At the University of Minnesota Hugh McCutcheon is a couple of months into a position that few schools in the country have in place. McCutcheon, the acclaimed former Golden Gophers volleyball coach, has the title of assistant athletics director/sport development coach.
In locker room translation that means he is a coaching guru who coaches the coaches from the athletic department’s 22 sports programs. He is available to consult with them on how they can be better at what they do. No other Big Ten Conference program has such a resource, but that might change soon in a world of competitive athletics where everyone is looking for an edge in performance.
Then again, how many schools have a Hugh McCutcheon? His wisdom has long been admired among inside the department by his coaching peers. Externally, he has been a TED speaker, consultant to the Minnesota Twins and book author.
McCutcheon provides how-to coaching advice in his 2022 book Championship Behaviors A Model for Competitive Excellence in Sports. The book’s purpose is to help coaches and athletes “achieve significant outcomes in sports.”
Those words and the following ones are in the introduction: “…Where significant means to strive for an outcome that will require work and change. Something beyond their current abilities.”
The book, which is also helpful to parents of athletes, speaks to the art and science of sports. Readers are presented with research, principles and methods that have resulted in efficient and desired outcomes while recognizing success is certainly not always measured by the scoreboard.
“We won’t always have five-star talent, but we can often make up the difference by being five-star teachers, learners, and competitors,” McCutcheon has said.
There are no shortcuts to change. Coaches and athletes must work via a path that makes sense physically, mechanically, and psychologically. McCutcheon’s book offers guidance and can also assist parents in judging whether they’re making a worthwhile investment (in time and money) in their child’s sports development. All concerned are encouraged to remember this: championships (whatever your definition) require championship behaviors.
McCutcheon, 53, is a cerebral guy, a deep thinker, but the opposite of a know-it-all. He is modest, approachable and emphasizes how important it is to listen to others. That’s job one at the U when he meets with coaching peers in his new role that has him working four-days per week. “Full-time, part-time,” McCutcheon said.
McCutcheon holds a group meeting at the U once a month with coaches, along with individual sessions where he can be a sounding board and help their development.
He walked away after last season from a nationally renowned women’s volleyball program that he built. He ended an 11-year career that was highlighted by two Big Ten titles and three trips to the NCAA Final Four.
Because he was being pulled in so many different directions, a “1,000 cuts,” he said. Part of his departure was driven by a desire to spend more time with family. During an interview with Sports Headliners he was attentive but concerned about time and tending to his sick son Andrew.
McCutcheon’s character and values are so apparent to anyone who meets him. Minnesota athletic director Mark Coyle knows the New Zealand native better than many others. Last year Coyle asked McCutcheon to tell him about his book. The two leaders spent a couple of hours in discussion and that provided Coyle with further insights about coaching and McCutcheon, and laid groundwork to an announcement last October that Minnesota’s volleyball coach would soon have a newly created role in the athletic department starting in January.
“His guidance and proven leadership will benefit all of our coaches as we continue to work to provide a holistic and world-class experience for our student-athletes,” Coyle said in a statement last October. “Hugh has had success at the Olympic and collegiate level coaching both men and women, and I know he will be able to provide additional value to our program.”
McCutcheon’s Olympic resume includes coaching the U.S. men to the 2008 Gold Medal. In four years with the U.S. Men’s National Team his record was 107-33. He also had a run with the U.S. Women’s National team and between both men’s and women’s programs compiled a record of 213-72.
Those achievements, and his many others, don’t come without planning and work. “I always set goals,” McCutcheon said referencing daily and longer-term tasks. He identifies what is to be accomplished and the tasks needed to achieve the goals.
As a college student, McCutcheon left Canterbury University in New Zealand to continue his education at Brigham Young in Provo, Utah. He played volleyball for the Cougars from 1991-1993. He earned his bachelor’s degree in physical education there, then played professional volleyball in Finland and Japan before returning to BYU to receive an MBA.
McCutcheon has been a lot of places and had many experiences, and along the way he has learned coaching is a powerful platform. But it’s often relatively easy to gain entry to coach in youth sports and sometimes even on the college and professional levels. Many who carry the title of coach are far from prepared in knowledge of their sport and how to relate most effectively with athletes.
“You might have someone who was a good player who is now asked to coach,” McCutcheon said. “It’s like taking someone who was a good shopper at Target and making them a manager at the store.”
Trouble awaits those who aren’t open enough to learn and change. A coach who is unqualified won’t be successful in developing trust with his team. And trust is one of McCutcheon’s pillars for success. Ideally, athletes must learn to trust themselves, their teammates and coaches.
Coaches need to be aware of who they are and what they’re doing because they can harm others, McCutcheon said. Athletes need to be coached in three areas: physical, emotional and social which includes being a good teammate who tries to make others better. Unfortunately, many coaches have neither degrees or backgrounds in coaching.
Respect between athletes and coaches can start with an honest approach. Despite McCutcheon’s inspiring resume prior to becoming Gopher volleyball coach, he told his first team, “I know I have to earn your respect.”
Just the introduction you would expect from this extraordinary teacher.