Thursday, September 21

UCLA women’s basketball coach Nikki Caldwell earns her title as Pac-10 Coach of the Year

Nikki Caldwell became the first Bruin women's basketball coach to be named Pac-10 Coach of the Year Thursday.

Nikki Caldwell became the first Bruin women's basketball coach to be named Pac-10 Coach of the Year Thursday. Maya Sugarman

It was the 2005-2006 season.

The UCLA women’s basketball team, after concluding the regular season with a record of 17-10, entered the Pac-10 tournament as the No. 3 seed. Needless to say, the only way that the Bruins could count on an NCAA tournament berth would be to win the Pac-10 tournament.

After defeating sixth-ranked Cal, and pulling out a one-point victory over second-seeded Arizona State, UCLA was set for a showdown with No. 1-seeded Stanford, their NCAA tournament hopes on the line. And in overtime, UCLA upset the Cardinal, granting themselves a ticket to March Madness, where they were knocked out in the second round.

That was 2006. And since then, UCLA has sniffed the Big Dance but has not heard its name called on that fateful Selection Monday.

But between that 2005-2006 season and now, something special happened to the UCLA women’s basketball program … something that can be described in one word.


After Kathy Oliver, who had coached the Bruins for 15 years, decided to resign in 2008, UCLA went recruiting. And where better to look than Tennessee, the most famous women’s basketball program in the nation, where Nikki Caldwell, a former national champion as a player at Tennessee and as a coach, just happened to be ready to run her own show.

Upon Caldwell’s hiring at UCLA, the almighty Pat Summitt, who has coached Tennessee women’s basketball to eight national championships and is the all-time winningest coach in college basketball history, men or women, had this to say:

“Tennessee’s loss is going to be UCLA’s gain. Nikki Caldwell is truly one of the rising stars in women’s college basketball. She is the total package as a teacher, a coach and a recruiter. She is a woman of great character and has a powerful gift of mentoring young women.”

And based on Caldwell’s success so far in only her second season at UCLA, the former Tennessee Lady Volunteer is proving Summitt correct.

In her first season at the helm, Caldwell led the Bruins to a 19-12 record, a three-game improvement from the previous year, and had UCLA on the brink of its second NCAA tournament appearance in five years.

However, this season has been Caldwell’s year to shine. The Bruins are ranked No. 22 in the nation, hold a record of 24-8, and are heading into the NCAA tournament as a No. 8 seed.

“I think one thing that she brought to us was her aggressive nature and her drive to want to have greatness,” junior guard Doreena Campbell said of Caldwell. “And just the fact that we have got to work together.”

But if you ask Caldwell, a majority of the Bruins’ success these past two seasons has been a result of the players recruited by Oliver and the work of her coaching staff, which includes Tennessee alumni Tasha Butts and Tony Perotti, Texas-Arlington alumna Stacie Terry, and former assistant coach under Oliver and now director of operations, UCLA alumna Pam Walker.

“I think it starts with the fact that when I came here, there was talent,” Caldwell said. “The guard play was very strong with Doreena Campbell, Darxia Morris and Erica Tukiainen, and we had size with (Moniquee) Alexander and Christina (Nzekwe). The second component was assembling a great staff. I have a wonderful staff who went out, did their job, and got us (Markel) Walker and (Mariah) Williams. And then, by the grace of God, (Jasmine) Dixon decides that she wants to transfer and we get her. That component of it played a huge role.”

In addition to Caldwell leading the Bruins to an impressive record, a Pac-10 tournament finals appearance and an NCAA tournament birth this season, there is now one more accomplishment Caldwell can add to her resume:

Pac-10 Coach of the Year.

On Thursday, Caldwell was named Pac-10 Women’s Coach of the Year by her peers, and in the process, became the first ever UCLA women’s coach to win the award. And just two days prior, Caldwell was also voted Pac-10 Women’s Coach of the Year by the Pac-10 media.

When asked about winning the award, Caldwell expressed her excitement but made sure to show appreciation for her coaching staff. She also made it clear that individual awards are not what she is focused on.

She wants her team to win.

“Well it’s a great honor because there are unbelievable coaches in this conference. I appreciate the media and obviously my peers for giving us that type of appreciation, but you’re not getting that honor without a great support staff. … For me, I want the team accolades.”

Prior to taking over the UCLA women’s program, Caldwell was assistant coach under Summitt at Tennessee for six years, from 2003-2008. During her tenure as one of Summitt’s assistants, the Lady Vols won back-to-back national championships in 2007 and 2008. From 2000-2002, Caldwell served as an assistant coach at the University of Virginia under Debbie Ryan, who, like Summitt, is a member of the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame. And Caldwell maintains that the majority of her coaching methods she learned from her two Hall of Fame mentors.

“I would have to say that the philosophy that I’ve learned by being at Tennessee, and prior to that, being at Virginia, with two Hall of Fame coaches, has allowed me an in-depth view of what practices should look like, how you should run your program, making sure you have great relationships with your players. … All of those things I’ve learned from the best.”

And Caldwell’s players have certainly felt the effects of their coach learning from the best, as Caldwell expects nothing but perfection from her Bruin squad.

“For the whole program, she has a vision,” senior guard Erica Tukiainen said of Caldwell. “She knows what she wants from us and she has high expectations. So when we’re in practice, everything has to be done perfectly.”

But according to Caldwell, above all else, it is the players that make a program successful, citing team cohesiveness as the foundation of the Bruins’ success this season. And during this NCAA tournament, not only does Caldwell hope to lead her team to a Final Four berth, but that along the way her Bruins will begin to gain some much-warranted national attention as a future force to be reckoned with in women’s college basketball.

“I think this team’s future is untapped right now. I think we’re making strides in getting that recognition, obviously in the Pac-10. But we’re going to have to make that stride to get that recognition nationally. But this team has so much more potential in them. We’ve just got to put this program on that national stage.”

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