For the next week, we will be featuring an honorable coach from a different sport each day. Today, read about how Hugh McCutcheon earned the USOC's National Coach of the Year Award.
Back in 1988, Hugh McCutcheon sat in his native Christchurch, New Zealand and watched on television as the U.S. men's national volleyball team won the Olympic gold medal.
Some 20 years later, McCutcheon again watched the U.S. men win the gold medal. Only this time he had a much closer seat to the action as the team's head coach.
Talk about coming full circle.
The 39-year-old McCutcheon not only led the U.S. to its first men's indoor gold medal in two decades, but he did so under the most trying of personal circumstances in the wake of the brutal attacks on his father- and mother-in-law on the first day of competition at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Regarded by many as one of the hottest sports coaching commodities in the world, McCutcheon was recently honored for his accomplishments as the recipient of the U.S. Olympic Committee's National Coach of the Year award.
"It kind of validates how we went about doing things the last four years," McCutcheon said of the USOC award. "But it also speaks to the efforts of all the staff to make the team the best it could be. There were a lot of other people involved."
And McCutcheon lays the majority of the credit on the roster he assembled.
"We went through some fairly significant changes in terms of the way we operated as a group," said McCutcheon, who has since taken over the U.S. women's national team program. "All kinds of things happened. We improved technically and systematically and we improved our team culture. And some of it has to do with people identifying the problems and being motivated to fix them. A lot of it has to do with the athletes getting it done themselves."
Team USA veteran Ryan Millar said playing for McCutcheon was a pleasure.
"Hugh is incredible at managing everything that is important when you are trying to achieve something great," Millar said. "He is an excellent practice executioner, a great motivator and just an overall great person. When you respect and care for a coach the way our team did, you want to give him your best at all times because that is what he deserved."
Looking back, four-time Olympic setter Lloy Ball, a player who is not afraid to speak his mind, admitted he was not thrilled with McCutcheon's hiring at first.
"I'm probably the most skeptical of coaches in the history of USA Volleyball," said Ball, who was concerned about McCutcheon's lack of international coaching experience. "I was not a big fan of the hire at the time."
But Ball whistles a much different tune these days.
"The guys who hired him knew a heck of a lot more than I did," laughs Ball today. "In today's sports society, being a good manager of athletes is more important than being a good coach. The average age of our team was around 30. That's not easy to mold. Hugh somehow made everybody feel important. He had a great ability to read our group and read the character of our team and make the team play as a unit instead of as individuals, which had been a problem with the program in the past.
"In our sport you have six guys on the court and you have to put six guys' personalities together and function as a unit. In football, Walter Payton could score a touchdown because he was that good. Michael Jordan could win a basketball game single-handedly. In volleyball, you touch the ball for a split second and you have to do it three times with three different players. To be successful, the amount of trust and cohesion needed takes a tremendous amount of discipline and that falls into the hands of the head coach, and Hugh gave us that this quad."
Ball feels McCutcheon's age (he was in his mid 30s at the beginning of this past quad) turned out to be quite an asset for Team USA.
"His best benefit was being closer to our age," said Ball. "That allowed him to understand us. His strong personality allowed him to put his own ideology in there and come up with the winning concoction."
McCutcheon, who played at Brigham Young University, directed Team USA to the sport's richest prize, despite having to endure extraordinary personal anguish after his father-in-law was murdered and his mother-in-law seriously injured in a random attack at Beijing's Drum Tower. McCutcheon missed three matches in Beijing but later returned to the bench.
"A lot of it had to do with my family," said McCutcheon, who also led Team USA to the 2008 FIVB World League gold medal. "Once we had everything squared away and they were safe and sound back in the U.S., it was OK for me to continue. We sat down and chatted about it as a family and it was a unanimous decision to keep doing this and try to finish what we started. One of the things you realize or understand as a coach is that you've invested your life in an endeavor and you are responsible for a lot of other people that are doing the same. It was the right thing to do to get back out there and be with the team."
Millar said he couldn't begin to fathom what McCutcheon had to go through.
"The amount of courage it took for Hugh to leave his family behind after the tragedy and continue what he started with us is what is incredible," Millar said. "The Olympics was an emotional rollercoaster for me. I can't even imagine what was going on in his head. The biggest testament of how great of a coach he is, is by looking at what we did when he wasn't there. We played our hardest every match just like he had taught us. We were prepared to do what we did because of the amount of effort Hugh and everyone involved gave prior to the Games."
Ball said McCutcheon's return to the bench spanned much deeper than the game of volleyball.
"It shows the man is much bigger than the coach," said Ball. "I don't think there are too many more men-and nobody on our team-that could have handled that situation as well as Hugh did. It shows the strong character he has and shows a strong sense of humanism.
"No coach that I've played for since my father (IPFW men's coach Arnie Ball) has been so easy to talk to on so many levels. This was a group of over 30s that were comfortable enough with how we trained and with what Hugh taught us to carry on while he was not there. When he came back, it was pedal to the metal."
McCutcheon, however, doesn't pay much attention to the talk of how his coaching star has risen so dramatically in the last four years.
"You don't buy into all of the hype," McCutcheon said. "You keep working and you keep your nose to the grindstone. Coaching is a great profession, but it is also fairly fickle. You are only as good as your last win or your last loss. I'm going to keep working hard. It's nice that people think I'm doing a good job. It's nice to have those processes validated, but it doesn't change the way I do my job. I'm working as hard as I have before. I don't have it all figured out by any means."
McCutcheon does admit that the last 20 years have been a bit of a whirlwind.
"I love the game and I like coaching a lot. The more I started doing it the more opportunities came my way and I've tried to make the most of them. I don't take a lot of time to reflect," said McCutcheon. "I watched the U.S. win in 1988, and 20 years later I'm doing it myself. It's a little bit tough to get your head around that one."
Millar has no doubt the U.S. women's national team will be in for a treat this next quad.
"The women's program is extremely lucky to have Hugh at the wheel," Millar said. "I believe he can take them places they never dreamed possible. He did that for us."
Story courtesy Red Line Editorial, Inc. Mike Miazga is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.