We’ll explain the whole thing in a second, but first you need to know that Mike Hebert retired, Hugh McCutcheon was named head coach but won’t take over until next season and that Laura Bush never thought she would be the head coach but has that role this season.

I get it but I never thought about it much and now I’ve been hearing about it a lot lately. But the whole time we’ve been here it’s been completely normal and nothing out of the abnormal for us.
-- Minnesota assistant coach Alfee Reft

In the meantime, consider that the transition for the Minnesota volleyball program from last year to this year to what will be next year has gone remarkably well.

“The team has responded very well,” said first-year assistant Alfee Reft, a former USA national-team libero whose coach was McCutcheon. “And Laura’s done a tremendous job of bridging what the program was prior to Hugh being hired to then leading the team into, I guess, new waters.”

For that matter, Reft was surprised at all the fuss.

“It’s not that crazy,” Reft said with a laugh.

“We hear that a lot. I get it but I never thought about it much and now I’ve been hearing about it a lot lately. But the whole time we’ve been here it’s been completely normal and nothing out of the abnormal for us. A gym is a gym to me but I’ve been hearing people talk about it. I guess it would look a little shaky from the outside looking in, but it’s been anything but that, to be honest.”

Perhaps they’ve been hearing about it because the season finally started. In the case of Minnesota, ranked 11th in last week’s AVCA poll, it’s hard to imagine a more rugged start. The Gophers opened last weekend in a tournament at four-time NCAA-champion Penn State in which they fell to No. 3 Southern Cal in five sets and then beat No. 16 Oregon in five a night after Oregon upset four-time NCAA-champion Penn State. But, as they say, wait, there’s more: Now Minnesota plays host to No. 4 Texas in Minneapolis on Friday and Saturday in an unusual back-to-back-matches situation.

A bit ambitious?

“It’s going to prepare us to play the back end of the season, so we might as well start tough from the beginning,” UM junior setter Mia Tabberson said. “And in the Big Ten, as competitive as it is, there’s not a single easy match. So we really need to be ready right now.”

They certainly appear to be. And now here’s an explanation of how they got to where they are.

Start with Bush. She was a second-team All-American at Illinois, where her coach was Hebert. They went to back-to-back Final Fours.

Bush’s coaching resume includes being an assistant at Michigan State, head coach at Marquette and head coach at Auburn, where she resigned after the 2007 season not sure about the future.

But Hebert, then at Minnesota, brought her on as an assistant and the Gophers have gone 81-25 the past three years, including a trip to the 2009 Final Four.

Last season, after 16 years, Hebert decided to retire.

Not that it was a surprise.

“We would discuss that topic at least once a week,” Bush admitted. “Just about where we were and where we were going. Because his decision to retire affected everything in the program, from obviously recruiting to scheduling to what the heck are the rest of us going to do.”

“The program has such a rich history I knew they’d find a great replacement for Mike,” Tabberson said.

By all accounts, Minnesota scored big when it hired McCutcheon last February. It would be hard to find a more impressive volleyball resume. McCutcheon, a native New Zealander, led the U.S. men’s team to the gold medal in 2008 in the Beijing Olympics and then moved over to be the U.S. women’s coach. He and Minnesota agreed that he would not take over until after the 2012 Olympics and will join the team next Sept 1.

Which put Bush in the forefront. She and McCutcheon had long talks about possible interim head coaches and assistants, developing a mutual trust along the way.

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“It’s still an amazing process in my head about that and how it worked. I never felt like I was on a job interview,” Bush recalled. “I just felt like I was talking coach-to-coach, person-to-person about coaching, and about college coaching for him and where I was in my decision about either leaving college coaching for a while or returning to it.”

For McCutcheon, it was likely as an easy decision to take Minnesota’s offer. His wife, Elisabeth was a 2004 Olympian. In a tragic, well-documented incident, her father, Todd Bachman, was stabbed and killed and her mother injured by a stranger during the 2008 Games.

While she played at UCLA, Elisabeth is from the Twin Cities. The McCutcheons have a young child. And they have another connection in U.S. national team setter Lindsey Berg, a former UM star.

“The travel with international volleyball is extensive and very long and very grueling,” Bush said, “and this is a way to stay with high-level volleyball and still be a husband and be a father.”

The attraction of McCutcheon is sure to be a recruiting boost as well on a staff that also includes Chris Tamas, a former national-team player whose wife, Jennifer Joines, was a member of the 2008 U.S. team that won the silver medal in Beijing.

McCutcheon respectfully declined to be interviewed for this story, saying only that all his emphasis is on the U.S. national team and that Bush is Minnesota’s head coach.

“It hasn’t been without bumps,” Bush said, “but overall I would say things have gone rather smooth.”

This situation, by the way, is not unprecedented. Southern Cal had a similar arrangement when it hired Mick Haley before the 2000 Olympics. Jerritt Elliott, now the 11th-year head coach at Texas, handled the job for two years in Haley’s absence, taking USC to the 2000 Final Four.

But unlike Elliott, who moved on, Bush looks forward to staying at Minnesota.

“I’ll just return as an assistant,” Bush said.

“A lot of people ask me about this, ‘Don’t you feel awkward about this?’ No, but I’ve also been a part of all the discussions. This is my job right now and I have to do it to the best of my ability. And then when Hugh comes my job will be as an assistant and I have to do that to the best of my ability.”

No wonder Reft says simply, “A lot of credit has to go to Laura and the team. They’ve handled it with a lot of maturity.”

Just listening to Tabberson confirms that.

“The biggest thing that we’ve made sure of – the girls, the players who have returned from the Mike Hebert coaching staff to the new soon-to-be-Hugh McCutcheon coaching staff – we know that we can’t look ahead to anything and we can’t look behind. Every day we’re just in the moment and know we have to make the best of today,” said Tabberson, a product of Muncie, Ind., who had a career-best 61 assists in the season-opener against USC.

“Today we were given an opportunity to get better with the coaches we have and we have to take advantage of it. Honestly, we don’t talk much about when Hugh’s coming. Obviously it’s going to be great when he gets here, but we’re really, really focused on this team and this year and this season, because there are girls on this team who won’t have Hugh as a coach.”

Hugh McCutcheon
AP Images

That would include three seniors, middle blocker Ariana Filho, defensive specialist Jess Menden and libero Jessica Granquist, who made the all-tournament team last weekend at Penn State.

But Tabberson and the other two juniors, outside hitter/middle Brianna Haugen and outside Katherine Harms, next season will have the third head coach of their career.

“It’s definitely interesting, but I think the team has handled it extremely well,” Tabberson said.

Bush joked that the tough start to the schedule was all Hebert’s fault, but no one is complaining.

“It was very exciting with great competition to start the season,” Tabberson said. “It was awesome.”

Accordingly, the coaches think the future of this season is bright for a team that has nine players from Minnesota on its roster of 14.

“We are a work in progress. Every day we need to get better and we need to stay healthy,” said Bush, who added that UM, not overburdened with depth, purposely doesn’t over-practice on the floor.

“Right now they’re learning and getting better every day,” said Reft, whose resume includes coaching girls club volleyball in California with Elisabeth McCutcheon. “I know that sounds pretty cliché and simple, but they’re putting pieces together. They’re a talented group. We have a lot of talented players who are still figuring out some thing …

“We’re hopeful as coaches because we think there’s a lot of room to improve and they’re doing the right things to get there.”

Regardless of what’s happening off the floor. McCutcheon has stayed hands off.

“He said we could run the program any way we wanted to and do whatever we wanted,” Bush said. “I believe we’re doing a very good job.”