He has methods, uniquely holistic and effective for high-performing collegiate athletes, but the degree of difficulty Gophers volleyball coach Hugh McCutcheon added to this season seemed extreme.
With his team struggling under heavy expectations and a heavier schedule, the University of Minnesota released a statement on a Sunday night in mid-October saying this would be McCutcheon's final season. He would resign at its completion and have no more comment on the matter until then.
The news vibrated throughout college volleyball.
Two days later CC McGraw, who started attending Gophers volleyball camps around the time McCutcheon took over as head coach in 2012, stood in front of the assembled media at Maturi Pavilion and said a team looking for motivation may have found it.
The talented Gophers had been inconsistent to that point. Service errors stacked up in surprisingly high numbers. Their first touch off an opponent serve was often wayward, and the attack struggled.
Moments of incredible potency, like a rousing destruction of Wisconsin, were met with moments of impotency, like a five-set loss to Northwestern.
They were 9-6, 4-3 in Big Ten play, and had gotten swept by Ohio State at home when the news about McCutcheon came. They faced a stark question: could this team come together for each other under the looming departure of the coach who had recruited and developed them?
That is exactly what they did.
On Friday the Gophers open the NCAA tournament at home against Southeastern Louisiana as the No. 8 overall seed after surging to an 11-2 record since McCutcheon's announcement to finish 15-5 in Big Ten play. Their final two wins — at No. 8 Ohio State and No. 5 Nebraska — were tense, emphatic and euphoric.
"One thing we struggled with early on in the season is just who we are and what our identity is as a program," McGraw said Tuesday. "But it allowed us to take a look in the mirror and reflect a little bit and figure out what type of team we want to be. ... We're gritty … and we're in a good spot heading into the tournament."
McCutcheon often says his definition of success on the court is his players being good over time. Watching this team figure itself out over the course of a unique season has created thrilling volleyball.
Setter Melani Shaffmaster and a coterie of middle blockers, including Carter Booth, Arica Davis, Naya Gros and Ellie Husemann, mastered a sort of ESP on the attack that leads to lightning passes and ballistic kills. The middles operate off the punishing, elevated work by hitters Taylor Landfair, Jenna Wenaas and Mckenna Wucherer on the outside. Landfair (the Big Ten Player of the Year), Shaffmaster and Wenaas have been playing "six-rotation" all season, never leaving the court, while Wucherer has worked through injuries in a strenuous freshman campaign.
It is a blistering collection that finished with the highest hitting percentage of any team in conference play.
They are also peacocking defensively.
The Gophers are tall, athletic and unafraid. Their arms stretch like exclamation points and they dominate at the net. Booth, the standout freshman, has turned into an anchor on the block. She is 6-7, analytical and agile. Over her past nine matches she has 50 blocks. And the Gophers' 2.99 blocks per set were second to only Maryland in conference play.
On the back row the Gophers will rely on the experience of McGraw and Rachel Kilkelly and the return play of Wenaas and Landfair. McGraw has found her elasticity of late, notching a season-best 20 digs against Ohio State last weekend as she moved into third place for digs all-time at the U. And Wenaas has embraced the challenge of being more than just a world-class hitter, with a .967 reception percentage on 543 attempts — the best numbers on the roster.
They are not a perfect team. They can lapse into poor stretches of play and have had to rally for victories, a method that may or may not be sustainable when things get big in the tournament.
But they have done what McCutcheon asks of them, handling the difficult internal work that in the end created another season of excellent external results.
Landfair said that McCutcheon helped her believe in coaching again, in the meaning of that relationship as a person and player. And with the news that he will still be at the U next season in an administrative role, she came to savor these final weeks together.
"I feel like we have even strengthened our relationship," she said. "And I know he is still going to be here."
It also feels fair to say that in his final season leading this program, McCutcheon needed his players to be there for him.
"I just know I feel extremely grateful to coach this team and to have gone through this journey with them," he said. "And the journey is not done."
Not by a long shot.
But one aspect of the story feels resolved.
No matter what happens in the NCAA tournament, McCutcheon's tenure with Gophers volleyball will end as it should, leading a collection of players that has been nothing less than good over time.