Hugh McCutcheon was the head coach of the silver medal-winning U.S. women’s volleyball team in London during the Olympics.
Two weeks later, he moved across the country to start a new job – head coach of the Gophers women’s volleyball team.
The transition was quick, but McCutcheon has been ready for the switch since he signed his contract in February 2011.
“For a year and a half we’ve known that after the Olympics this is where we’re going,” McCutcheon said in mid-August.
Minnesota allowed McCutcheon to finish his national team duties before joining the Gophers. And the coach said this Olympics capped his 11 years of international coaching.
“The Games was great. We obviously had some aspirations to finish a little higher, but we’re very proud of our silver medal … and the four years of work we put in,” McCutcheon said. “But at the end of that tournament, there was definitely a sense of closure for me and a sense of excitement for the new journey.”
The New Zealand native started his tenure with USA Volleyball as an assistant coach of the men’s team in the early 2000s. He eventually head coached the team to a gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. After that triumph, he turned to the female counterparts for the next Games.
The coach also managed a club in Austria. But college coaching won’t be a completely new endeavor.
McCutcheon was an assistant coach and recruiter at Brigham Young, his alma mater and former team, from 1995-2001 in one of his first coaching jobs.
“I enjoy college athletics,” McCutcheon said. “I certainly believe in the principles of what I think college athletics should be about.”
But after so much success on the highest level of volleyball, why would a coach want to return to where he started?
“There’s a lot of travel that goes with my old job,” McCutcheon said. “College volleyball presented an environment where obviously there’s still a lot at stake … but without the same … disruptions to the family lifestyle.”
McCutcheon estimated he traveled 130 to 150 days a year with USA Volleyball. With young children, he said he felt he needed to spend more time with them.
As for choosing Minnesota, McCutcheon said he was indifferent at first. The Gophers volleyball program has made several Final Four appearances and one national title match but is not considered a powerhouse.
“Originally when Joel Maturi talked to me, I wasn’t particularly interested. Maybe that was just because I had a job that I was quite happy with,” McCutcheon said.
But after he got to know the athletic administration and toured the facilities, he changed his mind. It helped that he has family here – his wife is Minneapolis native and former U.S. volleyball player Elisabeth Bachman.
“The professional thing was the main part of it, and then on top of it, there’s this family piece as well,” McCutcheon said.
He signed a contract to coach Minnesota but held off on starting until the 2012 Olympics were over. He met the Gophers once back in early 2011, but he hasn’t interacted much since.
“He’s a great coach, but [the players are] also going to find out that he’s a great person,” former interim head coach and current assistant coach Laura Bush said. “He’s not one-dimensional by any means.”
Senior setter Mia Tabberson said she is glad to finally be able to get to know the new coach.
“It’ll finally answer some unknown questions of what’s Hugh like,” Tabberson said. “You finally have a face and person to this mystical figure that’s Hugh McCutcheon.”
Junior outside hitter Ashley Wittman said she is looking forward to having a coach with diverse experience.
“He’s coached men, he’s coached women and obviously he’s the Olympic coach,” Wittman said. “He knows his stuff, otherwise he wouldn’t be in that position. Coming to work with us, I think he can only help us out and make us better.”
In preparation for McCutcheon’s arrival, Minnesota implemented a new system last season.
“Our [interim] coaches I think have done a good job of teaching the USA Volleyball system and the system that Hugh is running,” junior middle blocker Tori Dixon said. “I don’t know if [volleyball] is going to be that much different. The only thing different I think is that it is going to be coming from a new person.”
McCutcheon, however, said he will tweak the style of play to fit the athletes once he arrives.
“We’ll end up playing the University of Minnesota system,” McCutcheon said.
“I don’t profess to have all the answers, but I think I know a little bit about the game of volleyball … and how to build functional teams,” McCutcheon said.
“We want to build on the strong history of success that the program already has. But there’s a lot of work ahead.”
The work is not just up to the team – McCutcheon has some catching up to do himself. With the demand of coaching the national team at the Olympics, he hasn’t had much time to keep up with the Gophers besides updates from the assistant coaches.
“I’ve had a finger on the pulse of what’s been going on at the U, but I would not say I’m fully versed,” McCutcheon said two weeks before joining the team. “I’m optimistic that I can learn quickly, and I don’t think we’ll skip too many beats.”