Every year, Carol Hutchins’ phone rings.
It’s the athletic department of yet another college, and they want to offer associate head coach Bonnie Tholl and assistant coach Jennifer Brundage head coaching positions.
And every year, these programs receive the same answer.
The assistants always turn the offers down.
When asked why this is, Hutchins doesn’t need a second to hesitate.
She provides a simple, yet authentic, answer.
“I think they bleed blue.”
When Tholl graduated from Michigan in 1991, she had already made a name for herself in the softball sphere.
As Hutchins put it:
“She was one of those kids who was kind of a program changer.”
And that wasn’t an exaggeration. Tholl — a four-year starter at shortstop for the Wolverines from 1988 to 1991 — made history when she became the first player to net All-Big Ten First Team honors four times.
During her tenure as a player, Tholl was a captain, a record-setter and a role model. She could have left Michigan after her senior year knowing she had already made her mark, but she and Hutchins both knew she wanted more. They both knew she was meant to be a Michigan coach.
“I think when you leave a place that’s so special to you, you kind of compare any other place you go to the place that was special,” Tholl said. “My vision and my thought process was that someday, I wanted to come back to Michigan.”
After working for two years as an assistant coach of Indiana while simultaneously obtaining a master’s degree in athletic administration, Tholl had the chance to return to Ann Arbor much sooner than she had anticipated. The current assistant coach for the Wolverines could only work part time, but Hutchins was doing a majority of the heavy lifting by herself and needed more experienced hands on deck. Tholl was the clear woman for the job.
She returned to Ann Arbor for the 1994 season, diving into her second assistant coaching role just three years out of college. She found herself in uncharted territory, working side by side with Hutchins for the first time, instead of playing for her.
It’s been 24 years, and Tholl has never looked back.
Hutchins still remembers the first time she saw Brundage play softball up close. It was in a 1995 game between Michigan and UCLA, one of the best softball programs at the time.
When the game ended, though, the Wolverines were triumphant, proving themselves worthy of competing with the big-name teams. Despite the end result, Hutchins found herself intrigued by one Bruins player: Jennifer Brundage.
“I just remember, I’m on third base (as coach) and Jenn’s the third baseman,” Hutchins said. “And I admired her game and her style.”
Brundage, a senior during that game, batted .518 on the season, above any other NCAA Division I player that year. That season, she broke the UCLA records for home runs, runs batted in and doubles. After coaching as an assistant at Tennessee-Chattanooga for a year, she went back to UCLA for the 1997 season, having been offered the assistant coaching spot.
At this time, Kelly Kovach Schoenly, now the head coach at Ohio State, worked as Hutchins’ pitching coach. But in 1998, Schoenly had been offered a position at Penn State, a job that would be both an upward move for her and closer to her home in Pennsylvania. Hutchins needed a new pitching coach, and she thought of Brundage.
Having started in the circle just five times for UCLA, she may have seemed like an unusual choice at first glance. But Hutchins had done her research.
“(UCLA) was the only school that didn’t recruit (Brundage) to pitch,” Hutchins said. “If she’d have played at Ohio State, she would have been a pitcher, and so I knew, when the job opened up, that she had an extensive pitching background.”
In her interview, Brundage convinced Hutchins that she could take the pitching program and run with it. Brundage was hired as an assistant coach for the 1999 season, joining a team that Hutchins and Tholl had already brought to four-straight Women’s College World Series appearances. It was this season that the foundation of Michigan softball, as it is known today, came together. And 19 seasons later, the core still hasn’t left.
When the trio began working together, a few questions remained about how the dynamic would shape out. For the first time, Tholl began taking on many duties, spearheading the program’s recruiting efforts and coaching the outfield. How would she handle these newfound responsibilities? And while Hutchins knew Brundage could pitch, there was still the question of how she would bode supervising the position as the primary pitching coach.
The coaching staff had to overcome these hurdles, but with a little bit of time, they metamorphosed into a cohesive unit.
“When I was here my first couple years, I wasn’t mature enough to make all the decisions I make today,” Tholl said. “And I think under Hutch’s tutelage, I’m now a product of all of her teaching.”
One thing that didn’t take time, though, was for each coach to bring their unique knowledge and experiences to the table, something that proved vital to building the elite program that stands today.
Hutchins brought expertise. When Brundage joined the program in 1999, Hutchins had already been Michigan’s head coach for 14 years. Just a year later, she notched her 638th victory, putting her in first place for all-time wins among Wolverine coaches. With upward of 1,500 wins today, she is the NCAA’s winningest softball coach of all time and arguably the greatest coach in the history of the sport.
Brundage brought a rare combination of skilled pitching and slugging knowledge. In her tenure at Michigan, she has helped in the batter’s box while also coaching nine players to Big Ten Pitcher of the Year honors. And Hutchins was quick to note that no school has had more All-Americans in the circle than Michigan since Brundage joined the staff.
Tholl brought creativity to the team with defensive coaching, mainly in the outfield, and an aptitude for recruitment. Right off the bat, in her first recruiting class, she found Sara Griffin and Kellyn Tate, the class that propelled Michigan into its first WCWS in 1995. Tholl’s hard work and skill led to a promotion for the 2003 season to associate head coach.
“She has an even better mind for the game than I do, and she has a better recruiting mind than anybody in the country,” Hutchins said. “She’s like a Rolodex.
“People from all over the country would call her and say, ‘Hey do you remember this kid that played for a certain team?’ and (Tholl) knows her name, she knows the year of graduation, she knows all about her. If Bonnie sees a kid play she remembers them for life. She even remembers their birthday.”
And with such a strong knack for recruitment, it would have been easy for Tholl to take every step of the recruitment process under her wing. But that was never how the Michigan coaching dynamic worked. Everyone was invested in the future of the team, and everyone wanted to be involved in all aspects of coaching.
The recruitment of senior centerfielder Kelly Christner was a clear illustration of that.
Christner still recalls that Brundage was the first to see her play in a game in high school, and that she left quite an impression on the assistant coach. During the game, Christner went for a foul ball before colliding with a fence and flying off of it.
“I’m pretty sure that’s why (Brundage) called Hutch and was like, ‘You should check this kid out, she’ll do anything.’ ” Christner said. “But honestly, she and Bonnie and Hutch all rotated around. … I think they try to work that in with every recruit just so they aren’t focusing on one coach.”
While this deep level of investment and involvement from Hutchins’ coaching staff has become commonplace in the Michigan program, Hutchins doesn’t take it for granted.
She remembers what it was like before having Tholl and Brundage around and is very grateful for their consistent presence and commitment to the program.
“I’m glad I have them,” Hutchins said. “I wouldn’t want to live without them again.
“Everyone expects that the head coach is really invested in the program, but the key to our success has been that my assistant coaches are every bit as invested than I am.”
The three core coaches’ equal investment in Michigan softball comes along with their three distinct and strong personalities. Because of this, the staff is not always in agreement on every small-scale decision regarding the team.
Every day, the coaches work together to prepare their next practice — and the planning sessions are not always simple. When the meetings get heated, and they often do, they can last upward of an hour.
But at the end of the day, the coaches can consistently agree on one thing: They want what’s best for the softball team. And given the unique circumstance Hutchins and her assistants find themselves in, they have had more time to formulate and perfect a singular vision for the team than most other coaching units.
“We walk in every day to make this program better and to try to get us to the College World Series,” Hutchins said.
Michigan has seen this vision realized many times. With the earliest in 1995 and the most recent just last year, the Wolverines have made 12 WCWS appearances, with the trio being together for the last eight.
The triad’s cohesion has numbers to show for it as well. It has netted the Great Lakes Region Coaching Staff of the Year accolade on 12 separate occasions, including the last four consecutive years.
In 2005, the coaching staff earned Michigan’s first Speedline/NFCA National Coaching Staff of the Year honor. The season was monumental, as the Wolverines claimed their only NCAA national championship and finished the season with a program-best 65 wins.
Undeniably, the Michigan softball program has a lot to be proud of.
Yet it is equally important, if not more so, that coaches of such a celebrated program understand how to work with failure and not just success. Whether an individual is struggling or the team as a whole is in a slump, performance will not always meet up with expectations.
Last year, Christner dealt firsthand with not meeting up to her own expectations at the plate. Under the tutelage of the seasoned coaches, she was able to take on a new mindset for this season.
“I think I’ve become much more comfortable with failure,” Christner said. “Being mentored by them has really taught me how to handle it and how to come back from it.”
Part of what has made Michigan players like Christner feel that they are able to come back from a slump is having three supportive mentors to go to.
And Hutchins shared these sentiments.
“We’re very lucky,” she said. “We have three people that are all head coaches, really.”
Hutchins, from the start, has treated her assistants with the responsibility and respect of equals. This coaching style has paid dividends both for the team and for the tight-knit nature of the coaching staff.
“(We) all have a voice in our staff meetings and she wants input from everyone,” Brundage said. “She doesn’t have an ego where she has to be right all the time. It’s pretty cool that arguably the greatest coach in our sport wants to hear what the rest of us think and allows us to have a voice.”
The way in which Hutchins supervises the staff has given each coach the opportunity to learn from one another. The Michigan coaching philosophy is that no matter one’s success and expertise, there is always room for growth.
“(Coaching) doesn’t get old for us,” Tholl said. “The game is always changing and we are always learning. It doesn’t matter if Hutch has been the coach for over 30 years here, she’s still learning different parts of the game.”