April 5, 2013
By Michael Kasiborski
Michigan head coach Carol Hutchins has a strange relationship with W's. You may find that odd considering she's been on a mission to collect them for 30 years. On Friday, March 29, Michigan's hall of fame coach earned win No. 1,300 with a 7-4 victory at Penn State. She became just the third NCAA softball coach to reach that milestone.
Hutch's head coaching journey started in 1982 in Big Rapids, Mich., at Ferris State University. Following two years as an assistant at Michigan, she took the reins as head coach in 1985. In the intervening 29 years, she has reshaped Big Ten softball and caused a seismic shift in NCAA softball by establishing a powerhouse in the Midwest.
And while Hutch is now part of an exclusive trio of softball head coaches, it is a different triumvirate that is most significant to her. As for those W's? It's a different letter that drives her.
Bonnie Tholl arrived on the U-M campus in the late 1980s and promptly earned a spot on the All-Big Ten team as shortstop in 1988. It is a feat she repeated three more times -- the first Big Ten player to achieve that and only one of two to accomplish that distinction since. She returned to Ann Arbor in 1994 as an assistant coach and has never left.
"One of the big lessons Hutch has taught me is that I shouldn't ever apologize for my passion," says Tholl. "I've known her as a player and a coach, and I know she never settles for mediocrity."
Before Michigan assistant coach Jennifer Brundage coached 13 Wolverine pitchers to All-America citations, she played third base for the UCLA Bruins, a softball powerhouse if there ever was one.
"I was right there by the third base coaching box with all the opposing coaches," says Brundage. "I knew I wanted to be a coach, so I paid attention to the coaches. Hutch was one of the few coaches that I thought I could've played for."
Brundage made her way to Ann Arbor in 1999 and joined the coaching staff. One gold medal at the 2000 Sydney Olympics and 15 seasons later, she still has the least amount of seniority on the permanent coaching staff.
|Jennifer Brundage||Bonnie Tholl|
This coaching triumvirate has accounted for 714 wins in the past 15 years, or about 55 percent of Hutch's win total. They are the three sturdy legs of the softball program's foundation. Hutchins is quick to deflect any praise for her win total and instead heaps it elsewhere.
"When I talk about what has helped us be successful, I talk about the standards and having invested assistants," says Hutchins. "It's not like the program is more important to me because I'm the head coach; it's just as important to Bonnie and Jen, and that's unique."
One word comes up over and over again when talking to the Michigan coaching staff: trust. They say it is the key ingredient to their success and stability.
"Those coaches make us," says Hutchins. "Our trust factor is so great. I can disagree with what they want to do until I'm dead, but I know everybody's agenda is 'how are we going to win?' -- there are no personal agendas. It's the best trust you could have."
To obtain trust -- like wins -- you must earn it. These coaches know that if you trust in one another and trust your approach, the W's will take care of themselves.
"I think our continuity is huge," says Tholl. "The only way it wouldn't work is if somebody on your staff doesn't believe in the leader's philosophy."
They wear that philosophy everyday: the Block M. That one special letter is the source of their unyielding motivation.
"That's the most important thing we teach: this is not about you, this is about Michigan," says Hutchins. "We always go back to the fact that a student-athlete's job is to take care of the Block M."
Hutch says she learned that from Bo Schembechler when their time overlapped at Michigan. It is a standard that 20 softball players buy into each year, and three coaches have bought into for years.
"(Hutch) isn't necessarily about winning," says Brundage. "She's about accomplishing the Michigan standard game in and game out, year in and year out."
"When the kids talk, they talk about Hutch holding them to a higher standard than they ever held themselves," says Tholl. "I think that is empowering because they are part of a program that they are really proud of."
Schembechler casts a long shadow across Michigan athletics, and Hutch says it's a simple approach: it is about the team, and it is about Michigan.
Over the years, Tholl and Brundage have solidified the trust of their head coach by upholding that standard. They say the trust Hutch has in them allows them to actually coach and not just occupy space in the dugout.
"To have a voice and be able to develop my own coaching style is huge," says Brundage. "(Hutch) lets us share our knowledge freely with the kids without trying to censor it or be threatened by it."
Simply put, that approach is working. The trio has led Michigan to 10 Big Ten titles -- including five in a row -- five appearances in the Women's College World Series and one national championship.
"They both could've left for more money many times over," she says. "They sacrificed a better living because they believe in Michigan, they love Michigan."
With a program built on stability and consistency, it may not surprise you that Hutch's assistants have not seen her change or waver too much in her actions over the years.
Tholl will tell you that Hutch has gotten better at communicating her expectations. When pressed for an answer, Brundage moves away from softball competition.
"I feel like if anything, winning has empowered her to empower others," says Brundage. "Having all of her success has given her an even bigger voice (to advocate for women)."
During several seasons she has assigned freshman classes with writing reports on Title IX. In March, Hutchins was honored with the Carol Hollenshead Award for promoting equity and social change by the Center for the Education of Women at U-M. Accolades like that will not show up in her won-loss record, but it is an enduring part of the program Hutch has built.
"She's teaching (our players) to be great, strong women in whatever they do -- whether they're answering a question in their calculus course or playing in the outfield," says Tholl.
"Women today are going to be influenced by something, and it's my job as a coach to influence them properly," says Hutchins.
You won't read about love and trust in any boxscores. The "R" in the box most certainly stands for runs, not respect. But in a game laden with statistical measurements, it is those undefinable qualities that account for Michigan softball's stability and success.
"Our alums love Michigan, they love Michigan softball, and they treasure their experience here," says Brundage. "It's not all fun and games, but they have a certain comfort level knowing their coach loves them and cares for them."
"We just saw a group of our alums in California," says Tholl. "Those moments bring Hutch the greatest joy, that's the success story."
"I have so many former players now, and it is the highlight of my life when I get to see all the people that played here," says Hutchins. "We don't see each other for years, but the connection is immediate. We always start telling funny stories, and nobody so much talks about when you won or lost."
And when you have relationships like that, you may find it hard to prioritize W's too.