On a Sunday night in October, Hugh McCutcheon sent shock waves around the college volleyball world.

At age 53, at the height of his powers as Gophers coach — and having reached three Final Fours since 2015 while leading another stellar roster of talent — he said he was going to resign at the end of the season.

Two months later, sitting in his new office at the end of the labyrinthine hallways of the Bierman Building, McCutcheon looked like a man at peace but in transition. Unpacked boxes were stacked against the wall and two swivel chairs sat in the middle of the room.

The volleyball season had just ended — his final match a Sweet 16 loss to Ohio State — and he was starting in his new role as assistant athletic director/sport development coach.

His departure created fissures for the Gophers volleyball program; some of his former coaches and players have departed. But McCutcheon said that while his resignation felt abrupt, it was a culmination for him.

Not that it made the decision easy.

"Incredibly difficult and very challenging personally and professionally. You instantly create ripples," he said. "In an environment where I try very hard to not make it about me, it was uncomfortable to make it about me."

In his mind, the decision to announce the resignation midseason was not sensational; it was the best time for everyone involved. He knew he was leaving, so why not give his players, staff and the university as much time to prepare as possible?

But it was his decision to not discuss why he was resigning after 11 years to move into an administrative role at Minnesota that created an ironic situation.

He would not be talking about it because he wanted the focus to stay on his players and the season. But by not talking about it, the scrutiny on his decision grew more intense.

"I wanted to minimize, as much as possible, my personal narrative. I just want the information [about resigning] out there," McCutcheon said. "A week or so later, [athletic director] Mark [Coyle] and [deputy athletic director] Julie [Manning] were like, 'Would you be OK if we let people know what you're going to do?' Just because there's speculation."

So the university released a statement about McCutcheon's new role — a position he and Coyle created after discussing concepts McCutcheon developed for a TED Talk in July 2021 and expanded in a book he published this year.

"People felt they were entitled to an answer, and that's fine," he said.

A meaningful transition

For McCutcheon the move had been brewing internally, starting with that TED Talk in the woods of North Dakota. When he finished his speech, something felt right.

"That was the most energy-giving thing I had done in, it felt, a long time," he recalled. "It was really powerful for me to feel uncomfortable and be stretched and deliver a decent product and feel like, 'Man, I put something good into the world.' "

What he put into the world was a questioning of what it means to be a coach and to participate in athletics.

McCutcheon was bothered by the unending focus on wins and losses and the promises of fame and fortune that are given to young athletes but are unrealistic for most of them. He worried about the increase of parental involvement in the coaching space. He questioned the lack of training and education for coaches at all levels of sports. And he felt he could help.

"Hugh and I probably have if not daily, at least two or three times a week, conversations, and so many of those conversations had nothing to do with volleyball," Coyle said. "They were just about life, the department, what we're trying to do long term."

McCutcheon said his new role is advisory, in which he will not impose his ideas but be a resource for any coach at the U who wants to use him for advice or discussion.

"There are a lot of coaches [at the University of Minnesota] who are good and successful and in no way, shape or form am I here to tell them how to do their job," McCutcheon said. "I'm here to help them do their job."

In order to see how he might help coaches and athletes on a larger scale, he had to disrupt the lives of the coaches on his staff and the players on his roster.

He knew that first and foremost meant Matt and Jen Houk — his associate head coach and assistant coach, respectively, who are also a married couple.

"They were incredible," McCutcheon said.

"Our first reaction to this was not as his assistant coaches but more as friends who saw their friend going through something and trying to struggle through a decision," Matt Houk said.

They were caring though the ramifications were real. The Houks would end up leaving the program after Keegan Cook was named the new coach.

With his players, McCutcheon was straightforward, but also clarified that "you haven't done anything wrong" and his decision had nothing to do with this particular season.

It was a scenario that required maturity from a group that came to the U to play for this staff.

Matt Houk described their reaction as "incredible."

"They were amazing," Jen Houk added. "The athletes were so good at getting back to [playing] and being in the moment and staying in a space of things where we could actually have some control."

The Gophers would go 13-3 after McCutcheon's announcement and finish ranked 10th in the nation.

Reevaluating amid changes in college sports

While the team itself didn't play into McCutcheon's resignation, changes in college sports did — including rules that allowed players to transfer without sitting out a season and the largely unregulated introduction of compensation to student-athletes for use of their name, image and likeness.

"Over the decade the nature of college athletics has shifted," McCutcheon said. "To say that now with the current environment, I mean even at the times when it's down it is not down. … So what ends up happening is it becomes more intrusive into your family life."

With two children approaching their teens, the career change felt right.

But the transition for Gophers volleyball was abrupt.

The season ended on a Thursday afternoon. There was no news conference for the end of McCutcheon's tenure. Four days later, Cook was named coach. Since then the focus has been on the transfer portal: Starters Jenna Wenaas went to Texas and Carter Booth to Wisconsin.

In the modern era of collegiate athletics, the season never stops.

But for one of the most respected volleyball coaching careers in America, it was a quiet denouement.

The Gophers under McCutcheon were a study in high-level competitive consistency: The highest winning percentage in Gophers volleyball history (277-74, 78.9%), eight consecutive Sweet 16s or better, three Final Fours, 17 All-Americas.

That he was able to do that while emphasizing not winning but the growth and development of players both technically and personally made him revered.

During a road trip late in the season, a friend took McCutcheon out for coffee and asked how he felt about his coaching career coming to an end. McCutcheon couldn't find the answer.

"I really was in a little bit of turmoil about what do I think about all of this?" he recalled. "Where I landed was I just feel incredibly grateful to have had this opportunity. Most coaches are hired to be fired or hired to retire."

It was in that feeling that McCutcheon found resolution.

"The idea that I could be able to have this season — have, I think, a strong season of competitive success, be able to operate in truth as well, and not blow it up — just grateful. Whatever that means in terms of whatever we did, I don't know. But I think we did a lot. I think we did good."