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Fri June 1, 2012
Why Michigan's softball team knocks it out of the park
The University of Michigan softball team won the Big Ten title this year – for the fifth year in a row, and 15th time overall. It went to the NCAA tournament – for the 18th straight season. Winning titles is what they do.
And this was not even one of head coach Carol Hutchins’ best teams.
That’s how well this machine runs – and make no mistake, it is a machine. Hutchins’ teams have won more Big Ten titles than the rest of the conference – combined. But it’s a machine she put together from scratch, piece by piece, one that took years of tweaking just to win its first race.
That Hutchins even got the chance was a bit of a miracle in itself. Growing up in Lansing, the fifth of six kids, Hutchins’ mom didn’t see the point in her playing sports, let alone competing. But Hutchins refused to stop.
She attended Lansing Everett High School, where she shared the court with a young man named Earvin Johnson – better known as Magic. Right off, the differences between men’s and women’s sports were glaring. Magic’s team got nice uniforms and practiced after school. Hutchins’ team wore “pinneys,” and practiced late at night.
When both Magic and Hutchins enrolled at Michigan State, the contrast was even greater. The men’s team traveled by private plane, and stayed two to a room in nice hotels. The women drove rented vans, and slept four to a room, at the cheapest places they could find.
But none of this dampened Hutchins’ love for sports. She ultimately switched from basketball to softball, and from the Spartans to the Wolverines. When she interviewed at Michigan for a position split between assistant softball coach and administrative assistant, former athletic director Don Canham asked one question: could she type?
Hutchins thought about it, and said, with complete confidence, “Yes. Yes I can.” Except, of course, she couldn’t – but if she had told the truth, Michigan would have lost out on its winningest coach.
Fresh off her master’s degree, Hutchins received a whopping three thousand dollars that first year – which had her mom shaking her head. Two years later, she became the head coach. In her eighth season, her team won its first Big Ten title. Soon, they were winning them almost every year. And finally, in 2005, her team became the first softball squad east of the Oklahoma and north of Cal-Berkeley to win an NCAA title – roughly equivalent to a team from Alabama winning the national hockey title.
How’d she do it? First, her players love her, and so do her assistants. The seniors cry at their banquet, knowing a great phase of their lives is over. The assistants never leave, often turning down good offers. And when you’re on her team, you get to see her goofy side – “and no one else gets to see that,” recent graduate Kristin Larsen says.
When you get to third base, Hutch – as even her players call her -- gives you peanut M&Ms out of her back pocket. Hit a homer, and she tosses a few in the air for you to catch as you round third.
But Hutch is not always warm and fuzzy. Former athletic director Bill Martin said, “If every coach at Michigan was stamped out of the same mold as Hutch, you wouldn’t need an athletic director. Her kids thrive in the classroom, and she’s a great colleague and mentor to other coaches. She was an absolute pleasure to work with – except after a loss.”
For ten years, Martin’s office was right next to hers. He quickly learned that, on a Monday after her team lost even one out of four games, “don’t come in. She is a big grump!”
Well, as Woody Hayes said: Show me a good loser, and I’ll show you a busboy. Hutch’s mom should be glad to know: her daughter is no busboy.