COLUMBUS, OHIO – In another life, Hugh McCutcheon might have found his niche as a CEO, or perhaps a management guru. The Gophers volleyball coach guides his program’s ideology as carefully as he directs its strategy on the court, using a vocabulary more typically heard in the boardroom than the locker room.
McCutcheon and his players speak frequently about empowerment and collaboration. Making their second consecutive trip to the Final Four, he said, is as much about creating a culture and leadership as it is about Sarah Wilhite’s bruising swing or Samantha Seliger-Swenson’s flawless sets. Wednesday, at a news conference at Nationwide Arena, he chose another MBA-caliber word to describe the rigid coaching approach he disdains.
“I’ve said often, this job is not algorithmic,” McCutcheon said, referring to the idea of one-size-fits-all management. “[The job] is really about fitting the system and the culture, and all the parts that go into it becoming a high-functioning team, to the group you have, versus saying ‘It’s my way or the highway.’ ”
There is The McCutcheon Way, however, and it has raised an already strong program to even greater heights. The top-ranked Gophers play No. 9 Stanford in Thursday’s NCAA semifinals, with the winner facing either No. 2 Nebraska or No. 5 Texas in Saturday’s national championship match.
This is a business trip, not a vacation, the coach said, for a team that fell short in the national semifinals last year. It returns as a wiser group that has benefited from another season under a coach who is more new-age than old-school. After taking over the program in 2012 following the retirement of longtime coach Mike Hebert, McCutcheon instituted a modern management style that has the Gophers well-equipped to chase their first NCAA championship.
There is no yelling, and players are treated as adults. Athletes feel free to speak their minds, knowing their input is valued. The Gophers do not chafe under McCutcheon’s stringent expectations for commitment and workload, because they believe they have the support and tools they need to succeed.
“It’s a different coaching style than the harsh, degrading coaching style that many student-athletes face,” senior Paige Tapp said. “It’s all about empowerment and encouragement and building us up. [McCutcheon] has motivated us to do everything we can for this program.”
That has delighted the fans who pack the Sports Pavilion, including alumnae. Tori Dixon, who played for both Hebert and McCutcheon, is thrilled with the progress.
“Mike was pretty old-school, and it worked,” Dixon said of Hebert, who led the Gophers to three Final Fours and compiled a 382-136 record in 15 seasons. “Hugh is very current with the times. He’s into technology, and he believes there isn’t one right way to do things, but multiple ways.
“He’s continued a lot of great things Mike did, like getting the really great Minnesota players to stay in-state. But the style of play and the team dynamic has changed for the better. I’m really excited to see how well that mix is working.”
McCutcheon did not have a timetable for a title when he came to the U. He brought a set of principles from his tenure as head coach for two Olympic teams — the U.S. men, who won gold in 2008, and the U.S. women, who took silver in 2012 — and sought like-minded athletes who were not afraid to be challenged.
In his first five seasons, the Gophers have gone 134-36, won a Big Ten championship in 2015 and advanced to the Sweet Sixteen or farther in four NCAA tournaments. This season’s team captured the No. 1 ranking for the first time since 2004. On Wednesday, Wilhite and Seliger-Swenson were named first-team All-America, senior middle blocker Hannah Tapp was named to the second team and junior Molly Lohman and freshman Alexis Hart were honorable mention.
The modus operandi of McCutcheon and his staff is to set clear aspirations, then teach players the everyday behaviors to lead them there. He repeats key words and phrases in team meetings and practices, planting them in players’ minds until they no longer have to think about them. Once concepts such as accountability, trust, gratitude, commitment and effort become part of their lexicon, McCutcheon helps them discover how to align their conduct with their goals.
The Gophers call it “championship behavior.” It has become the underpinning of the program.
“[McCutcheon] constantly said, ‘We’re trying to bring in good people who will learn how to work hard and gain skills they can use throughout their lives,” Paige Tapp said. “I was like, ‘Oh, that sounds great.’ But I didn’t know the magnitude of it.
“We have a very close relationship with our coaches. We communicate honestly and effectively, and everyone is treated equally; it’s not a dictatorship. They’re our biggest fans. And by pushing us and empowering us, we’ve learned how to build something we’re super proud of.”
The Gophers have no cliques, McCutcheon said, but neither do they believe that everyone must be the best of friends. While many players are close off the court, McCutcheon said the emphasis is on being a good teammate. They don’t do anything special to build team bonds — “We don’t fall out of trees and catch each other, or anything like that,” McCutcheon said — but develop inclusivity in the gym.
“We know that better people make better Gophers,” he said. “You can’t win the Derby on a donkey. You need some thoroughbreds. But you also need to have people who have some character, who can fit the culture we’re trying to create.”
Each year under McCutcheon, Tapp said, the players have deepened their commitment to the coach’s tenets. By working a little harder, trusting each other a little more and pushing each other a little more emphatically, they have become more resilient — a key reason why they enter the Final Four on a 14-match win streak — and enter Thursday’s semifinal with an enormous drive to win.
The McCutcheon Way requires athletes to accept a different kind of college life, one that favors perspiration over parties.
“They’ve chosen the pursuit of excellence and discipline and work,” the coach said. “Maybe they didn’t get to go out as many times as they wanted during the season. But you’ve only got four years to make your magic happen here.”
By taking their coach’s ideas to heart, they hope the magic lasts long after they’ve moved on.
“I’m excited to see where this program goes,” Tapp said. “This is definitely not the end-all.’’