UCLA Coach Caldwell Heads Home to Knoxville to Meet Her Mentor
The UCLA coach, in her second season in Westwood, is bringing her team to Knoxville to take on her mentor, Pat Summitt, and the sixth-ranked Tennessee Lady Vols on Saturday.
It's a chance for Caldwell, the Oak Ridge, Tenn., native, to come back as a local girl made good, and to eat Aunt Janice's dressing.
"There are some good soul food places in L.A., but I'm looking forward to the home cooking," Caldwell said.
Caldwell got a Tennessee basketball education in every way. She was raised on winning and expectations.
She was a player for Summitt from 1990 to 1994, playing on a national championship team in her freshman season. She was a graduate assistant in 1998-99 and became a full-fledged assistant in 2002 -- and the program's primary recruiter -- where she stayed until she took the Bruins job in April 2008.
She has brought her Tennessee ties with her to L.A. Her assistants, Tasha Butts and Tony Perotti are both Tennessee natives and worked in the Tennessee program. And she has brought more than a little of Summitt, too. Caldwell is cool and controlled, confident and persuasive. She has more than a few of the legendary coach's personality traits.
Caldwell said Summitt taught her to be on top of her game, as a coach, in every setting.
"Whether it's a fundraiser or speaking to donors, speaking to fans or getting the team prepared to play," Caldwell said. "She always talked a lot about not taking possessions off. You can't take them off as a coach either. You are always, always on."
Junior guard Doreena Campbell said last year that her coach is a woman "on a mission."
"It's her demeanor, attitude, the way she carries herself," Campbell said. "She knows what she wants to do. She has a plan."
Summitt knew Caldwell would be a good fit for UCLA. She pushed her for the job – an endorsement that's hard to beat.
"I've felt all along that she was head coach material," Summitt said. "Watching her work in our practices and just seeing her toughness; a lot of people think she is the next Pat Summitt as far as what she demands. She demands a lot. I always say 'you don't get what you expect, you get what you demand,' and I think Nikki Caldwell understands that."
UCLA went 19-12 in Caldwell's first season as a head coach, starting the season with a 9-1 record.
The team she has this year is experienced and improving, with four returning starters, led by guards Campbell and Erica Tukiainen. Freshman forward Markel Walker was one of the nation's top recruits. Sophomore guard Jasmine Dixon, a transfer from Rutgers, will be able to play in time for the conference schedule.
The Bruins will figure prominently into a Pac-10 race that, realistically, looks to be Stanford's to win. But Caldwell's ability to recruit and coach is turning the Bruins into a program to watch.
"This team is better, the cohesion is better," Caldwell said. "They all made a commitment in the offseason to stay in summer school. They've been together since June and that's on them."
But the season got off to a rocky start in a tournament in Iowa with an opening-game loss to Illinois State, during a game in which Caldwell said she did not recognize her team.
"This isn't the team that had been practicing and playing," Caldwell said. "We had to turn and play the next day and we were going to make that change. Everybody loses; the only teams that go undefeated through a season are very special. It's what you do about it, what you take from it."
The Bruins bounced back the next day to beat Santa Clara, 77-51.
As for playing the Lady Vols, who are shaping into one of the country's best teams after last year's trials and tribulations, a higher level will be required. Caldwell knows that better than anyone else could.
"This is a great experience for our team to play in such a great, competitive environment," Caldwell said. "I have great friendships there. For my team, the only thing that I ask is that they play with great energy and passion and to make sure that we play as a unit.
"Everything else is out of your control, but how hard you play defense, how hard you run the floor, how well you box out, getting other people involved, you can control that."