This spring, the University of Michigan women’s softball team won its fifteenth Big Ten title, and fifth in a row. It went to the NCAA tournament – for the 18th straight season – and won its 14th NCAA regional crown, before losing on Friday in the super-regional to third-ranked Alabama.
In other words, just another typical season for Michigan softball – a team led by Carol Hutchins, one of Michigan’s best coaches, of any sport, in any era. Winning titles is what they do.
And this was not even one of 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, part by part, one that took years of tinkering just to win her first race.
That Hutchins even got the chance was a bit of a miracle in itself. She grew up in Lansing, the fifth of six kids. Her own mom didn’t see the point in her playing sports, let alone competing. But Hutchins refused to quit.
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 home and away uniforms and practiced after school. Hutchins’ team wore reversible “pinneys,” and practiced late at night.
When both Magic and Hutchins enrolled at Michigan State, the contrast was even greater. The men’s basketball 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 her one question: could she type?
Hutchins thought about it for a moment. Then she said, with complete conviction, “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 her first year – which had her mom shaking her head all over again. Two years later, Hutchins became Michigan’s head coach. In her eighth season, her team won its first Big Ten title – and since then, they’ve been winning them almost every year.
Bo Schembechler was no fan of Title IX, but his love for Michigan – and his respect for Hutchins – was stronger than his dislike of that law. When he was athletic director, and saw Hutch’s team practicing in random t-shirts and shorts, he didn’t like it. The next day, Hutchins found big boxes of official Michigan t-shirts and shorts outside her office, and within a couple weeks, more gear with Michigan Softball emblazoned on it all.
When Hutchins once walked in front of Schembechler’s Jeep Cherokee, he pointed to her and said, “There goes the best damn coach on this campus.” But realizing that sold others short, he added, “The best damn women’s coach!”
He was a convert – among many — and started attending regularly.
Finally, in 2005, Hutchins’ team became the first softball squad east of Oklahoma and north of Cal-Berkeley to win an NCAA title – about as stunning as a hockey team from Alabama taking the national crown.
How does she do it? First, her players love her, and so do her assistants. The seniors cry at their banquet, realizing a great phase of their lives has just ended. The assistants never leave, despite getting many good offers to go elsewhere. 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.
During a road trip, Larsen managed to get Hutch and the team hooked on “The Office.” When they got back to Michigan, they set up a camera in the clubhouse for “confessionals,” and the players would actually tape these during games – including a ten-run inning to cap a come-from behind victory during the 2008 NCAA regionals. A few days later, Hutch herself showed up for practice dressed as Dwight—and the players howled.
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 of the four games that weekend, “don’t come in. She is a big grump!”
Well, as Woody Hayes often 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.
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Radio stuff: I’m back to my original normal of 9:05 Friday mornings on WTKA (semester’s over!), and sticking to my new normal on Michigan Radio of 8:50. And yes, there will be a quiz, so “stop what you’re doing, and listen!”
Here’s a link to today’s WTKA podcast, when we talked about bad umpiring to Nick Lidstrom retiring, to the all-time best Red Wings and Detroit athletes, to Big Will’s “Dukes of Hazard” hood roll. Sam and Ira were hilarious, as usual. http://wtka.podhoster.com/index.php?pid=32015
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“Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football” can be ordered now.