Jim Souhan: Hugh McCutcheon's coaching travels take him to London, U

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 15, 2012 - 6:45 AM

New Zealander Hugh McCutcheon has played and coached volleyball all over the world. After coaching the U.S. women's team in London, he will land in Minneapolis with the Gophers.

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ANAHEIM, CALIF. — The Southern California morning fog has yet to burn off when Hugh McCutcheon, wearing shorts and a hoodie, ambles into the Anaheim Sports Center with all of the urgency of a window shopper.

The U.S. women's volleyball squad that he'll coach in the London Olympics has been warming up for a while. McCutcheon strolls to a large whiteboard and coaxes his players, in a quiet voice tinged with his New Zealand accent, to "play a good long stretch of USA volleyball."

In 2008, McCutcheon coached the U.S. men's volleyball team to gold at the Beijing Olympics. In London, he will try to become only the second coach ever to coach men's and women's volleyball teams to Olympic gold medals, while seeking the U.S. women's first Olympic gold. When finished with his Olympic duties, McCutcheon, 42, will replace retired Mike Hebert as the coach of the successful University of Minnesota program.

Legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, who visited McCutcheon in Anaheim before his death in 2010, made famous his "pyramid of success." McCutcheon's rise would be better described as a labyrinth of surprises.

He grew up in New Zealand, where volleyball is an afterthought. A chance encounter with a U.S. volleyball official led to him playing at Brigham Young.

He would compete professionally in Europe and Japan before turning to coaching to fund his studies. Coaching would introduce him to his wife, Elisabeth "Wiz" Bachman of Lakeville and the women's national team, and place him on an historic path pitted with tragedy.

In Beijing, a deranged man attacked Bachman's parents as they were sightseeing. He fatally stabbed Wiz's father, Todd Bachman, the CEO of Bachman's floral stores, and severely injured Wiz's mother, Barbara. The man jumped to his death.

McCutcheon alternated between grieving, supporting Wiz and coaching the men's team to its first Olympic gold medal since 1988. "I'm very proud of that team," he said. "And I'm proud of what we were able to accomplish despite some pretty crummy circumstances."

Four years later, Wiz is retired and raising the couple's two children -- Andrew, 2, and Annika, 2 months -- and McCutcheon is preparing for London and Minnesota.

There is so much more to his story than tragedy.

"I started playing in high school," he said. "I played a lot of different sports growing up. Volleyball is not a big sport in New Zealand, but I decided to give it a try, and I felt a very natural connection to the game.

"The love of the game started there. It's hard to believe that's about all I've been doing ever since."

He leans back in his office chair and chuckles. "Wow, we're going way back in time," he said. "Shnikeys!"

• • •

For an international volleyball power like the United States to employ a New Zealander as head coach would be like the Red Sox hiring a manager who learned baseball in Liechtenstein.

New Zealanders love rugby, sailing, field hockey, cricket and a sport called "netball."

"Hugh always says New Zealand is great at all of the irrelevant sports that nobody's ever heard of," said U.S. volleyball legend Karch Kiraly, McCutcheon's assistant coach. "But their rugby side has a reputation of developing amazing coaches, and he comes from that vein. They're very open to learning and sharing. Can you imagine NFL coaches getting together in the offseason and sharing everything they knew? No way. That's the way it works in New Zealand."

McCutcheon's jumping ability and love of intricate teamwork steered him toward volleyball.

"I played in high school, played on a club," he said. "We were having some good success, and I just happened to connect with someone from USA Volleyball who was in the country doing clinics. He said that a friend of his was looking for players. A few phone calls later, I'm heading to the States."

BYU's program was struggling. "My first year we went 2-27. My last year, when we beat UCLA, we had beaten everybody in the conference at least once. I got to stuff a ball for match point, which was a nice ending, to get all of the scalps in the league at least once."

McCutcheon, a powerful hitter, played in Finland, where he almost starved, and in Japan, where he chose to starve. "Playing in Finland was bare bones, but it was great," he said. "You're just out of college and having those different experiences. There were a lot of tough times and a lot of introspection -- what am I doing here? -- but I made lifelong friends."

The Japan leagues paid more. "But we trained eight hours a day," he said. "I've never seen a volleyball match last eight hours. I wanted to be able to walk when I was 40, so I had had enough.

"It was hard to get enough protein. I remember one weekend, we're off playing and they'd serve these very ornate meals with incredible presentation. I'm starving, and they bring out this big plate with a big lid and I'm thinking, 'Sweet!' They pull off the lid and it's fish head.

"I'm thinking, 'Disgusting,' and my teammates are celebrating, 'Yeah, fish head!' They got to eat my portion."

McCutcheon was hardly envisioning gold medals and future chats with Wooden. He wanted to make a living. So after coaching in Austria he returned to BYU, entered grad school and became an assistant coach "as a means to an academic end," he said.

He wound up with two master's degrees and a fascination with great coaches. He landed a job as an assistant on the U.S. men's team, became an assistant at the Athens Olympics and became the head coach in 2005, in preparation for the Beijing Games. "And here we are today," he said.

• • •

In a few tomorrows, McCutcheon will be coaching the Gophers, another development he didn't foresee when he was spiking the ball on a beach in New Zealand.

"When Joel Maturi first asked me about the job, I told him, 'There are 20 people who can do that job,'" McCutcheon said of the former Gophers athletic director. "I told him he didn't need me, and I have my whole other thing going on here.

"When I visited Minnesota and saw what they had to offer, I started telling Joel, 'Hey, I don't know if there are 20 people who are right for this job. Maybe there's only one.'"

Chris Tamas played for McCutcheon on the U.S. national team in 2005 and 2006. He will be McCutcheon's assistant at the U.

"When I saw his name in connection with the Minnesota job, I thought it was a great fit because his wife is from Minnesota and his wife's family is from Minnesota," Tamas said. "You talk about the best of the best coaches, he's one of them. Having played for him, I can vouch that Minnesota fans have a lot to look forward to with Hugh in charge."

During a recent weekend of practices and scrimmages with his team in Anaheim, McCutcheon never raised his voice. "Oh, I think you'll find a whole range, from relaxed people to screamers, who coach volleyball," Kiraly said. "There was a famous Russian coach called 'the Howling Bear.' He lit into his team every timeout, scream at his assistants, scream at everybody. That's not Hugh's thing."

Legendary Pepperdine coach Marv Dunphy will serve as a consultant for McCutcheon in London. He remembers McCutcheon, while coaching at BYU, asking if he could watch Dunphy's practices. "That was rather unusual, to have that request from an enemy coach," Dunphy said. "But I was immediately impressed with him. It's not where you're from, it's who you are, and the quality in Hugh is unsurpassed.

"When I do something and he says, 'Good on ya, mate.' That is special. He's special. And it's not just me and his family who knows that; it's the whole volleyball community. There is a fire burning there."

Dunphy marveled at McCutcheon's strength in Beijing. "He and Elisabeth and her family, they dealt with it," Dunphy said. "As a team we were going forward, practicing and playing matches, so we weren't able to help him and be with him very much. We could only imagine. Some things are more important than volleyball, and we knew that was surely the case."

"It was very emotional," said Lindsey Berg, the former Gopher who was on the silver medal team in Beijing and will play for McCutcheon in London. "We came out with mixed emotions -- something so good and something so bad.

"Most of us, if not all of us, have moved on in whatever way we can. All we're focusing on now is our goal. Our only goal. We deserve to be No. 1 in the world right now. We earned it and we're going to go in there confident, not overconfident, and we're going in there to win."

On a recent Saturday, the women's team held an open scrimmage at California-Irvine. When it ended, McCutcheon swept his son into his arms and mingled with players and fans. He couldn't stop smiling.

"I think at Minnesota we can try to win championships and we will try to win championships, but there's a real responsibility to develop human beings that are charactered and know the value of hard work and understand the pursuit of something great," he said. "I believe in the nobility of the effort."

The "nobility of the effort." That sounds like an Olympic motto, no less so because it was coined by a Kiwi trying to make American Olympic history in London before bringing his wife home to Minnesota.

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