One of the enduring images of the Beijing Olympics was that of U.S. men's volleyball coach Hugh McCutcheon standing with his face in his hands after his team upset Brazil to win its first gold medal in 20 years. Two weeks earlier McCutcheon's father-in-law, Todd Bachman, had been stabbed to death in a random attack while on a sightseeing visit to the city's Drum Tower; the assailant also wounded Bachman's wife, Barbara. McCutcheon—whose wife, Elisabeth, played for the 2004 U.S. Olympic volleyball squad—left his team for three games to be with his family. The resolve he demonstrated in the aftermath of the tragedy helped inspire the U.S. Said the coach, "Anger isn't an emotion I'm allowing myself to indulge in."
Four years later McCutcheon, 42, a native New Zealander, is back—this time to lead the U.S. women's team, which has never won an Olympic gold. When McCutcheon took over in December 2008, Team USA was ranked third in the world. It's now No. 1 after winning the FIVB World Grand Prix the last two years.
As men's coach McCutcheon unified a sometimes undisciplined and less-than-dedicated group. He has engineered a cultural overhaul with the women's team as well. "Before Hugh arrived, we had vertical structure—coach on the mountaintop, troops following commands," says Karch Kiraly, the volleyball legend who is now McCutcheon's assistant. "Now it's a collaboration. Players have ownership to make decisions. Don't wait for the ball to come to your assigned spot; improvise smartly, drive the play." The result, for instance, means more plays run through Logan Tom, a quick-thinking outside hitter, and more sets for Destinee Hooker, a three-time NCAA high jump champ at Texas who seems to spike from the ceiling.
Overcoming challenges has been a lifelong theme for McCutcheon. When he was 14, he lost his father to cancer. Last year his mother, Milly, lost the chimney of her house in Christchurch in a 6.3 earthquake. "From a young age I've had a sense of responsibility for other people," he says. "I've had a lot of practice."
Citing family reasons, McCutcheon will step down after the Olympics to coach next season at the University of Minnesota, in his wife's home state. ("We just hired the Mike Krzyzewski of volleyball," Gophers athletic director Joel Maturi said after the hire.) McCutcheon and Elisabeth have a one-year-old son, with a new baby due in April. "Family is more important than anything," he says, "and I didn't want to raise my kids over Skype."
Though McCutcheon would rather deflect the narrative to his players, they don't ignore his impact. "It was a thrill to hear he was going to coach the women's team after getting gold with the men," says middle blocker Danielle Scott-Arruda, the senior member of the squad at age 39. "I just hope we can get some of that."