Hey, thought this was up on the website already but apparently it’s not. Anyway, here’s the story I filed on new womens basketball coach Nikki Caldwell, who agreed to a five-year deal Thursday, worth $295,000 per year, or just under $1.5 million over the course of the deal.
By Ramona Shelburne
Championships. That’s what UCLA said it was looking for in its next women’s basketball coach. And wouldn’t you know it, a little over a week ago, Nikki Caldwell was off winning one of those as an assistant coach for the Tennessee Lady Vols.
After a lengthy-search and two rounds of interviews, UCLA lured the up-and-coming assistant away from Knoxville, signing her to a five-year contract worth just under $1.5 million, as first reported on dailynews.com.
“Tennessee is very dear to my heart, and it always will be,” Caldwell said. “But I do hope to bring some of that championship blood to UCLA.”
Caldwell, 35, played at Tennessee from 1990-94, spent the next three seasons as a color commentator for Fox Sports Net South, then returned to her alma mater as a graduate assistant in 1998. After three seasons as an assistant at Virginia, she landed a spot on Pat Summitt’s staff.
This is her first head coaching job, and it’s a big head coaching job considering UCLA’s basketball tradition, but Caldwell said she’s up for the challenge.
“The great thing about Pat Summitt is that she’s allowed us the freedom to have head coach’s responsibilities, from scouting, recruiting, speaking engagements, working with the donors, play-calling during critical times in the games, substitution, to put ourselves in position to be a head coach someday,” Caldwell said.
As for the kind of coach she’d be, the 50 or so reporters in attendance for Thursday’s series of press conferences at UCLA — Kevin Love’s, Caldwell’s then Russell Westbrook’s — got a pretty good sense. Midway through her remarks, the cellphone of junior guard Tierra Henderson went off.
Caldwell had been talking about her offensive and defensive philosophies, and the type of discipline she’d like to bring to Westwood. She paused a second, smiled, then quipped, “and we’re not going to be having cellphones going off in meetings.”
The team laughed, but the message had been delivered.
“I’ve heard she’s a very disciplined coach,” sophomore guard Erica Tukiainen said. “Obviously, when you come from a successful program like Tennessee, you know someone knows what they’re doing.”
Around Knoxville, the move was greeted with celebration and sadness. Caldwell said she shared an emotional conversation with Tennessee head coach Pat Summitt on the way to her introductory press conference.
“She was very excited because she knew what my ultimate goal was, but at the same time, she also told me she was going to miss me and I said, `We can’t go there right now, I’m getting ready to go to a press conference right now, I can’t mess my make-up up by getting all sentimental right now,’ ” Caldwell joked.
Caldwell was one of two finalists for the job to interview on campus. Colorado head coach Kathy McConnell-Miller interviewed on Tuesday, but withdrew her name late Wednesday night and elected to stay at Colorado. A source close to the search said that no formal offer had ever been made to McConnell-Miller, and that Caldwell had always been the leading candidate.
“She was our top choice going in and really bowled everyone over in the interview process,” UCLA senior associate athletic director Petrina Long said. “I was humbled by the coaches, men and women, that wanted to talk to us about UCLA. It was incredibly inspiring to me. But in the end, we went with the person who was the right fit for us, and we felt Nikki was the perfect fit.”
Caldwell takes over for Kathy Olivier, who resigned after 15 seasons last month. Olivier’s teams were almost always in the top four of the Pacific 10 Conference, but the farthest Olivier had ever led the Bruins in the NCAA Tournament was an Elite Eight appearance in 1999. UCLA hadn’t made it past the second round since.
In Caldwell, the Bruins landed a coach who has been an integral part of Tennessee’s back-to-back national championships. She was credited with several important in-game adjustments during the NCAA tournament games, including the decision to drop guard Sydney Spencer into the post to defend North Carolina’s Erlana Larkins two years ago, and the decision to have Candace Parker bring the ball up for what proved to be the game-winning basket in the Lady Vols’ Final Four win over LSU.
“She has the personality of a head coach. She is really, really special. It’s obviously a big loss for us,” Summitt said of Caldwell on Thursday. “I’m proud for her. Nikki Caldwell is truly one of the rising stars in women’s college basketball.”