It takes a special person to affect an entire sport.
Many players and coaches carve out a legacy with a style of play, or a new approach to the game. But very few can claim to have changed the very institution itself.
Former Michigan softball coach Carol Hutchins is one of those select few.
“I think every person whose life she has touched in the game of softball has a story about Hutch,” Northwestern coach Kate Drohan told The Daily.
Drohan is especially well-equipped to judge Hutchins’s legacy. The two have shared the diamond for over 20 years, competing at the top of the Big Ten. Both have grown their programs from the ground up, becoming the premier programs in the region. And even with the degree to which their teams clashed, Drohan still has nothing but admiration for Hutchins.
And the rest of the Big Ten agrees.
“To be able to just share the same field with her, it’s been pretty awesome,” Penn State coach Clarisa Crowell told The Daily. “I wish we could have won a few more games against her but it’s definitely been a privilege to have the opportunity to coach against her.”
Even when posting a 1-6 record against Michigan in her career as the Nittany Lions’ head coach, Crowell had nothing but respect for Hutchins.
But what creates this degree of admiration?
Certainly, a part of it resides in the gaudy records Hutchins steadily acquired in her 38 year tenure as Wolverines coach. Retiring as the winningest coach in NCAA Softball history definitely earns you some respect. As does being the first team East of the Mississippi River to win the Women’s College World Series.
But what really sets her apart is her consistent advocacy for the advancement of the entire sport, even at the cost of her own team’s advantage.
When Carol Hutchins became Michigan’s third head softball coach in 1985, college softball looked entirely different than it does today. Hutchins took over a program that was vastly underfunded. The position was considered part-time, so Hutchins had to work two other jobs while maintaining the field herself.
When she looked over to the baseball field, the difference was staggering. A team of groundskeepers kept the field spotless, and an army of coaches dwarfed Hutchins’s single assistant.
Instead of complaining or accepting the position she was in, Hutchins pushed for change. At first she fought an institution unwilling to change, but Hutchins kept pushing. She began to secure better infrastructure and support for her teams. Still, Hutchins never stopped pushing, and has not stopped seeking better opportunities for her players and team.
As Hutchins dragged an underfunded Michigan team into the national spotlight and national contention, she did not let the rest of her team’s conference languish behind. Hutchins’s unparalleled success in the conference gave her certain infrastructural advantages that the rest of the Big Ten didn’t have access to, but she didn’t let it stay that way.
One example former Michigan player and current Purdue associate head coach Dorian Shaw points to is bathrooms in dugouts, an advantage that Michigan’s Alumni Field held over the rest of the conference. Hutchins was instrumental in making dugout bathrooms a conference policy so that other programs could get the funding to install their own.
Having a person like Hutchins in Big Ten conference meetings was invaluable for softball’s development in the region. And just like how she gave her all to improve Michigan’s circumstances, she did everything she could for the conference as a whole.
“She doesn’t do anything at 50%,” Shaw told The Daily. “She’s going to find ways to solve problems. She’s going to put the first things first and prioritize what she feels like is most important, and that I think was just a part of her calling. And it’s impressive.”
Beyond improved infrastructure, this problem solving has seen results on the field. Last year, seven schools qualified for the regional round of the NCAA Tournament, tying the conference record. The conference is deeper than ever, with Nebraska winning their first Big Ten Tournament championship. Although the championships have not yet materialized, the Big Ten is beginning to contend with the historically dominant softball conferences.
Shaw noted the importance of Hutchins’s opinion on the Big Ten calls: “We always joke, when you get off of the big 10 head coach’s calls, everybody’s kind of waiting for what Hutch thinks.”
Shaw has a unique view on Hutchins. She is one of Hutchins’s many former players who elected to coach softball, and has been promoted to associate head coach at Purdue. She has seen Hutchins’s impact firsthand, as both a player and a coach. And again, Shaw appreciates Hutchins’s advocacy.
“It’s just impressive,” Shaw said. “Knowing that coaches are so busy and so focused on competing and being a high level team that she’s been able to maintain that standard while still sort of stepping back and saying ‘how can I affect the world as a whole?’ ”
But Shaw also tells a story about how Hutchins pushed her personally, and deeply impacted her as a person. Shaw arrived at Michigan in 2008 as a budding star. She racked up all-state awards, as well as scholar-athlete awards. With these numerous awards came a confidence in her own abilities, one that wasn’t challenged until she played for Hutchins.
“I was not the fleetest of foot by any stretch of the imagination,” Shaw said. “I remember we had some pretty tough conditioning expectations and standards. And at one point, I was being very immature about it. I was thinking, this is unfair that we’re all held to this standard. It’s impossible for me, I’m never gonna make these times.”
But Hutchins refused to let Shaw off easy. Instead Shaw said Hutchins asked her ‘Why not? Why can’t you do it? There’s no reason why you can’t do it. You’re holding yourself back. You know, you’ve set this expectation for yourself, that these are things that are outside of your capability, but they’re not, we wouldn’t be asking you to do it if you weren’t capable of doing it.’
“And it was just a ‘it’s time to grow up’ moment for me,” Shaw said. “Because I think lesser coaches, coaches who aren’t as invested in developing you through adversity would have just been like she just can’t do it and change the standard or written me off or allowed me to complain or reprimanded me for complaining.
“Instead, she took the time to sit down and say, there’s gonna be things in front of you that you think you aren’t capable of achieving. But that’s a self imposed limitation, and, for me was a really big moment. Get out of your own way, and success can find you.”
Hutchins is not just a great coach for her institutional prowess. She is great for her interpersonal relationships as well. She commands the respect of her players and peers, and demands the absolute best out of them. But in return, she will give her all for them, and believe in them no matter what.
In the same way that she has for so many of her players, Hutchins believed in Shaw’s ability to overcome her personal challenge. That deep seated belief generates a loyalty that few coaches can brag of, a trait many of the other coaches in the conference notice.
“I’ve learned so much from her on a personal level on best practices and how to run a program and how to be a leader within a program,” Drohan said. “But I think Hutchins’s superpower is her ability to make friendships, friendships within the game. She has a knack for being this ultimate competitor, while at the same time really being your best advocate as well.”
No one can deny the advances Hutchins has made for Michigan, the Big Ten and the sport of softball as a whole. But Hutchins should be remembered as a coach who was able to gain the trust and confidence of her players, colleagues and competitors, helping them to realize their potential within themselves.
Only then can Hutchins’s impact be realized.