The couch is taken, so Carol Hutchins pulls an ottoman out from under a table. Practice ran long, so she’s running late. There is little time for small talk.
“What can I do for you?” she asks.
She is here, in a team meeting room at the Donald R. Shepherd Softball Center, to talk about program-building, a subject on which Hutchins is one of the foremost experts in America. She’s the all-time winningest softball coach in Division I, with 21 Big Ten regular season titles, 12 Women’s College World Series appearances and a national title to her name.
Thirty-five years into her reign, Hutchins is Michigan softball, and Michigan softball is her.
One day prior to this conversation with Hutchins, Tim Corbin ran late, too. A meeting with his athletic director. He missed the first phone call from The Daily and apologized.
Corbin coaches baseball at Vanderbilt, where he won his second College World Series title last June, beating Michigan in three games. Before Corbin got to Nashville in 2003, the Commodores had last been to the College World Series in 1980. They are now the perennial power in college baseball. Corbin, too, is a program-builder.
The two have that in common, along with proximity to Michigan baseball coach Erik Bakich. Hutchins works right by him — the baseball and softball programs share the Wilpon complex at Michigan — and Corbin was his boss for seven seasons at Vanderbilt. This matters because Bakich is on the cusp. Not a clichéd, start-of-the-season on the cusp. Past that.
The breakthrough — last season’s out-of-nowhere ride to Omaha, to the College World Series, to the final, to the last game — is now in the rearview mirror. It’s about sustainability now. What happens after you catch lightning in a bottle?
“I think maintaining consistency is very, very difficult,” Corbin said. “And it’s a continuing education. No one has that figured out.”
Michigan must now deal with all the same obstacles — roster turnover, a biting cold, a schedule that sees the Wolverines go on the road for the first month of the season — with the added weight of expectation. Collegiate Baseball ranked the Wolverines 10th in its preseason poll, Baseball America ranked them eighth and D1Baseball had them at 13th. News outlets will devote resources to covering them. They will be on television. Bakich will be pulled in every direction, all of them away from his program and his family.
On the first day of fall practice leading into the 2006 season, coming off a national title in 2005, Hutchins was told she had to go to the state capitol in Lansing. The team was scheduled to meet the governor. She didn’t understand. They’d already been to the White House. “But I couldn’t tell the president of the University no,” she said. “So off we — we had to miss practice.” She’s still miffed.
“You feel it everywhere,” Corbin said. “You feel it from a responsibility standpoint. I know Erik felt it. I’m sure his year was unlike any other year you felt on Earth.
“I’m sure when you get to the College World Series and you get to the final game, all of the sudden you’ve gotten smarter and you’ve got more knowing and you’re more, in some people's eyes, more an authoritarian on certain things. ‘Let’s get this guy to speak. They just went to the College World Series, let’s hear from him.’ And not that you are (different), you’re still the same person, but there’s an expectation level of what you know and how you can present and what you do.”
There are some perks to success, too. Bakich told reporters after the College World Series that he was eager to discuss potential facilities upgrades with athletic director Warde Manuel. It’s easier to have those discussions once you’ve proven you’re worth the investment. The roster returns much, though not all, of its core. They can take last year’s experience with them into this season (and so can the coaching staff). As a program, people won’t dismiss Michigan simply because of the cold weather. Doors will open in recruiting.
None of those rules are ironclad. The slope of an upward trajectory is usually not linear. But?
“You can walk in the living room and say, ‘This is a program you can have a chance to go to the World Series,’ ” Hutchins said.
After Hutchins’ first Women’s College World Series in 1995, Michigan made it for the next three years in a row, and seven of the next 10, culminating in Samantha Findlay’s go-ahead 10th-inning home run against UCLA to give the Wolverines a national title.
Hutchins started to notice then that her schedule was getting tighter. Speaking engagements and glad-handing. “Distractions,” she says now. “… Best word I ever learned: No.”
Fifteen years into being a known commodity, Hutchins knows her energy is limited. Once January hits, she rarely says yes. Corbin thinks of these engagements in terms of how it can help his program. If it can’t, he’ll pass.
“But there’s a part of you, too, that wants to get yourself out there so people are attracted to you and your program,” Corbin said. “And that takes time.”
As for Bakich? His philosophy on the subject is unclear. He couldn’t be interviewed for this story, though Michigan baseball’s prep work starts in full next week.
He’s been on a speaking circuit.
Sears can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ethan_sears.