Hugh-isms” — the slogans he uses to distill his concepts — stick with players long after they’ve left, as do other lessons from his holistic approach to molding champions.
“I tell everybody, he changed my life,” said former Gophers All-America Daly Santana. “Hugh is amazing. He equips you with all the tools you need inside the court and outside the court to do whatever you want to do in life.”
When McCutcheon approached Kessel in that New Zealand gym, he believed America offered him the best chance of finding out how good a volleyball player he could be. His life has passed through many chapters since, but the quest for self-improvement remains the same. The only difference is that his personal journey has become a collective one, as he guides the Gophers along their own paths of discovery.
“We all want to try to become the best versions of ourselves. That’s what was driving me,” said McCutcheon, whose team is ranked No. 4 in the national preseason polls. “That idea of expanding and growing and trying to become better every day has been a constant theme for me. And coaching is a great environment for that to happen.
“I’m not sure I chose this profession as much as it chose me. It’s been very satisfying.”
Sport of choice
In six seasons at the U, McCutcheon has gone 162-43 with two Final Four appearances. Being a coach — or even playing volleyball — was not a lifelong ambition. As a child, he hoped to become an oceanographer or marine biologist, and he played basketball until he was 15.
A disagreement with the coach led him to switch to volleyball. The sport appealed to him for three reasons: He was already 6-3, his physics teacher at Shirley Boys’ High School was the coach, and he thought the guys on the team were cool.
McCutcheon said he felt “a pretty instant connection,” swiftly becoming a starter for New Zealand’s junior and senior national teams. But in a country where rugby, cricket and netball rule, he understood he would have to leave home to fully develop his talent. It wasn’t an easy choice; McCutcheon’s father died when Hugh was 14, and his mother, Milly, worked as an administrative assistant in a hospital to support Hugh and his sister.
“That was the truest reflection of a parent’s love for a child,” McCutcheon said. “The gift my mother gave to me was the freedom to pursue my dreams. I had a big dream, but the chances of making it work were probably pretty small.”
McCutcheon chose the fledgling program at BYU, where he could step in and play immediately for revered coach Carl McGown. Following three seasons with the Cougars and two as a pro, he intended to pursue a career in academia. He returned to BYU in 1995 to attend graduate school; to help pay his expenses, McCutcheon asked McGown if he could help out with the volleyball team.
That ended his plans to earn a Ph.D. With McGown as his mentor, McCutcheon returned to the theme that drew him to the U.S. — figuring out how good he could be, and how to get there — and found his purpose in helping others work through the same puzzle.
A practical man, McCutcheon did get an MBA during his seven years on the BYU staff in case his chosen profession didn’t work out. The only thing he’s used it for in the past 24 years: to become a better leader and manager of volleyball players.
“As a player, Hugh was a good leader, an excellent teammate and very intelligent,” said Kessel, now USA Volleyball’s director of sport development. “My sense was that he would wind up going into business. But he learned so much from those years with Carl — and like any good leader, he took it to another level.”
The move to the U
Before McCutcheon landed at the U, he had become a global star in his sport. Beal brought him on as a volunteer assistant coach for the U.S. men’s team in 2001; four years later, he began a run as head coach that ended with the third Olympic gold medal in the program’s history. McCutcheon earned worldwide sympathy and admiration at the 2008 Beijing Games for his resolve after his father-in-law, Todd Bachman, was murdered in a random attack at a tourist site the day after the Opening Ceremony.
McCutcheon moved to the women’s side four months later. His four-year tenure included the Olympic silver medal, three World Grand Prix golds and proof that coaching philosophies can cross gender lines.
“Hugh opened the door for USA Volleyball to think that an individual who’s spent most of their time coaching one gender can coach the other,” Beal said. “With him, it’s not ‘men’s volleyball’ or ‘women’s volleyball.’ It’s just volleyball. That’s been significant.”
His 2012 move to the U was prompted by a desire for more balance in his life. McCutcheon found the travel demands of the international game incompatible with fatherhood, choosing to settle in the home state of his wife — Lakeville native Elisabeth “Wiz” Bachman — to raise their two young children among extended family.
Joel Maturi, then Gophers athletic director, hailed McCutcheon as “the Mike Krzyzewski of volleyball.” The idea that the U could hire such a renowned figure left some people in shock, including the women who would play for him. Samantha Seliger-Swenson, a three-time All-America setter from Minnetonka, remembered feeling awestruck when she signed her letter of intent and “very intimidated” at her first practice.
That didn’t last. Through barbecues at the McCutcheon home and chats in his office, Seliger-Swenson and her teammates have come to know a low-ego man who shuns the spotlight. Santana, who now plays professionally in Italy, said he is “a super rock star” in the volleyball world — but he always picks up the phone when she calls for advice, encouragement or an occasional bit of wry Kiwi humor.
“He cares about your life outside volleyball,” Santana said. “That plays a big part in wanting to play for him and wanting to get better when we’re out there. And the way he coaches … he even changed the way I breathe, that’s how detailed he is.”
McCutcheon takes a scientific approach to teaching fundamentals — his mentor, McGown, was a professor of motor learning — with efficiency and precision as his touchstones. During his time with USA Volleyball, he developed a template for a collaborative team culture. It gives power and voice to the players, but it also demands adherence to a set of non-negotiable principles.
“Commitment, trustworthiness, respect, inclusiveness, loyalty, grit, hard work,” sophomore Stephanie Samedy recited. “We know what’s expected. And we know it’s not just about volleyball; it’s about being the best people we can be. We take a lot of pride in that.”
Pride will play a major part in the upcoming season. The Final Four will be at Target Center, giving the Gophers even more incentive to reach it for the third time in four seasons.
Seliger-Swenson keeps a list of McCutcheon’s slogans on her iPad, and she noted that one “Hugh-ism” applies nicely to the months ahead. “No fear in the process,” she said. “That means, trust that the little things you do every day will get you to the bigger goal. We talk about that all the time.”
That doesn’t mean the Gophers can’t dream. Years ago, McCutcheon summoned the courage to cross an ocean to chase his ambition. Though his life in America turned out better than he ever imagined, he hasn’t stopped looking for more.
“For me, it’s never been about the result,” he said. “It’s about trying to figure out how we can be better at this. How can we improve and grow and evolve?
“Where it all leads, I don’t know. But as long as I feel like we’re growing and evolving, it’s a great job.”