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UCLA coach Nikki Caldwell is a chip off the old Vols

She's trying to bring the winning tradition from Tennessee to Westwood.

January 14, 2009|Corina Knoll

Gas just doesn't seem to stretch as far on these California roads. Which is why Nikki Caldwell found herself stranded on the side of one last Friday night.

Thankfully, the UCLA women's basketball coach had just finished eating dinner with her staff. A couple of quick calls and her assistant coaches hustled off to find a gallon to go.

As Caldwell waited, she was approached by two police officers who wanted to know what a young woman was doing alone in a dark car near Marina del Rey. The 36-year-old coach opened the door, flashed them a smile strung with shiny metal braces and introduced herself.

I'm Nikki Caldwell. Nikki who? Caldwell. What do you do? I work for UCLA. Doing what? I coach women's basketball. Oh.

Not exactly the kind of reaction Caldwell used to get back in Tennessee when strangers discovered she was an assistant to the legendary Pat Summitt.

In Knoxville, the Lady Vols bask in the glow of celebrity.

In Los Angeles, women's basketball languishes in obscurity.

But that night Caldwell did what she has been doing for years: She sold someone on her team.

By the end of the night, she had enough gas to get home and two police officers' promise to come to the next UCLA game.

Caldwell sure is convincing. And not in that Southern hospitality kind of way, although her raised-in-small-town-Oak Ridge-Tennessee drawl can be lilting.

No, convincing as in powerful. Conclusive. As if she has all the answers and if you're receptive and willing to listen, she'd be happy to hand them out.

Take that first Los Angeles news conference where Caldwell spoke last April. She had just been hired to replace Kathy Olivier, who resigned after 15 years with the Bruins. Behind her signature red glasses, Caldwell looked directly at the crowd and fielded queries with cool elegance -- and the team that finished 16-15 last year took notice.

"We're sitting there listening and she just answered all the questions with confidence," sophomore forward Nina Earl recalled. "She's like, 'Yes, we're gonna do this, we're gonna beat USC.' She was just so confident and ready to start. She hadn't even really met us yet. It was like, 'OK. We're gonna follow this lady.' "

Afterward, in the first official team meeting before the summer break, Caldwell broke it down. Everyone had something to contribute. Everyone was to set a personal goal and state it aloud. Yes, the last couple of seasons had been disappointing, but there was heart and character and drive on this team, which meant the possibility of championships and tradition. No one would ever be able to take their college years away from them, and if they took that ownership seriously, a change would come and come soon.

Something else happened that afternoon: The players began to believe.

"It's her demeanor, attitude, the way that she carries herself," sophomore guard Doreena Campbell said. "If you meet her, it's just like 'Wow. This woman's on a mission. She knows what she wants to do. She has a plan.' "

Caldwell says she just wanted to make sure she connected with the team.

"It's about seeing the game through their eyes, seeing what they think their strengths are and letting them know that we're doing this together," she said.

"Their opinion or their decisions on what their goals are, they have a lot of value. . . . I've already won my title, so I want to make their college experience the best it can be. It's about their four years here. I'm just the mentor trying to help them achieve as much greatness as possible."

Caldwell actually has three championships. The first came as a freshman guard at Tennessee in 1991. The others were earned the last two years as a Lady Vols assistant.

After playing four seasons with Tennessee, Caldwell graduated in 1994 with a degree in public relations. She worked as a color analyst, hosted the sports segment of a local cable network show and was a graduate assistant with the Lady Vols for one season.

She left to assist Coach Debbie Ryan at Virginia for three years before getting a call from Summitt in 2002.

"When she went to Virginia, I'd watched her," Summitt said. "I told Debbie, if I have an opening, I just have to be honest with you, I'm coming after her. . . . She knew the game, she was passionate about it and I just thought she would be a great teacher."

At Tennessee, Caldwell was the primary recruiter, renowned for her living-room savvy. She knew how to make a girl feel like fate had a hand in their meeting. In 2003, she helped sign a freshman class that included Candace Parker and five other high school All-Americans, and in 2007, the Women's Basketball Coaches Assn. named Tennessee the best recruiting school in the nation.

On the court, Caldwell earned the tag "Little Pat" for her stringency and straight talk. Summitt came to think of her as a daughter and would often attend Caldwell family gatherings.

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