Coaches and athletes in all sports love to compare their teams to families. Makes their inner dynamics sound perfect.
Gophers volleyball coach Hugh McCutcheon isn’t a fan of that analogy.
“There is a degree of dysfunction in families you have to tolerate that I don’t want on a high-functioning team,” he said. “You’ve got the crazy aunt and drunk uncle. Who wants that on your team? We talk about being a high-functioning team.”
McCutcheon enjoys the best of both worlds. His players are high-functioning on the court and close-knit away from it. The Gophers see a national championship within reach because of that.
Many reasons exist for their return trip to the NCAA Final Four this week. The talent accumulated and culture created by their New Zealander coach belong at the top.
McCutcheon continues to prove that he is among the finest coaches in his profession.
“He’s on a different level,” Gophers athletic director Mark Coyle said. “What I like about him is he’s always thinking. I always feel like he’s a step ahead.”
Coyle, in his first semester on campus, thought enough of his volleyball coach to put him ahead of many of his peers financially as well. Two weeks ago, Coyle signed the 47-year-old coach to contract that will pay him about $450,000 this school year — possibly more than men’s hockey coach Don Lucia, depending on how the Gophers skaters fare. In just over four years, McCutcheon’s annual base pay has doubled, and he will top a half-million dollars annually if he’s still with the Gophers in the final year of the deal, the 2020-21 school year.
The coach is helping himself, too: He’s already up to $30,000 in NCAA tournament bonuses this month, and could double that if the Gophers win it all in Columbus, Ohio, on Saturday.
Winning is a main ingredient on McCutcheon’s résumé. He guided the U.S. men’s national team to a gold medal at the 2008 Olympics and won silver medal as coach of the U.S. women’s team at the 2012 London Games.
In five seasons with the Gophers, he has two Final Four appearances, a Sweet 16 and an Elite Eight. He owns a 134-36 record and has not lost at home in two-plus seasons.
McCutcheon’s coaching style has earned him admirers inside his sport and athletic department. He’s innovative, philosophical and willing to adapt as his sport evolves.
“Coaching is not algorithmic,” he said. “There’s no one way to do it.”
McCutcheon doesn’t talk to his team very often about winning. He’d rather focus on achieving “competitive excellence.” He believes improvement occurs by a slow drip of “marginal gains.”
“Realizing your potential is a habit. It’s not a switch,” he said.
He inherited a program with pedigree and made it better by focusing on commitment and embracing expectations. He gives players a blueprint and then holds them accountable.
“There’s no gray area with Hugh McCutcheon,” said former athletic director Joel Maturi, who hired McCutcheon after agreeing to wait 18 months while he finished his Olympic duties. “Everything is direct in a polite, respectful way. But it’s direct.”
McCutcheon isn’t a coaching tyrant, though. Just the opposite. He rarely raises his voice with players. He mostly watches matches from his seat, focusing on the action intensely, a picture of calm.
I referred to him as stoic. He disagreed.
“Stoic implies it’s all repressed and there’s some space,” he said. “I’m a big believer in relationships. I really work hard to connect with our athletes. It’s very much a flatter organizational structure than it is vertically. We’re all in it together.”
He even includes those outside his own team. Football coach Tracy Claeys picked McCutcheon’s brain on coaching philosophies last winter. Claeys altered portions of his practice schedule after hearing McCutcheon’s message.
“The first thing out of his mouth was, ‘Coach, if you’re going to do things how things are done traditionally, then I can’t do you any good,’ ” Claeys said.
McCutcheon’s point was, coaches must be open to change and not stuck in their ways. Simply following familiar methods because that’s how things have always been done “is never the right reason for doing anything unless it’s the right reason,” McCutcheon said.
“Fifty years ago, we used to give our kids cod liver oil,” he added. “Doesn’t mean that that’s the thing we should be giving them today.”
One department official (half) joked McCutcheon could be an organization CEO. His life is busy enough with volleyball and spending time with his wife and two young children.
“There’s not much time to do anything else,” McCutcheon said.
He’s not complaining.
“I’m not one of those guys that needs to go play 18 holes of golf to get my head straight or whatever,” he said. “Coaching is a privilege. But coaching is what I do, it’s not who I am. When that space gets blurred it can lead to all kinds of trouble.”
Judging by his success, he’s found the proper balance.