“We’re not trying to be all things to all people. We just try to be clear about the principles that drive us and the culture we have. That will either resonate with people or it won’t."
On Wednesday, in the media room at the University of Minnesota’s Maturi Pavilion, a reporter lobs an easy question most coaches savor and spike with a canned and cliched answer.
“Has it been difficult for her to wait her turn to play?” the reporter asks.
Ever pensive — and never predictable — Gophers volleyball coach Hugh McCutcheon diplomatically disputes the premise of the question and philosophically addresses one of the key tenets that’s established his program as not only one of the nation’s elite but also among its most unique.
“You have to earn the right to be out there, and she wasn’t able to earn it until now,” McCutcheon says. “It speaks to this idea of meritocracy. I would say earning is a better way to describe it than waiting.”
That same thinking applies to the Gophers.
McCutcheon's seventh season with the Gophers ended Friday night at Maturi Pavillion. The No. 2 seeded Gophers were upset 3-1 by the University of Oregon.
But even heading into the match, McCutcheon talked about how special of a team he had.
“I think it’s been a great group,” McCutcheon says. “We always talk about the space between what you say and what you do. These guys have lived it better than any group we’ve had so far. Now whether that translates to the results we all hope, I don’t know. But their process was phenomenal.”
He’s known for “Hugh-isms,” ethos and sayings that seem counter-cultural in sports, including collegiate volleyball, where there’s peak focus on statistics, wins, titles and scholarships. That’s what was so refreshing to Alexis Hart, a native of Kansas City, Missouri.
“It’s more than volleyball,” she says. “I can’t say I’ve seen that a lot in coaches, who just care about the athlete you are. He cares about you as a person.”
But his program isn’t for everyone.
“We’re not trying to be all things to all people,” McCutcheon says. “We just try to be clear about the principles that drive us and the culture we have. That will either resonate with people or it won’t. Either way, it’ll be OK. I think Shakespeare had it right: To thine own self be true.”
Here are four of McCutcheon’s keys:
MUST BE ABLE TO WORK
In McCutcheon’s mind, talent does not equal success.
“I don’t think talent is a particularly rare thing. I think there’s a lot of talented people out there,” he says. “But there are very few who have talent then have the work ethic, and the competitive maturity to be able to do all the things we need to do.”
That’s a foundational key for McCutcheon, who grew up playing volleyball in New Zealand, where the dominant sports are rugby and cricket. The proverbial big fish in a little pond, McCutcheon deeply believed he must leave home to fully tap his potential in volleyball. So he transferred from the University of Canterbury in New Zealand to Brigham Young University to help build the foundation for Carl McGown. In McCutcheon’s first season, BYU won just two matches, yet the Cougars steadily improved and were 15-10 when his playing career was complete.
Stephanie Samedy is from Clermont, Florida, and she was ranked the fifth-best recruit by prepvolleyball.com coming out of East Ridge High School. She had experienced many different styles of coaches but never one quite like McCutcheon. He wasn’t in-your-face and super aggressive or super passive.
“Hugh is about the fundamentals and understanding the game and why you’re doing things, so you can make it repeatable,” Samedy says. “I think that approach is something I had never seen before and that works best for me. I’m a learner, and I want to improve any way I can.”
MUST BE ABLE TO LEARN
One of the most common “Hugh-isms” goes like this: “A better you, makes a better us.”
Resting on your laurels won’t be sufficient to excel under McCutcheon, so everyone in the program is constantly challenging themselves to grow and learn, in the classroom and on the court.
“We talk about it all the time. Your personal agenda is important but it shouldn’t be bigger than the team agenda,” he says. “The more improvement you can make, the better you can become and the better we can become.”
McCutcheon appreciates the marginal gains and doesn’t just dwell on the obvious and glaring ones.
That’s a lesson freshman Adanna Rollins has taken to heart.
Given the depth and talent on the roster, freshmen don’t always break into the lineup, and Rollins told the Minnesota Daily that she didn’t expect to be an “impact player” this season. But the Texas native enrolled early and was willing to push herself, particularly with her footwork.
“It worked in high school but not here,” Rollins told the Daily. “I just listened to what the coaches were telling me to do, and I think I’ve really improved.”
Samantha Seliger-Swenson had many college options as she was winding down her time at Hopkins High School in Minnesota. But McCutcheon just seemed different from other coaches in the way he talked.
“He’s just so full of knowledge and wisdom. I was really drawn to the way he knew so much about the game, and how to motivate the players, and the direction he wanted the program to go,” she says. “I could tell it was genuine and coming from a sincere place.
“As a setter, it’s my job to make everyone else look good; that’s the nature of my position,” she adds. “That’s something Hugh has helped me with: Developing my play because a better you means a better us.”
MUST BE COMFORTABLE COMPETING
McCutcheon definitely differs from a lot of other head coaches in this regard: He refuses to promise playing time or a starting position.
“We don’t care how you get in the gym,” he says. “Our gym is a meritocracy.”
That approach is largely responsible for one of his distinctions, which is successfully coaching women and men. Most significantly, McCutcheon led the U.S. men’s national team to a gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the country’s first podium finish since 1992. The national team was ranked second in the world when he left that program. He immediately transitioned to the U.S. women’s national team, culminating with a silver medal at the 2012 London Olympics.
That pedigree and promise — or lack thereof — does appeal to some athletes.
“If anything, it made me more sure that I should be here,” says Stephanie Samedy, a sophomore from Florida. “If a coach is promising you something, you don’t know if that’s just words, or if it’s going to change once you get there. But Hugh promises you that you can earn your spot and that if you work for it every day, you will get an opportunity.”
Besides, Hart’s goal wasn’t just to play.
“At other programs, you may play but are you getting better? I knew I was going to get better, whether I played or not played,” she says.
Samedy trusts McCutcheon because of his commitment to her development on the court and off the court. Naturally hard on herself, Samedy says her coach has helped her to be more patient and show herself more grace.
“Hugh just taught me to be kinder to myself and that it’s OK if I make mistakes,” she says. “I don’t have to beat myself up and be my own worst enemy. It’s OK to make mistakes, as long as I’m growing.”
And while other coaches offer a lot, Samedy says McCutcheon’s resume stood out.
“He knows what it’s like to coach Olympic athletes,” Samedy says, “and get to the places I want to be.”
MUST BE A GOOD TEAMMATE
Based on her experience, Hart says many coaches only care about you when you’re helping them win.
“In club and high school, if you lose, you’re a failure,” she says. “My freshman year, that was different.”
Hart was stunned when McCutcheon would tell her, “You’re a great athlete, but I see past that.”
So when there were struggles, Hart was confident that McCutcheon would still encourage and support her.
“It made me realize that he’s going to be there for me, even if it’s going to be a rough time and get better,” she says. “It’s more than volleyball. He cares about you as a person.”
Integrity and character matter in the program.
Former Gopher All-America Daly Santana told the Minneapolis Star Tribune in August that McCutcheon changed her life.
"Hugh is amazing,” he said. “He equips you with all the tools you need inside the court and outside the court to do whatever you want to do in life.”
While the Gophers' season ended with a disappointing loss, McCutcheon will focus on the lessons learned this season and the keys to a successful offseason.
“We hope to win, we like to win,” McCutcheon says. “But those results are a byproduct of this process of trying to develop the habits of greatness."