It was business as usual at the weekly Gophers volleyball media availability at Maturi Pavilion on Tuesday, or at least that was the attempt.
After saying he wouldn't be answering any questions about his announcement that he will retire at the end of the season, Gophers volleyball coach Hugh McCutcheon faced a slew of questions about that announcement.
He didn't provide much exposition.
"I appreciate everyone's concern, but right now the focus should be on the team and it is," McCutcheon said.
Wanting the focus to stay on the court, the Gophers coach for the past 11 seasons simply said that his team is "a seasoned group, a mature group and they're ready to go to battle."
When a question finally came that was focused on the Gophers matchups this week with Iowa and Purdue, McCutcheon broke the tension, "Appreciate the voice of reason," he said to laughter. "Thank you."
“It was a shock for a lot of us, but you know Hugh has always been such a supportive mentor and coach for us, so we want to support him with his decision.”
The curiosity around his pending retirement is natural; he is a revered coach throughout the volleyball world who has built a culture of winning and development at the University of Minnesota that reflects his image. Even if he were leading the best team in the nation — and his Gophers are ranked No. 9 in the latest AVCA Top 25 — it would be difficult to keep the attention squarely on the court.
If the focus is to be taken off McCutcheon, it will require his team to hit a higher gear of play which it has shown glimpses of this season.
The Gophers (10-6, 5-3 Big Ten) have been off to a lurching start. Dynamic, quality wins over teams such as Wisconsin, Baylor, Florida and Oregon have been mixed with emphatic losses.
The competition in the Big Ten is rugged, and the Gophers were hampered early with an injury to freshman standout Mckenna Wucherer. They have hit a smoother stride of late, winning four of their past five matches.
As curiosity swirls around the program, the Gophers first match after McCutcheon's announcement just so happens to be the team's lone regular season appearance on national television — vs. Iowa at 6 p.m. Wednesday in Coralville, Iowa, on ESPNU.
The idea that this collection of players, which has as much talent as any team in the Big Ten, could rally behind McCutcheon's final season is not far-fetched — even if his departure was impossible to fathom only three days ago.
CC McGraw, the Gophers libero in her fifth season playing for McCutcheon, said that the shock of his forthcoming resignation also led to discussions between players about trying to channel their focus and send their coach off in the right way.
"It was a shock for a lot of us, but you know Hugh has always been such a supportive mentor and coach for us, so we want to support him with his decision," McGraw said. "Because at the end of the day we just want what's best for him."
"We have all this purpose now for this season.There's so much to fight for, for each other and Hugh. That's the narrative we have for this season."
It is a fitting coincidence that as McCutcheon prepares a drastic change in his life, for reasons he is striving to keep private, his players are taking up the message he has worked so hard to instill in them: Success and failure on the volleyball court does not have to define you.
"He wants to prepare you for life after college, and I think that's something that separates him from other top-tier programs across the country," McGraw said. "I'd say that's something that I do not take for granted."
Plus, she added, "There's a lot more to life than just volleyball."
And with that, the Gophers started afternoon practice. They split the team across two courts, music throbbed from the speakers overhead, McCutcheon and his assistants huddled around the whiteboard talking strategy, chaotic tip drills got underway as players careened off each other and slid across the parquet.
An evening flight to Iowa City was a few hours away, the resumption of a grueling season. The focus, finally, was squarely back on the court.