EAST LANSING — Each year, the Michigan softball team plays a road game at Michigan State. And each year, coach Carol Hutchins seizes the opportunity to give her team a history lesson.
At Secchia Stadium, the right field fence is draped in a green 1976 AIAW National Champions banner. The crown, which came four years after Congress passed Title IX of the Education Amendments, is the Spartans’ lone national championship.
On a team that featured talent from top to bottom, senior pitcher Gloria Becksford stood out. Becksford’s three consecutive shutouts and 25 strikeouts propelled Michigan State to the 1976 AIAW Softball College World Series title that is commemorated on the Spartans’ fence to this day.
That season, Becksford took a certain Michigan State freshman under her wing. Today, that freshman is the NCAA’s winningest coach of all-time.
On Tuesday night, Hutchins made her 35th homecoming as the Wolverines’ coach. She tallied her 1,601st career coaching victory — the most in the history of the sport. No. 21 Michigan (30-11 overall, 12-1 Big Ten) throttled the Spartans (15-25, 3-9), 12-1, behind senior catcher Katie Alexander’s two home runs and freshman right-hander Alex Storako’s 15 strikeouts.
After taking care of business, the Wolverines boarded their bus with something more valuable than just a win. The experience of competing on the same field that Hutchins played on — and often maintained herself amid an underfunded era of women’s athletics — gives Michigan an annual reminder.
“She talks a lot about where sports were during her time (at Michigan State) and she teaches us how far we’ve come,” said senior second baseman Faith Canfield. “She lets us know we need to be thankful for where we are now because when she was here, it was not like that. … She’s one of the core people who have given us the platform for where we are now. It’s unbelievable and I’m thankful for it.”
To Hutchins, it’s just one component of a meaningful college experience. The philosophy plays an instrumental role in the legend’s approach to coaching.
“I had a great college experience,” Hutchins said. “It’s one of the reason I stayed in college athletics. When I got college and then started coaching, my mom said, ‘You know, you’ve never left college.’ And I said, ‘Why would anybody ever leave college?’ ”
Today, Hutchins strives to offer her student-athletes a well-rounded college experience. Her program goes far beyond the diamond. Words like “relationships” and “education” come up in conversation before wins and losses are even mentioned.
Her definition of greatness — as with everything she does — comes with its own unique flair.
“I want my kids to experience what it is to be great,” Hutchins said. “We achieved greatness at Michigan State when I played, and greatness isn’t just defined by a national championship. Greatness is (defined by) great friends, great teammates and great work, and it’s a life lesson to be a college athlete.”
After three and a half decades of greatness in Ann Arbor, Canfield sometimes struggles to associate Hutchins with her alma mater’s colors.
“It’s weird to see (the banner in East Lansing), just seeing how passionate (Hutchins) is about Michigan,” Canfield said. “It’s actually really weird seeing it in green. She’s one of the greatest to ever do it. All of us have played for her, it’s interesting to remember that she actually played too.”
Forty-three years after taking home the national championship, Hutchins uses the banner as a benchmark. But not a benchmark of time, success or experience. Instead, she smiles every time Michigan launches a home run over the wall it covers — the same one she helped build.
Asked about the banner and its legacy after the game, Storako flashed a smile.
“She told the hitters to hit the ball there.”