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Carol Hutchins put values ahead of victories to build a great program at Michigan

Carol Hutchins.
video screen grab
BTN Network
Carol Hutchins.

Under coach Carol Hutchins, the Michigan softball team has won 19 Big Ten titles, and nine in a row -- more than the rest of the Big Ten combined. She has led her team to 18 regional crowns, and made it to the College World Series 12 times in the past 22 years.

But what’s more impressive is how she’s done it.

Since 1995, every player who’s played on Carol Hutchins’ Michigan softball team for four years – which is pretty much all of them – has made it to the College World Series.

As they say, those who stay will be champions.

But you wouldn’t have guessed any of this 33 years ago.

When Hutch, as everyone calls her, interviewed for a position split between assistant softball coach and administrative assistant, they asked her one question: could she type?

Hutchins thought about it, then said, with complete conviction, “Yes. Yes I can.”

Except, of course, she couldn’t – marking the one time everybody at Michigan is surely glad their coach didn’t tell the truth.

With a master’s degree in her back pocket, Hutch earned $3,000 her first year.

Two years later, she became Michigan’s head coach.

Hutch has won more games than any other coach in Michigan history, in any sport.

It took her eight seasons to win her first Big Ten title. Since then, Hutch has won more games than any other coach in Michigan history, in any sport. She has won more games than any other coach in her sport. And she has been inducted to just about every hall of fame she’s eligible for.

How’d she build great teams? By building such a great program. How’d she build such a great program?

By consistently placing values over victories. That might seem paradoxical, but Hutch knows if you try to put victories before values, before long, you won’t have much of either.

"I knew right away that our program, first and foremost, has to be about really good kids who want to fight for Michigan."

“I knew right away that our program, first and foremost, has to be about really good kids who want to fight for Michigan,” she said.

Almost any struggles we’ve had are the result of kids who are not about Michigan, but themselves first. You know what? It’s not about you. Michigan didn’t start when you got here, and it won’t end when you leave. That might not be for everybody, but we’re not supposed to be for everybody. We are still successful because we never forgot that is the key ingredient.”

That means no “star system,” the central mistake most failed leaders make.

“You can’t win with two sets of rules, one for the stars, and one for everyone else,” she said. “It’s about the program. You take care of the program, the program will take care of you. That means being on time, going to your classes, getting your work done.”

That explains why Hutch’s teams don’t have a graduation rate. They just graduate: all of them, every year.

“Everyone has the same rules,” Hutch says. “When we have upheld that principle, and sent a star to the bench, we’ve had some of our best performances.”

In 2005, Michigan became the first team in the north, or east, to win the NCAA title – which is tantamount to Arizona winning the national title in ice hockey. This year’s team ranked second in the country, before being eliminated at the World Series on Sunday – another great season.

“We know we can’t always win the title, but we’re proud that we’re always in the running. Even in a bad year, a good program is a good program. And you spend years to get to that point,” she said.

When Hutch was inducted into the national softball hall of fame, one of her players said, “I came here a girl with potential, and left here a woman with no limits.”

When you build a program, based on values, not victories, that’s what it looks like.

John U. Bacon has worked nearly three decades as a writer, a public speaker, and a college instructor, winning awards for all three.