The first thing you notice when you walk into her office are the framed newspapers resting on a shelf opposite the door. One screams the headline “History Makers.” The other, “Champions in the West.”
Then you turn right, toward her desk. There, you see the large stuffed wolverine atop the cabinets on her wall, and then the numerous Big Ten championship trophies positioned carefully in mahogany-colored cubbies.
Your eyes are drawn to the white sheet of paper pinned to the wall behind her right shoulder. It’s a to-do list written neatly in black marker, thick enough so you can clearly read items six and seven:
6. Call in one of my players.
7. Make them cry.
Later, you’ll ask about it, and she’ll explain the list was made by a player as a gag for Halloween. She’ll tell you why she keeps it: the list is “hilarious,” but also “not inaccurate.”
But you don’t know that yet. You wonder if she could make you cry.
As she glares at you through steel blue eyes, you decide she probably could.
* * *
Carol Hutchins is the face of Michigan softball, though she’ll disagree vehemently with the notion, citing Bo Schembechler’s “The Team” speech in the process.
Never mind that you can’t seem to escape her stare anywhere inside the new softball center. There’s a large cardboard cutout of Hutchins by the stairs, for instance, and pictures of her on walls throughout the building.
“I’m not very happy about that,” she said. “I’ve just been the fortunate one to get to be the leader of the program. … If I up and retire tomorrow, it’s going to be here. My goal is to leave it standing strong, to put it in position to be successful.”
But her achievements speak for themselves: In 30 years, never a losing season; 17 Big Ten crowns; 16 NCAA regional titles; and the first national championship won by a program east of the Mississippi River.
So too do the challenges she overcame to reach those milestones.
There were the years before universities properly valued women’s sports, when she had to work double-duty as both the softball coach and as a secretary, or how she sometimes had to tend to the outfield grass herself.
Today, Hutchins enjoys the use of world-class softball facilities — even if she scorns at how much her face is plastered on them.
“I certainly have seen a lot of years,” she said. “The growth of women in sport, especially women in college athletics — I could have never dreamed it.
“I’m still a coach because I realize it’s better than working for a living. Coaching is about a life, and it’s about a family. It’s what I do. It’s what I love.”
Michigan moved into that new softball center just over a year ago, but there’s already a minor issue. One wall in a conference room is dedicated to celebration photos of all of the Wolverines’ Big Ten-champion teams.
When Michigan won its 17th such title last spring, someone noticed there wasn’t any more space left for their picture.
“We need a bigger wall,” Hutchins said with a laugh.
* * *
The color in Hutchins’ eyes comes from her mother. The intensity behind them, from her father.
He was a Marine and a cop, and he made sure Hutchins valued two things: discipline and honesty. From his strict parenting came her imposing personality.
“There was never one day in my life that I felt like my dad didn’t love me,” she recalled. “I knew he loved me, but I was afraid of him, and I was never going to get in trouble with him. I would venture to say that I am really hard on my kids, because I want them to achieve the greatest thing they can. I want them to get the most out of their career because that’s what success is.”
Hutchins’ goal at Michigan isn’t to win, though that has virtually always been a side effect. Rather, she strives to turn “weak-minded kids” into graduating classes of leaders who understand “it’s OK to be a strong woman.”
“Learning it is where there’s tears,” she said. “Learning it is where you go through those tough times. It’s not all comfy.”
She’s not promising to be nice, or to be a friend, or to be a mother figure, but she vows to push her players to greatness.
And Hutchins expects there to be rough patches along the way. She expects frustration. She expects them to cry — as long as her players know she cares about them.
“That’s what you do to people you love — you push them,” she said. “I know they’re kids. I know they’re not going to be perfect. That, though, is not an excuse.
“I’m here to say, ‘Fall down? Get up.’ That’s what we do. That’s how you grow up.”
So while step No. 7 on her mock to-do list involves pushing people to tears, it’s only as a precursor for item No. 9:
Make the team great.
There’s no doubt she has done that.
Zúñiga can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @ByAZuniga.