The Twitter account for NCAA volleyball sent out a short video this week that was advertised as an inside look at a Gophers practice. The snippet reinforced the opinion I’ve formed in occasional interactions with Hugh McCutcheon during his eight seasons as the Gophers coach.
McCutcheon is strolling around during what looks to be a low-intensity practice. Casual though he appears, McCutcheon is taking in everything, emphasizing proper contact for servers, blockers and hitters.
“Make sure you’re not jumping through the ball, like yesterday,’’ he says to one player, and when impressed with another delivery, says, “That’s a spicy little number.’’
McCutcheon came here with a honored international coaching background. It took a while, but I’ve decided this is the comparison among prominent Minnesota coaches:
He’s the volleyball version of Jacques Lemaire, the Wild’s original coach.
Lemaire had an exceptional track record and no doubts about himself as a coach. His knowledge of the game assured Jacques that he was going to give his team the best possible chance to win. He felt no need to sell himself overtly to the public.
McCutcheon’s the same. Track record. Knowledge and assurance. No need for overt salesmanship.
Here’s another similarity:
Lemaire did owner Bob Naegele a favor in taking the Wild job, giving immediate credibility to an expansion team. McCutcheon did athletic director Joel Maturi a favor in taking this job, allowing the Gophers to continue the big-time volleyball program created by Mike Hebert.
It might be a 5,500-seat arena, not a 50,000-seat stadium, but there’s nothing more intense than big-time volleyball, particularly in the powerful Big Ten. Plus: You don’t run a play, go stand in a huddle for 20 seconds, then walk to the line of scrimmage.
There were 197 points played in five sets between the Gophers and Creighton two weeks ago, with serves coming every 15-20 seconds. The Gophers had to make four different goal-line stands in five minutes to survive, to reach the round of 16, and now their third Final Four in the past five seasons.
Through the frenzy, McCutcheon spends 95% of his time with his long frame perched on a courtside chair, absorbing every action. He looks every bit the coach with full faith in his assistants, as Laura Kasey offers strategy to the “middles’’ and assistant Matt Houk to setters and defenders.
This also makes McCutcheon an imposing figure when he decides to rise from that chair between points. CC McGraw and Adanna Rollins were the players attending a news conference Tuesday and they were asked:
“When you see the coach stand, are you thinking, ‘Oh-oh, what we’d do?’ ”
Both agreed that’s not it at all, that McCutcheon is offering a bit of advice. Added McCutcheon: “Oh-oh looks a lot different from that.’’
Those within the program say that, when McCutcheon gets worked up, it’s usually because of a sloppy, inattentive practice. Such a practice detours the idea of getting better through the course of a season, which is built around playing a rugged nonconference schedule followed by 20 matches — two most weekends — in the unforgiving Big Ten.
There must not have been many such practices in 2019 because this group appears to have improved more than any in McCutcheon’s tenure. For a while, the 2019 Gophers seemed to be the conduit between the Big Ten champions of 2018 and a 2020 team that will feature returning star power joined by a fantastic recruiting class.
Yet, here they are: Final Four, vs. Stanford, defending champion, and Kathryn Plummer, two-time national player of the year.
McCutcheon talked about Plummer for a while on Tuesday and summarized thusly: “She’s the real deal, no question.’’
A gentleman recently voted as the American League Manager of the Year, as a rookie no less, the Twins’ Rocco Baldelli, offered a similar real-deal opinion on McCutcheon.
Baldelli, a former high school volleyball player in Rhode Island, reached out to McCutcheon after being hired by the Twins.
“I spent significant time with him on the phone last winter,’’ Baldelli said. “I’m not just saying this: He helped me a tremendous amount. This was all new to me. I asked a lot of questions about various things … team building, time management.
“Hugh also asks very good questions. He forces you to think about things. I would say that one of his strengths is that, even though he’s done things at a very high level, he doesn’t think he has all the answers.
“He’s a very curious person. He’s interested in other opinions.’’
That might be the fork in a road for a McCutcheon-Lemaire comparison. I feel like Jacques as a coach was more of a my way-or-the-motorway gent.
Write to Patrick Reusse by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org and including his name in the subject line.