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‘The best damn coach on this campus’

By Alejandro Zúñiga, Daily Sports Editor
Published November 11, 2013

The arched roof of Jenison Fieldhouse in East Lansing once housed Earvin “Magic” Johnson. It hosted Mississippi State and Loyola Chicago in the 1963 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, which helped advance civil rights in one of the nation’s most tenuous times.

But on a day in January 1976, the dusty court of the hallowed building was disturbed not by the cheers of thousands, but by the methodic pounding of a basketball as Carol Hutchins and the rest of the Michigan State women’s basketball team ran through drills.

Partway through the practice, a prominent visiting men’s Division I squad walked into the building, familiarizing itself with the venue before a game against the Spartans later in the week. Then the visitors stepped onto the court, ignoring Hutchins and her teammates, and began to warm up.

By then, the head coach of the visiting team was quite well-known, and he would go on to enjoy a long career. But when he finally acknowledged Hutchins, his stinging words ultimately came as less of an insult than they were the utterance of a painfully obvious truth.

“No one gives a damn about women’s basketball.”

And then he kicked them out.

***

Growing up in Lansing alongside five siblings, Hutchins, now entering her 30th year as the Michigan softball coach, would spend her afternoons and summers outdoors on the playground. She never quite understood why, but she always loved sports.

But when her three brothers were old enough to join organized teams, Hutchins didn’t have the same options. They went on to Little League, and she had to sit on the bleachers. They played basketball, and she watched from a distance.

For lack of a better option, Hutchins enlisted in her school’s cheerleading team in middle school and high school, the only varsity sport available to her. It was far from ideal, but it was the only way she could get from the stands onto the field.

“I went and cheered for my brothers, even though I was better than them,” Hutchins said.

Girls who wanted to play any other sport had to rely on gym class and sometimes hastily arranged after-school activities — no schedules, no uniforms and no varsity letter.

Despite the extent that the law would soon change Hutchins’s life, the day Title IX passed in 1972 didn’t seem out of the ordinary to the high-school student. Hutchins didn’t come home and tell her parents that she could soon play organized sports. The implications of Title IX on athletics weren’t fully realized until later; after all, it was part of the Educational Amendments of 1972 and had no explicit relation to sports.

Instead, the 37 words of the law state that no organization that receives federal financial assistance can deny benefits to people on the basis of sex. In other words, if a school wanted money from the government, it couldn’t discriminate against women.

In her senior year, Hutchins’s high school handed the girls’ basketball team uniforms and a full schedule and promised to make arrangements for away games — commodities it had never offered before. A giddy Hutchins bought her first pair of Adidas Superstar shoes.

“I was in heaven,” she said. “It just gave us the same opportunity. I don’t deserve more opportunity. I just want the same opportunity.”

At that point, Hutchins was content with enrolling at Michigan State, especially since the school demonstrated a progressive attitude toward women’s sports. Her softball team even won a national championship, though it’s only recognized by the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women, and not the NCAA.

At first there were no scholarships, but no one complained about having to earn playing time as a walk-on. Hutchins didn’t mind that the men had first choice to all of the school’s facilities and that the women would be slotted in as an afterthought, if at all.

But beyond the lack of available scholarships, there were still countless inequalities between men’s and women’s sports. The women played at Jenison Fieldhouse just once per year when the Athletic Department scheduled a doubleheader with the men. And in stark contrast to the men, Hutchins and her teammates wore a conglomeration of T-shirts and shorts instead of school-issued practice uniforms.

After watching her brothers from the sidelines as a child, Hutchins was happy just to play — until, in one moment at Jenison Fieldhouse, a men’s basketball coach changed her mind.

“Whatever the guys had, we were like this,” Hutchins said, holding one hand high above the other. “We were always second. Back then, you had athletics and then you had women’s athletics.”

In 1979, Hutchins sued Michigan State, alleging that the school provided better housing options on road trips and a higher per diem to male athletes. Two years later, a preliminary injunction barred the university from discriminating against the women’s basketball team.

“Unless you filed suit, there was no reason for an Athletic Department to change,” she said.

***

Former Athletic Director Don Canham hired Hutchins as Michigan’s assistant softball coach in 1982 and promoted her to the head role three years later. As she remembers with a wry laugh, her initial job description mandated she spend half the day performing clerical work for the Athletic Department.

When she finished her office duties, Hutchins had to take care of Alumni Field on her own, borrowing the tractor from the baseball team and driving it herself. Once, she crashed it into the outfield fence.

Getting the field watered was a daily struggle. One season, it went weeks without so much as a drop. When it eventually became nearly unplayable, the Athletic Department finally brought in a fire truck to douse the field.

But even if it seemed like she was competing against the baseball team, Hutchins stresses that Title IX was never about pitting men against women.

“My biggest battles were not on the softball field,” Hutchins said. “They were getting the resources my team needed to be successful.”

One spring, both the softball and baseball teams had road trips to Indiana on the same day. When they arrived, Hutchins walked over to the baseball diamond to pick up an extra set of lineup cards, because she had forgotten her own in Ann Arbor. There, she noticed that the baseball team had been given a chartered bus. Meanwhile, the Athletic Department had offered the softball players vans.

“When I first came to Michigan, they just wanted to be great in the men’s sports,” Hutchins said. “It was a very reluctant atmosphere (for the women).”

When Bo Schembechler became Athletic Director in 1988, he helped usher in reform for women’s athletics at Michigan, a shift that continued under Jack Weidenbach’s reign in the early 1990s. For instance, it was because of Schembechler that the softball team finally received enough practice uniforms to wear all week long. And little by little, the resources provided to women’s sports began to increase.

“There were two things Bo loved: Michigan, and a well-run program,” explains historian John U. Bacon, who authored Bo’s Lasting Lessons, as well as several other books about college football. “Hutch was both.”

Even when Hutchins had to tend to Alumni Field and spend half the day as a secretary, the Wolverines never endured a losing season with her in charge. They won their first Big Ten title in 1992 and proceeded to claim two of the next three. And with that came the respect of the rest of the University.

In October 1996, Bacon and Schembechler drove back together to Ann Arbor from Grand Rapids, arriving well after most people had left the athletic campus. As they pulled into the parking lot by the old softball facilities, Schembechler saw Hutchins finally walking out of her office for the night.

“Look at that!” Bacon remembers Schembechler saying. “Ten-thirty at night, and she’s working her ass off. That is the best damn coach on this campus.”

Then he paused, remembering then-football coach Lloyd Carr.

“The best women’s coach.”

***

In 2005, the Michigan softball team made history by becoming the first team east of the Mississippi River to win the Women’s College World Series. Down by a game in the best-of-three series, the Wolverines clawed back to take the second game. In the 10th inning of the decisive contest, freshman Samantha Findlay hit a three-run shot over the left-field wall to give her team the title.

The Wolverines mobbed each other at home plate, and because the triumph was broadcast nationally, millions could watch their accomplishment.

After the game, Hutchins cried.

“Everyone’s all on board now,” she said. “Back in those days, it seemed like we were always going to be the second class.”

When the softball team returned to Ann Arbor that summer, Hutchins’s phone was flooded with congratulatory voicemails, and she turned on her computer to hundreds of unread emails. People recognized her when she walked through the city the following day, and Schembechler himself waited on a street corner to greet her.

“Hutchins made a big convert out of an old-school guy,” Bacon said.

Schembechler wasn’t the only figure on campus buying into Hutchins’s program. Hundreds of miles away in Parry Sound, Ont., hockey coach Red Berenson watched that final game on television. When it ended, he began to tear up, and at the first coaches’ meeting in the fall, he walked over to Hutchins and asked for a hug.

“Why would I care about women’s softball?” he said. “This is Michigan women’s softball. This is Carol Hutchins.”

***

In March, the Michigan softball team will open its home schedule against Bowling Green, unveiling the latest addition to Alumni Field: an AstroTurf surface that allows the Wolverines to practice outdoors, even in cold weather.

This spring will also mark the completion of a brand-new softball center, a three-story building which will feature locker rooms, fitness centers and hydrotherapy pools. The 10,200-square-foot complex cost $5.3 million alone, while the University spent $2.5 million combined to retrofit the baseball and softball fields with AstroTurf.

And Hutchins will be entering her 30th season as leader of that softball team. She’s the winningest coach in Michigan history and has twice been named NCAA Coach of the Year. Her teams have finished atop the Big Ten in 16 of the last 21 years, including the last six in a row.

When the Wolverines beat Northwestern to clinch a first-place finish in the conference last May, many of the 1,800 fans in attendance waited outside Alumni Field to applaud Hutchins as she walked back to the locker room.

The relationship between men’s and women’s sports isn’t entirely equal. For example, according to a survey by Brooklyn College researchers, more than 97 percent of men’s collegiate programs in 2012 were coached by a man. But that same year, only 43 percent of women’s teams had female coaches — a 47-percent decrease from 1972, when Title IX was introduced.

But it’s certainly a step up from being kicked off her home court by a visiting team in East Lansing those dozens of years ago.

Despite the flaws, plenty of signs point to the amendment’s success. Never in the history of collegiate sports have there been more female athletes or more women’s programs per school than today. In many ways, Hutchins says, we’re closer to equal opportunity than ever before.

And the public has responded. The Michigan softball team has been on national TV more than 40 times since 2005, including 14 times in the last two years. Every game of the 2013 Women’s College World Series was broadcast on ESPN, and several aired on ESPN International from Africa, to the Middle East, to Latin America.

“Look how far we’ve come. Who would have ever thought that could happen?” Hutchins said. “What makes me smile is seeing where women have come today and the opportunities we all have. I don’t take it for granted.”

When the current group of seniors on the Michigan softball team arrived on campus four years ago, they came to Ann Arbor with access to some of the best athletic facilities in the nation. They all grew up playing sports because the world wasn’t telling them they couldn’t. But when Hutchins mentioned Title IX, one of them asked, “what’s that?”

So Hutchins sat them down and told them her story.


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