On April 25, 1978, exactly 39 years ago today, the Michigan State women’s varsity basketball team wrote an informal complaint to its university.
All 13 players protested the college’s “gross violations of the regulations of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.” The previous season, Michigan State’s Athletic Department allocated $776,000 to men’s athletics, but less than $85,000 to women’s sports.
“Well, we have to let (the female athletes) go out and play, so let’s just let them,” the Athletic Department said, according to one of the players. “Just make sure they don’t get in the way of the boys.”
Nothing was done to change that attitude.
“It’s only the law if you use it,” the team’s attorney reminded them, recalled the same player.
So, less than eight months later, the team sued Michigan State University before the federal Office of Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare. It received a meager $13,500 compared to $116,000 in underwriting for the men’s basketball team. The university was discriminating against athletes based on gender, a clear violation of Title IX.
But to the women’s basketball players, it wasn’t about the stark contrast in funding. It was the smaller details of their treatment that had to be changed. The school provided male athletes better facilities, travel arrangements and per diem, just because they were men. They had locker rooms, got more spending money for food on road trips and practiced in top-notch training rooms — the women didn’t have any of that. As such, the women’s basketball team sought out “an immediate remedy for unhealthy, and grossly unfair practices.”
The case evolved into a class-action lawsuit, representing players from 1976-79, and wasn’t settled until 1988. Two years after it was filed, a preliminary injunction forced Michigan State’s administration to provide equal opportunities for female athletes. Slowly, small victories trickled in, with new glass backboards installed, a new locker room exclusively for the women’s basketball team and improved facilities for female athletes.
The name of the case was Hutchins vs. Board of Trustees of Michigan State University. The biggest advocate for gender equality for athletes in the class action lawsuit? The person who saw the injustice and stood up for what she thought was unfair?
A two-athlete senior by the name of Carol Hutchins.
Exactly 39 years after the first complaint was filed, Hutchins is in the midst of her 33rd year as the head coach of the Michigan softball team, a pioneer for female athlete’s rights and the greatest collegiate softball coach of all time.
“Boys like sports, not girls,” Carol’s mother, Ivy, said.
“I don’t know what I’m supposed to like, but I like sports,” Carol responded. “I want to be an athlete.”
Hutchins remembers her days growing up in Lansing, Mich., tossing a football every afternoon with the boys — even being picked for teams before her brothers. She played every sport she could and grabbed every ball she could get her hands on. But she never had the chances to show her skills in true competition because she was a girl.
“I speak at lectures that when I tell people what my experience growing up as an athlete, they don’t believe me,” Hutchins said. “We didn’t have any opportunity, none. I played every sport there was. But we didn’t have teams to be on.
“I was in disbelief then, but I just thought that I was weird, like I was different, I was a tomboy. That was slang, it wasn’t a compliment. I just liked to do what boys do, but actually, girls like it, too; we just didn’t have the opportunity.”
But in Hutchins’ freshman year at Everett High School, the Education Amendments Act of 1972 was passed, including Title IX. By her senior season, the athletic department added a women’s varsity basketball team and Hutchins joined. With the new team came new uniforms, an actual game schedule and a bus for the girls to use for travel.
In previous years, Hutchins participated in “girls play-days.” Playing just four or five games a year, the girls — donning pennies because no funding was allocated for jerseys — would pack into a few cars with their volunteer gym coach and drive to other high schools to compete.
From her sophomore to senior seasons, Hutchins led the women’s varsity team and was an All-City basketball player. She loved the sport so much she originally wanted to be a college basketball coach. But then she found softball.
While a high school basketball star in 1973, Hutchins was asked to join the Lansing Lassies, the farm team for the Lansing Laurels, an Amateur Softball Association fast-pitch team. This was the first time she had ever played organized softball — or an organized sport at all, for that matter. It was one of the only opportunities available for female athletes to compete at the highest level.
With her first foray in a structured female sport, Hutchins wanted to fully commit to the team, but didn’t have a car to travel to practices or games.
“How’re you going to get there?” Ivy asked.
“I’ll buy a bike,” Carol responded.
So, Hutchins saved up and bought a bike to ride all over town, all to get the chance to play softball.
“Money wasn’t going to hold me back, it never did in my life… I wanted to play,” Hutchins said. “If you want something, you figure out how to do it. If you don’t really want it that bad, you figure out what’s in the way.”
During the 1974 and 1975 seasons, the Lansing Laurels boasted an impressive 112-51 record and finished as high as fifth nationally. Competing alongside some of the greatest trailblazers in the sport — including Mary Nutter, whose name bears an annual tournament which the Wolverines compete in over spring break — Hutchins continued to hone her skills and was off to play college softball and basketball for Michigan State the next year.
When she arrived at campus, there were no collegiate athletic scholarships for women. Her sophomore year, as Title IX slowly began to be enforced by universities nationwide, she received $100 a term for being on the softball team.
“I thought I’d died and went to heaven,” Hutchins said. “They’re going to give me money for this.”
“You know $100 isn’t going to cover very much of your tuition,” Ivy said.
“Well, I get to play, I get to go to college and I get pave to my own way,” Carol replied.
Hutchins paved her own way any way she could, working midnights while juggling coursework, practices and games. But that was the norm for female student-athletes. As she earned the starting shortstop role as a freshman and led the Spartans to an Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women National Softball Championship — before the NCAA represented women’s sports — she also had to make enough money to pay tuition and stay enrolled in the university.
“Women were just supposed to be happy for doing anything,” Hutchins said. “And the athletic directors would say, ‘Well, just be happy you get to do it.’”
Hutchins was happy to do it, but wanted more. The “shitty gym time,” poor travel and a diet consisting of almost exclusively McDonald’s wasn’t fair for the female athletes. They were reluctantly given the minimum from the Athletic Department because they had to comply with the law, and Hutchins wouldn’t stand for it.
“There was a lot of pushback,” Hutchins said. “We didn’t feel very appreciated, and you know what? At some point, we got mad about it.”
Thus came Hutchins vs. Board of Trustees of Michigan State University. Hutchins gathered her teammates and they collectively tried to make a change for all women in sports.
After graduating from Michigan State in 1979, Hutchins went on to get her master’s degree at Indiana and then an assistant coaching job for the Hoosiers’ softball team. Two years later, she was hired as an assistant coach at Michigan. Two seasons after that, she took over.
Entering her first year as head softball coach in 1985, Hutchins was paid just $3,000 on a part-time basis.
“You just got a master’s degree to make $3,000 a year? How’re you going to live?” Ivy questioned.
“Don’t worry, I’ll figure it out,” Carol reassured her mother. “I’ll get a bunch of other jobs, but I’m going to coach softball.”
She had to work three jobs just to pay rent and afford to live in Ann Arbor. During the day, Hutchins was a salad prep at an old community favorite, Whiffletree, doing what she believes was “the hardest work (she’s) ever done.” At night, she worked at Stein & Goetz Sporting Goods, both jobs given to her through connections in the athletic department. And when time permitted, Hutchins coached.
“Sometimes, I couldn’t come to practice because I had to go to my jobs that actually paid me,” Hutchins said.
But Hutchins was determined to follow her desired path in collegiate athletics. And in hindsight, she realizes she has never been more unwavering any time since.
“When you’re young, you don’t look at things as obstacles,” Hutchins said. “You’re like, ‘How am I going to do this?’ I wanted to coach college softball, so I was like, ‘How can I do it?’ not, ‘Well this is all in the way.’”
Not only did Hutchins want to coach college softball, she was determined to lead a successful team and show that women in sports were as important as men. And that started with the day-to-day operations of the team.
It started with taking care of the facilities. The first-year coach had to pull the weeds, throw down lime and mow the outfield. She was even forced to water her own infield to keep it in pristine condition for upcoming games.
“But we didn’t have water, so we literally fetched buckets,” Hutchins said. “While baseball had two full-time assistants, an entire grounds crew, they had everything. Laundry, practice uniforms and we were just like, ‘Well this is what it takes to get it done.’ But people had to fight for that because people didn’t want to do it.”
But Hutchins has never minded a good fight.
Just as she did during college, Hutchins and other women started to rebel against the gender discrimination in athletics and clear disregard for Title IX that still plagued the University at the beginning of her tenure.
That’s when Hutchins’s drive started to change Michigan — and its attitude about females in sports — for the better.
It was 2005, the weekend of the Women’s College World Series, when Hutchins walked out of a meeting room at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium. That was when she ran into Pat Summitt.
After years of fighting for women’s equality in athletics, Hutchins finally met Summitt, one of the most prominent fighters and female figures in all sports.
“At that point, I was just a star-struck kid,” Hutchins said. “I didn’t care about anything else … it was just exciting to meet one of your idols.”
“I know who you are.”
The legendary women’s college basketball coach was there to cheer on Tennessee as they took on Hutchins’ Wolverines in the third and fourth games of the WCWS. The Volunteers won the first game, 2-0, which went 11 innings and ended at 2 a.m. Less than 10 hours later, the teams were back on the field and Michigan defeated Tennessee 3-2, advancing to the championship series.
Hutchins led her team past UCLA, winning two of three games to become the 2005 NCAA National Champions. Michigan was the first school east of the Mississippi River to do so. All with Summitt watching.
Four years later, when Summitt won her 1,000th game — her 1,098 career wins from 1974 to 2012 at Tennessee being the most of any women’s coach in NCAA basketball history — Hutchins decided to send her a congratulatory note.
Hutchins’ letter was along the lines of: “Dear Pat, Congrats and thank you for all you’ve done for women’s athletics.”
“She sent me back a card twice as long as the one I sent her,” Hutchins said. “It was beautifully written, I can’t believe how perfect the lines were. … I’m like, ‘Wow! I wonder how many people sent her notes and how many notes she’s sent back like that.’ It was very cool.”
Over this past offseason, Hutchins was presented the inaugural espnW Pat Summitt Coaching Award, honoring the legacy of Summitt — who, at the age of 64, passed away in June 2016 due to early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Given to a coach who “exemplifies the character and courage of Summitt,” Hutchins was the first recipient.
“She’s one of the people I could look up to and admire for all the things that she was for women,” Hutchins said. “Pat Summitt’s journey personally opened a lot of doors for all women and women coaches and women athletes. I was just very honored… it was just unbelievable.”
Hutchins sees many of Summitt’s coaching techniques shine through when working with Wolverine players. A big similarity is the fiery — sometimes intimidating — spirit that runs through her and the message that her team can always improve to perform at a higher level.
“When I’m after you, that means you’re underachieving, and there’s no place for underachieving in athletics or in anything you do in life,” Hutchins said. “Don’t allow yourself to be less than you’re capable of, and I think kids allow it. They don’t know as much as I know.”
Summitt and Hutchins experienced eerily similar journeys. When Summitt was in high school, her family moved to neighboring Henrietta, Tenn. because her Clarksville school didn’t field a girls’ basketball team. From there, she starred for the University of Tennessee at Martin and received All-American honors. In 1970, with the passage of Title IX still two years away, there were no athletic scholarships for women. Summitt’s brothers earned them, but her parents paid her tuition.
At that point, Summitt began her road to become a fervent advocate and de facto national spokesperson for all things equal treatment in sports. Even after 38 years as Tennessee coach and claiming eight NCAA Division I titles from 1987 to 2008, she didn’t lose her touch teaching young women the disciplines required to be successful in athletics and beyond.
“Her impact is that she showed that women can be leaders, they can be strong leaders, they can be strong and that they can be great, and that women are deserving,” Hutchins said. “She empowered a lot of other women by watching her coach, watching her get in people’s grills, watching her go after refs and knowing that it’s okay to be a strong woman. And to achieve greatness, you have to risk it.”
Michigan softball associate coach Bonnie Tholl gave a similar answer to a similar question.
“I think the one thing that she has taught so many people, and I’m on top of that list, is to never apologize for your passion,” Tholl said. “You are going to face challenges, yet if you are resilient and if you still have a vision of what makes things right — whether your opportunity is to be a coach at a big level or to be a president in a corporate world — (you will succeed).”
But Tholl’s response wasn’t about Summitt. It was about Hutchins.
Thirty-three years after being “lucky enough” to make $3,000 annually to coach, Hutchins earns close to $240,000. After not having a locker room for her players until 1998, the team’s home is the recently-renovated, $5.5 million softball addition to the Wilpon Baseball and Softball Complex.
Since starting with just a head coach and part-time assistant, Hutchins added Tholl and assistant coach Jennifer Brundage to the payroll. For the past 19 seasons, the trio won the Great Lakes Region Coaching Staff of the Year award on 13 separate occasions, including the past four years. In 2005, they earned Michigan’s first Speedline/NFCA National Coaching Staff of the Year honor.
After idolizing Pat Summitt for years as the forewomen striving for equal treatment for females nationwide, Hutchins has become the poster child for strong women in college sports and elsewhere, the epitome of achievement in all collegiate athletics. After looking up to her female predecessors in sports, players, coaches and fans alike now hold the utmost respect for Hutchins, a popular guest lecturer about her struggles breaking into sports as a woman.
“Her impact is immeasurable,” Brundage said. “Ever since those college days, she’s been an advocate for women and gender equality, and increasing salaries of coaches in our sport and increasing opportunities for women in our sport. The list goes on and on. … Just educating anyone that will listen.”
Thirty-three years after choosing to go to practice when her other two jobs weren’t calling, Hutchins now owns the most wins — more than 1,500 — of any coach in NCAA softball history. This also makes her the winningest coach, male or female, in Michigan athletics history.
Under her tutelage, the Wolverines have captured 19 Big Ten regular-season titles, nine Big Ten Tournament championships and qualified for the NCAA Tournament 24 times, including the past 22 years. In 12 of the last 22 seasons, she has led Michigan to WCWS appearances.
Hutchins earned 16 Big Ten Conference Coach of the Year honors and was inducted into the National Fastpitch Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2006. Despite the accolades galore, she uses her status to motivate others to partake in the gender equality movement.
Revered for cultivating a culture of positive empowerment within her locker room, she sets a high bar, pushing players personally and athletically.
“That’s the responsibility of ours, as a coach, as an educator, as a mentor,” said Tholl, who from 1988 to 1991 was a four-year starter at Michigan under Hutchins. “To help kids have powerful and lasting experiences that will help them become great community leaders, great professionals beyond what they do on the softball field.”
Added senior shortstop Abby Ramirez: “A lot of people know she’s tough on us, but it’s what we need. She not only is a great coach on the field but off the field as well. She cares a lot about us both as athletes and students, as people. I think that translates to the rest of our culture, where we all care about each other and want what’s best for each other.”
In the unique position of being a powerful woman in a mainly male-dominated profession, Hutchins believes it’s her responsibility to pave the way for those who come after her and stand up for those who deserve recognition, but are still marginalized — especially Tholl and Brundage.
“I think my role as a head woman is to make sure we keep going in the right direction,” Hutchins said. “We have to be vigilant that these opportunities are not taken for granted and that my staff is taken care of like other staffs are. These are really important people that provide a fantastic service for not just the university, but the student-athletes and I have fought hard over the years to make sure that they’re equally important.
“Fighting for equality is really important to me. Because if somebody didn’t fight for me, I would have never gotten to play. That’s a fact.”
On April 25, 1978, exactly 39 years ago today, Hutchins and her teammates had enough with Michigan State’s Title IX violations and took a stand.
“Well, we have to let (the female athletes) go out and play, so let’s just let them,” the Athletic Department said, according to Hutchins. “Just make sure they don’t get in the way of the boys.”
Nothing was done to change that attitude.
So, Hutchins helped change the attitude at Michigan State with a lawsuit. Then she went on and made the same change at Michigan the past 35 years.
This attitude is the biggest difference Hutchins sees from her first day on the job in 1985 to present day. To the longest-tenured coach at the University, college athletics isn’t about males or females or winning or losing. Instead, it’s more than that.
“This isn’t Hutch’s program, this is Michigan,” Hutchins said. “I am a servant of the University of Michigan. My job is to make Michigan softball great, to make these student-athletes great in everything they do, to teach them all the great lessons that you don’t learn anywhere else but on the field of battle.
“That’s what we should be doing, more importantly than knowing how to bunt or throw or hit. That’s kind of a cover. We do the same thing that (Michigan football coach) Jim Harbaugh does — he has a football and kickers and tacklers, and we have bats and balls and pitchers. But we’re all doing the same thing. We’re growing kids up, they grow up to understand their responsibility is to society, it’s not to themselves. That this isn’t about them, this is about Michigan and their responsibility is to Michigan.
“Our kids learn that here. That’s what we teach and that’s what sets us apart from a lot of programs. This isn’t about winning softball games. As much as we make it about winning softball games at the moment, when they leave here, they never talk about winning softball games, never.”
As Hutchins leads another team focused on winning its tenth straight Big Ten championship and capturing the Women’s College World Series title for the first time since 2005, she continues to foster success on and off the field.
Exactly 39 years after she began her battle at Michigan State for Title IX improvements, Hutchins continues her quest to improve gender equality across all sports and beyond. And it all starts with changing other’s views of women in sports from what they were back in 1978.
“That was the attitude,” Hutchins said. “That is no longer the attitude. I will not let that be the attitude because the law is still the law. The most important thing that’s ever happened in women’s athletics was Title IX. That’s the only reason we exist.”