Commentary

The absolute best and worst two weeks of Hugh McCutcheon's life

Updated: August 24, 2008, 5:01 PM ET
By Elizabeth Merrill | ESPN.com

BEIJING -- Maybe it was reflex that caused Hugh McCutcheon to gaze up at the empty stands. He knew they weren't there. He'd grabbed a random cell phone to call his wife after 1 a.m. in the States, and Elisabeth McCutcheon didn't even say hello when she picked up.

[+] EnlargeHugh McCutcheon
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesAfter missing the team's first three games to be with his grieving wife, Hugh McCutcheon led the United States to its first gold medal since 1988.

"You won! You won! You won!" she said.

There is no way to sum up the past 15 days, the absolute worst and best of Hugh McCutcheon's life.

He cannot allow himself to be angry. A stranger wielded a knife on his family two weeks ago in Beijing, killing his father-in-law and seriously wounding his mother-in-law and their tour guide while his wife watched.

He cannot allow himself to be happy for more than two minutes at a time. His team pulled out the feel-good story of the 2008 Beijing Olympics on Sunday, upsetting Brazil in four sets to win the gold medal, and McCutcheon put his hands on his bald head and briskly walked off the court.

Today, he is the mastermind of one of the most surprising turnarounds in USA Volleyball history. Tonight, he is a grieving husband, dashing to catch a plane back to Minnesota, trying to sleep on the excruciatingly long flight.

"My job is done here," McCutcheon said. "This isn't any vindication. This isn't anything that is going to alter any outcome. But when I look back at this thing, I'm just going to think, 'Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful, what a great thing.' What a great thing to be a part of, what a great accomplishment.

"And I'm going to mourn the loss of my father-in-law. We can do that. We can be happy and feel a tinge of sadness, as well."

His family will finally bury Todd Bachman on Friday. Bachman was 62. He loved to watch volleyball, especially when his daughter "Wizzy" played. She was an Olympian herself in 2004. She "gets it," McCutcheon says. Two weeks ago, when the coach wanted to leave, Elisabeth was the one who told him he had to see this through, that too many people were depending on him.

The Americans hung on to his words Sunday. They dropped their first set, then huddled together in the fourth when it appeared as if momentum had swung back Brazil's way. They dove and flew out of bounds in that fourth set, seemingly digging everything, and pumped their fists after every stomach-churning rally.

Brazil pulled ahead 20-17 in that fourth game, and the Americans sensed their opponents were getting overconfident. When Clayton Stanley and David Lee teamed up for a block that put the Americans ahead, the "U-S-A!" chants got louder. Lee took a deep breath. The Brazilians collapsed and lost 20-25, 25-22, 25-21, 25-23.

"At the beginning of the game … we had all the will to win," said Brazil middle blocker André Heller. "The USA deserved it more than us."

The Brazilians were the best in men's volleyball; the Americans hadn't been close to this moment in nearly two decades. When McCutcheon took over in 2005, he quickly changed the culture of USA Volleyball. He convinced the Americans they didn't have to be like the golden boys of 1984 and '88. They just had to be comfortable in their own skin and play hard for one another.

That chemistry was clear through two weeks in Beijing. They cried together, grew stronger through every undefeated day and, on Sunday, held hands as they stepped on top of the gold-medal stand.

[+] EnlargeUSA Volleyball
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images Members of the U.S. volleyball team paid tribute to Todd and Barbara Bachman by putting their initials on their sneakers.
McCutcheon watched from a distance, but pointed to them as they leaned in for their gold.

"It took me a while to find him after we won," outside hitter Scott Touzinsky said. "I think everybody was just wrapped up in hugging and crying. I can imagine he was probably shedding a little bit of tears there.

"I'm sorry for what has happened to the Bachmans and to Hugh. Obviously, this isn't going to bring Wiz's dad back. But hopefully it can give them a little strength to keep on going on with their lives and keep his memory alive."

It brought redemption for veterans like Lloy Ball, who, after a nightmarish performance in Sydney eight years ago, considered giving it all up. Ball was the one in the huddle late Sunday rallying his teammates, telling them to keep pounding away at the Brazilians.

And for three hours, it brought comfort to McCutcheon. He reminded reporters that the real story wasn't his 15 days of pain; it was how his team fought to overcome its own. He wondered how things might have been different if Aug. 9 hadn't happened. Would he have wandered through the celebration, looking for Wizzy? Would he have hugged Todd and Barbara instead of staring at the empty stands?

"I can only speculate," McCutcheon said. "But I can imagine [Todd] would've been -- I want to say is -- extremely proud of what this team accomplished. Because it hasn't been easy. When you throw in the emotional load that the team has had to bear collectively, for them to come through and be this good, it's a wonderful achievement."

Elizabeth Merrill writes for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.