A good mentor never truly leaves us
What do you do when you lose a mentor?
It’s a question I had to ask myself a few times over the course of this year and it wasn’t an easy one to answer.
Today is the one-year anniversary of the death of my former sports journalism professor Terry “Hutch” Hutchens, and even though it’s been 365 days since he died, it still kind of hurts when I think about him.
Last year, Hutch suffered a stroke while driving, causing a car crash. The paramedics got his heart going again and he lingered on in critical condition for a few days before passing away at the age of 60.
I wrote about a column around this time last year about how much Hutch meant to me and it was fun remembering all the memories he gave me. It also helped take the sadness away for a little while.
When I enrolled in the Masters of Sports Journalism program at Indiana University, it was in its first year of existence. At the time, Hutch was the Indianapolis Star’s IU football and men’s basketball beat writer.
He was based in Bloomington, where the Hoosiers played. Despite that busy lifestyle, he taught an Introduction to Sports Writing class at IU and also drove up to teach the same course in Indianapolis as the master’s program was based at the IUPUI campus.
I wrote about how he was dedicated and willing to spread his knowledge, and the fact that he taught a class in two cities in the same semester still blows my mind.
I had never taken a sports writing course in my life, but I had written for student newspapers at North Dakota and Minnesota State-Moorhead.
When I entered the class, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Was there really that much to learn? Sports writing can’t be that difficult, can it? It turned out that it can be. That is, if you want to be good at it.
I found that out in the first week. By the second day, Hutch didn’t waste time and was already going through the basics, like how to keep your own stats at games and how to organize a game story. I still keep track of my own stats, even at Northern Michigan University sporting events when the school actually presents the stats to you at halftime, period breaks and the end of games.
Why do I still do it? Because Hutch told me to never trust the info I get completely. By the end of the second week, we were covering our first game, a Hoosiers football game in Bloomington with a deadline. He had to write his recap on deadline that night, so we had to as well (ours wasn’t as strict as his, though).
As I wrote last year, he was a tough grader and was a stickler for spelling and factual errors. If you got a fact wrong in a story, you dropped a letter grade on the assignment. If you had three, you failed it. That may sound strict, but it made you pay attention.
I never had that happen to me, but I always wanted to catch him making a mistake since he drilled the importance of accuracy into our heads.
One day on Facebook, Hutch was telling one of my friends about the importance of being accurate, even in a blowout loss when stats may not seem to matter. During that post, he spelled “accuracy” wrong and I teased him how spelling words correctly was also important.
Ever the witty fellow, Hutch replied saying “Nice one Ryan … it’s only a grade. Hope that works out for you.” Just when I thought I burned him, he hit me with a blow torch.
As it turned out, he actually thought I was funny and gave me kudos for catching him. To this day, my fellow students still bring it up as a fond memory of Hutch.
I also mentioned how critical he was of a column I wrote for one of my assignments. He liked pretty much everything I had written so far, but one day, I came up short. The night before I was exhausted after finishing up a 15-page paper and I had forgotten about the Hutch’s assignment.
I wrote as well as I could, but I couldn’t come up with a good conclusion, so I just threw in a quote to finish it off. Hutch wasn’t happy and called me out in an email. He also made sure to use me as an example the next day in class to show how we shouldn’t add stuff in a column just to find a way to finish it.
That wasn’t a pleasant experience, but I’m glad I did it. If you read my tribute column last year, you know that he tested me with his final exam by giving me the most difficult assignment and I passed with a 100%. I still see that assignment as a good learning experience and I’ve made sure not to make that mistake again.
I learned a lot from Hutch, and earlier this year I sadly realized that those learning days might be over. As a student, I’d reached out to him for advice and recommendations all the time, but over the years, I didn’t interact with him as much.
The really sad thing is a few days before he died, I had an idea for a feature story and I knew he had written something similar a few years ago, so I wanted to reach out to him for advice. However, I forgot to do so and only remembered it after I saw the terrible news online. I’m still filled with regret that I didn’t talk to him one last time to get one last pearl of wisdom from the five-time Indiana Sportswriter of the Year.
As it turned out, Hutch’s teaching days weren’t over quite yet. About a month ago, I was asked to cover the MHSAA 8-Player football championships by the Lansing State Journal and the MHSAA. I was already going to cover it for the Journal, but now, two other publications/websites wanted me to help.
I was a little stressed that day as the LSJ wanted its stories by a certain time and the MHSAA had a different deadline. After I was done, I then had to quickly drive from the Superior Dome to the Berry Events Center, so I could make sure I had a spot in the press box for the Northern Michigan University-Michigan Tech hockey game that night.
Yeah, things were going to be busy.
However, when I sat down in the press box at the dome, I thought WWHD — What would Hutch do? I remembered one day in class where he said always come up with a plan before you cover a game and then if things need to change, you can just tweak it.
I organized my plan of attack and typed the entire time I sat up there, in addition to keeping track of my own stats, which was a good thing as the computer printer broke down in the box. By the time the first game ended, the story was finished and I just needed to add the quotes from the postgame interviews.
I finished up the entire article during the second game (again, while keeping my own stats) and thankfully, the game was a blowout, so I had the recap finished by the end of the third quarter. Still, I had to finish the interviews, drive to the arena, get organized in the BEC’s box, add the quotes to the football story and email it before shifting gears over to hockey.
However, thanks to Hutch’s advice nine years ago, I beat the deadline for the LSJ and MHSAA, while also managing to finish a football story while keeping track of hockey stats and tweeting out information. I know it sounds lame, but I left the arena feeling sort of proud of myself.
I hope I made Hutch proud, too. I may never earn as many awards as he did, or write 11 books before I’m 60, but I’m still striving to be better and I still take his advice to heart. As I write this, I realize that even though Hutch is gone and I can’t ask him questions like before, I can still learn from him.
And whenever I learn something new, it’s like he never left and he’s still there lending a hand.
A mentor forever helping his student.
Ryan Stieg can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.