MINNEAPOLIS -- The reluctant interim coach took her place near the back line, and with the smile of someone clearly enjoying herself, gently bumped volleyballs toward one of her setters. The day's practice had not officially started at the University of Minnesota, but Laura Bush already was into the fun part of her job, the one-on-one work.
The not-so-fun part? Temporarily running the nationally ranked Gophers program as the bridge between retired coach Mike Hebert and incoming coach Hugh McCutcheon, who needed someone he trusted to oversee things while he coached the U.S. women's national team. Under an agreement with athletic director Joel Maturi, McCutcheon will not take over until after the 2012 Olympics in London, when Bush moves one seat down the bench and resumes her previous job as lead assistant and head recruiter.
The interim position is one Bush neither wanted nor campaigned for. She spent nine years as a head coach at Auburn and Marquette before coming to Minnesota, and running her own team, even temporarily, no longer appealed to her.
"It's kind of a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't situation as a head coach. It just is," Bush said of her position. "You're not the person people want. People either want Mike Hebert or Hugh McCutcheon. That's the reality of it. It's kind of getting ready for the barrage of it all. I took a few days and accepted it."
Bush took it on, despite misgivings, because the players needed continuity in the transition from Hebert to McCutcheon. And who else knew the program better?
"It's not an easy situation at all," Hebert said in a telephone interview from San Diego, where he relocated after retirement. "Basically, all everybody's going to remember is if you mess things up. ... The one thing I felt very strongly about was that she could maintain and continue the program, and that it would be a very easy handoff to Hugh. She wasn't going to screw it up."
It's been a bumpy year for the 15th-ranked Gophers (13-8), best characterized by a road trip last weekend. Northwestern, one of the worst teams in the Big Ten, swept Minnesota in three sets on Friday night. The next night the Gophers swept No. 3 Illinois, the highest-ranked team they have ever beaten. Two months ago Minnesota surprised Texas, then ranked No. 4. In between, things have been shaky.
Minnesota faces another test this weekend, hosting No. 6 Penn State on Friday and No. 22 Ohio State on Saturday in Big Ten matches.
"You move into the head coach's role, and it's amazing how I stay up and worry about stuff I never worried about as an assistant," Bush said. "You don't get enough sleep.
"But I don't spend my time worrying, either. It's not there. It's really a lot about problem-solving, making sure the players and the program are in the best position to be successful, and it takes a lot of hours to do that."
Hebert coached Bush at the University of Illinois from 1987 to 1990 and hired her in 2008 after she resigned at Auburn. Though far removed from the Sun Belt, Hebert built nationally competitive programs at Illinois and then Minnesota, the latter fed by the state's thriving AAU clubs. Hebert directed the Gophers to 11 NCAA tournament appearances and three final fours in 15 seasons, with a national runner-up finish in 2004.
Bush arrived knowing Hebert was close to retirement but never angled to succeed him.
"That's just not in my nature," she said. "I want to win, believe me. I'll be a manager if that helps us win. That's truth. I need to have a stake in something. I need to have responsibility, and obviously I need to feel important. But I don't need to be in charge totally."
When Hebert retired after last season, Bush figured she was finished with college coaching. Presuming nothing, she cleaned out her office and arranged a job with a Twin Cities club team.
"Whomever they hired, if I felt it was a good fit and they wanted to hire me, I would still stay on and coach,'' she said. "But if it wasn't a fit or they didn't want to hire me, I still had to be OK. I'd coach club, do other things, coach camps -- that's the way you have a chance to make a living in volleyball."
Bush knew McCutcheon socially and expected him to apply for the job. It made sense. McCutcheon was a big name. He spent a week with the team during spring practice in 2008, before leaving for Beijing to coach the U.S. men's Olympic team. And his wife, former U.S. Olympian Wiz Bachman, grew up in a Minneapolis suburb.
McCutcheon did not tip his hand when Bush ran into him at last year's final four. But they exchanged phone numbers, and McCutcheon called her last January to pick her brain about the program.
"When he called me, I thought, 'Oh, he is interested. It's starting to move now,'" she said.
"My whole goal at that point was to get him here. This is the best hire Minnesota can make, this is a slam dunk, this is so great. I just told him everything good about the program, things that can improve with the program, why this is such a great job for him to take."
It took more than a month before McCutcheon agreed, with the caveat that he fulfill his national team obligations first. Hebert and Maturi urged him to keep Bush, and Hebert called her to make sure she didn't turn down the offer.
"Mike said, 'You should stay on, you shouldn't get out of college coaching, I never thought that was a good idea by you,'" said Bush, who rolled her eyes as she told the story.
"I roll my eyes only because Mike tells me lots of things that aren't good ideas but have worked out fine. I've known him since I was 17, so I can have that relationship with him."
Remaining as lead assistant was fine with Bush. Becoming the interim head coach was not, and she told Maturi and senior associate athletic director Regina Sullivan as much.
"They said, do we need to convince you to do this?" she said. "I said, that is the last thing I want, to be convinced of something. I don't want to be persuaded at all. I have to come to this decision on my own."
Minnesota interviewed at least one candidate, who turned it down, before Bush finally agreed to do it.
"I'm really comfortable in my assistant's role," she said. "And that was a problem, probably. Because I'm asking all these players to get uncomfortable every day with what we ask them to do, but yet I wasn't ready to do it as well. I had to do a gut-check with that one."
Minnesota's style integrates some of Hebert, some of Bush, and some of McCutcheon. Bush changed Minnesota's tactics at the net to a swing block, where front-line players read the direction of the set so two blockers challenge each hitter. That requires better conditioning.
"It's been very, very different," sophomore outside hitter Ashley Wittman said. "There's nothing the same that we did last year. I think with the change of staff, our practices have been more intense. They're harder on us. They tell us what we need to be doing better, what we did wrong, what we're improving on. It's been more hands-on. Last year compared to this year was a little more laid-back, but it's been real good so far."
The Illinois upset the day after the debacle at Northwestern provided Bush and her players a glimpse of how good the Gophers can be. Minnesota enters this weekend tied for fifth in the conference at 6-6. Seven Big Ten teams are ranked in the top 25, and though the Gophers sit sixth in Division I in RPI, they likely will need a strong finish to secure an NCAA tournament bid.
"We're close to being a team you don't want to play," Bush said. "When we are good, we are really good. But man, when we're not good, it's not just one wheel falls off, the whole wagon breaks down and doesn't get put back together.
"We're going to have to be better at eliminating the wheel falling off, but also just managing our problem-solving on the court in the middle of a match. ... If anything, last Saturday night was a nice, energizing shot in the arm, that we're going to be OK again."
In Maturi's view, they already are, because of Bush.
"She's done a great job," he said. "Let's forget about wins and losses, because that's not all what it's about at this level. It's a transition period. You see a little of Mike Hebert, a little of Hugh McCutcheon, and a lot of Laura Bush. And that's the way it should be."