McCutcheon quietly assumes role as U volleyball coach

  • Article by: AMELIA RAYNO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 31, 2012 - 2:11 AM

After an 18-month delay for the 2012 Olympics, the new Gophers coach took over with little fanfare but big impact.

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The new Gophers volleyball coach Hugh McCutcheon joined the women's volleyball team Thursday August 30, 2012 after his break following the Olympics. He was talking about hitting the ball with number 3 Dana Knudsen and number 4 Brianna Haugen, during practice at the U of M Sports Pavilion.

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Feet stamped. Athletes grunted and yelled. Fists pounded against the ball.

But one thing that was not heard at the first practice since Gophers volleyball coach Hugh McCutcheon officially took that title was the sound of his own voice echoing through the rafters.

Instead, McCutcheon weaved through the players as they practiced, softly asking questions, offering feedback, watching and listening.

"For me, I felt like I was pretty hands-off [in practice]," he said. "Just ... getting a feel for what we do and how we do it."

It was, in fact, a strange situation. After being hired a year and a half ago by then-athletic director Joel Maturi, McCutcheon finally celebrated his first day at Minnesota on Thursday, having wrapped up an 11-year run with USA Volleyball by leading the women's team to a silver medal in the London Olympics. Here, the season already has started and two matches have been played -- led by interim head coach Laura Bush, who brought the team to the Sweet 16 last year -- before McCutcheon stepped in.

But just because McCutcheon entered on the eve of the Gophers' playing host to the two-day Diet Coke Classic -- their first match is against Long Island at 8 p.m. Friday -- with hushed tones rather than bellows, it doesn't mean he's not immediately commanding the respect of everyone in the room.

"For all of us on the team, we respect him right away," outside hitter Ashley Wittman said. "We've watched him, we've heard about him, and I think he already has that demeanor set in stone. We're just going to follow what he brings to the team."

The glowing marks on his résumé are obvious. The New Zealand native has coached at BYU (his alma mater), in Austria and has been involved with USA men's and women's volleyball since 2003 (he first became head coach in 2005). But as much as the Minnesota athletes are gaining, so is McCutcheon with a new and different stage of life.

With two young children -- Andrew and Annika -- under the age of 3, McCutcheon lamented the family time missed due because of the 150-day-per-year travel associated with USA Volleyball.

He sounded optimistic about the ability to find a routine, as well as "teach" in a different way -- unburdened by the pressure that comes with representing a country. That is, he's glad to focus as much on the process as the results.

"The international arena is tough; it's a grind," he said. "The fact that there's a broader emphasis here maybe allows you to offset some of that 'result pressure' by hopefully guiding some of these young athletes and helping them figure out how to be better people."

The better-athlete focus is there as well, of course, with McCutcheon already describing the 2-0 squad as a talented one with "a lot of meat on the bone" for improvement.

Right now he still knows "very little" about a team that has adapted some of the aspects of his system -- such as swing blocking and aggressive serving -- under Bush, but has been far off his radar while working with USA Volleyball.

"I would imagine for the next month or so it will be a pretty strong learning curve," he said. "I think for this year we've got some things in place that are good and we can make some adjustments along the way. I hope we'll improve as the season goes on."

As for convincing a team that was ranked No. 16 in the country coming in that they need to get a lot better, it doesn't seem he's going to have much trouble with that.

His players already are noting that his place on the bench is encouraging them to reach for the stars.

"I think having his presence in the gym will help us step up our game," Wittman said. "We just want to prove to him that we're worthy of his presence. We're going to work hard for him because we know what he's done and he's just working with us to help us, and I think everyone will bring more to the table now that he's here."

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