Angelique S. Chengelis
Michigan softball coach Carol Hutchins realized during her career that while winning is important, molding and preparing the young women she coached for their futures was her greatest priority.
Hutchins, 65, announced her retirement Wednesday after 38 seasons, her 1,707 victories a record in the sport. She remains as the winningest coach — male or female — in any sport in school history. Hutchins led the Wolverines to the 2005 national championship and his teams won 22 Big Ten regular-season titles and 10 Big Ten Tournament championships.
“You learn at some point in your coaching career when you’ve done it for 40 years that you always thought you were just here to win games,” Hutchins told The Detroit News in 2021 when she was honored as one of the News’ Michiganians of the Year. “And then you realize you’re really here to grow people up.
“And I certainly grew up myself. But watching them grow into strong, powerful women is, without a doubt, my greatest joy when they come back as former athletes as alums, as doctors and lawyers and educators and Olympians. I’m a part of their life for life, they’re a part of mine. They’ve impacted me every bit as much as I’ve impacted them.”
Bonnie Tholl, who played for Hutchins and has been on the staff for 29 years, is now Michigan’s fourth head coach.
Hutchins arrived in Ann Arbor in 1983 as an assistant to Bob DeCarolis and then was elevated to head coach in 1985. Those who have played for her don’t talk so much about the wins, but about what she has meant to them throughout their lives since graduating.
“It’s hard for me to imagine Michigan softball without Hutch,” Jennie Ritter, who helped lead Michigan to the 2005 national title and finished her career with six of the program’s pitching records, said Wednesday. “You have this vision that she’s immortal, that she’s going to be there forever.
“How grateful we all were the last 38 teams to be able to be coached by her, because nobody’s going to be able to be coached by her again. It’s crazy to think that, which makes my heart hurt. When you talk about legend and GOAT, there’s nobody else who personifies that. And it’s so much beyond what she did between the lines. It’s about everything else she did.”
Hutchins is “Hutch” to everyone who knows her. She is a proud Michigan State graduate and lettered in basketball and softball (1976-79) for the Spartans. Hutchins coached her final Big Ten Tournament this spring at MSU and noted the 1976 AIAW national softball championship she helped win is commemorated on the left-field wall.
She has been a trailblazer for Title IX and for demanding equality for women college athletes. She has pushed for more female representation in college coaching, not just in softball, and has gained respect and recognition across the country for her advocacy.
But softball is her love. While Hutchins has always enjoyed winning, she found that unique sweet spot of being supportive of her colleagues while often competing against them. Bettering the sport and improving the landscape for female college athletes have always been her goals.
“I’m excited for her and for her next chapter, but this is a big day-to-day loss in our sport,” Nebraska coach Rhonda Revelle, one of Hutchins’ close friends, said Wednesday. “How many coaches are known by one name? She’s like Oprah.”
Revelle said she and Hutchins had extensive conversations about her future in the last 10 days, often speaking several times a day. Ironically, Hutchins coached against Revelle in the Big Ten championship game this year and lost to her good friend.
“It’s been really emotional,” Revelle said. “This has been a person, a friend, a colleague who has walked with me every step of the way of my journey as a head coach. As soon as I got the job at Nebraska, she called me Day 1, and said, ‘I’m here for you,’ and it’s always been that way.”
Hutchins got into coaching at Indiana on Gayle Blevin’s staff. Blevins would then move to Iowa where she coached from 1988-2010 when she retired after 31 seasons as the then-second all-time winningest coach in the sport. She and Hutchins have always been close.
“It goes way beyond softball with Hutch,” Blevins said. “I think about 38 years at Michigan and all the women who have been impacted by her, and that’s not just the women she’s coached. It’s women who have been in the profession, but also in other lines of work. There are so many people she has impacted. Michigan was very fortunate to have her as their coach for as long as they have and to have such a special person.”
Kelly Kovach Schoenly, Ohio State’s softball coach, is in that unique position of having played for Hutchins and coached against her. Upon receiving a text on Wednesday asking if she could discuss Hutchins in light of her retirement, she was shocked.
“She’s retired?” Schoenly wrote. “Is this a prank?”
Schoenly could not help but get emotional while talking about Hutchins, who worked on the staff for a couple of seasons before heading into the coaching world. Those years, Schoenly said, were pivotal.
Hutchins then helped her when the Ohio State job opened before the 2013 season.
“As our program started to grow, I think she saw me in a different light, which seeing myself through her eyes is the best thing ever,” Schoenly said, her voice growing emotional, needing a moment to collect herself. “I think when you finally earn her respect as a coaching peer, nothing means more. Her belief in you before you believe in yourself is such a comfort. She knew I could do this.”
Hutchins always being real to her players is a description that comes up all the time. She understood her players, and she understood which buttons to push to motivate.
“She is what she is, always,” Amanda Chidester, a captain in 2011 and two-time Big Ten Player of the Year. “She is a great person and always has your best interest at heart. She’s going to push you to be your best, and she’s going to tell you what she thinks, but it’s not to be an ass, it’s what she sees. She wants greatness. She’s not trying to make herself better, it’s about making other people better.”
As Taylor Bump, a recent graduate of Hutchins’ program, moves into her professional life in Florida, she said her coach is often on her mind. What Hutchins meant to her began to crystallize heading into her junior season.
“I sat on the bench for her for two years,” Bump said Wednesday. “In those moments, I was like, ‘What the hell? This isn’t what I came to do.’ And I look back on it now, and I wasn’t near ready maturity wise, softball-wise. It was the best decision of her life to sit me on the bench. That takes a lot of maturity for me to admit. If I hadn’t gone through those two years, I wouldn’t be where I am today.
“I vividly remember meeting with her before junior season started where I was like, ‘What do you want from me?’ I’m ready to prove you wrong. I’m ready for you to give me my shot, I’m ready to help Michigan be great.’ That was the moment our relationship took off. It blossomed into one of the most mutually respectful relationships I think I’ve ever had. Since then, I can go to her for anything.”
Meghan Beaubien, the Big Ten Pitcher of the Year as a freshman in 2018, could have left after the 2021 season, but she decided to play an additional year while pursuing a Master’s degree in engineering.
She pointed to Hutchins’ legacy as being layered.
“I think she’s absolutely a complex person,” Beaubien said. “Sometimes you have to sit back and think about everything she’s done, the kind of person she is and what she’s done for women in sports and for marginalized people in general, fighting for equality and wanting to make the world a better place. You’ve got to take a step back sometimes to remember that about her and what’s at the core of her being and who she is.”
Beaubien experienced first-hand how Hutchins coached each of her players as individuals, demanding their best.
“Sometimes you butt heads, and it’s not always an easy relationship, but at the end of the day, everyone knows that she just wants to make you better and a better player, but more than that wants to make you a better person and send you off into the world the best she can. She takes a lot of pride in that and a big part of her legacy is going to be carried on by the people she mentored, the people she taught and the people she meant a lot to.
“I know that on a personal level, she’s made me a better person. Most of the time it’s when it’s the last thing in the entire world that I wanted was Hutch looking me in the eyes and telling me something I didn’t want to hear. She’s got a way about her of pissing you off, and then you can look back at it later thinking, ‘You know what? I’m pissed off because she was right.”
There are countless examples of something similar among the many players Hutchins coached at Michigan. Ritter says she is “100 percent” who she is today because of her experience being coached by Hutchins.
“I know more about myself and how I respond in situations and how I handle toughness and upsetting situations,” Ritter said. “Every single day I draw on something I learned from Michigan softball and Hutch. She is forever my family and forever someone I will always look up to.”