Caldwell's Roots Lead To Success At UCLA
By Michelle Smith
Nikki Caldwell is acclimating to Los Angeles all right.
"I've figured out the alternate routes to get to campus other than taking the 405 (freeway)," Caldwell said with a laugh. "I am definitely more comfortable maneuvering around L.A."
But it's much more than that for the Tennessee girl who grew up in and has spent much of her basketball career absorbing the wisdom and motivations of college basketball's winningest coach, Tennessee's Pat Summit.
She might be a long way from her hometown and her basketball roots, but Caldwell is creating the UCLA program in her own image. In her third season in Westwood, Caldwell has led the Bruins to its best season in recent memory.
UCLA enters Pac-10 Tournament play as the nation's No. 9-ranked team with 26-3 record (16-2 in conference play) and a strong second-place finish in the Pac-10. UCLA has already set school records for regular-season and conference wins.
UCLA's only two losses came against top-seeded and No. 2-ranked Stanford.
After reaching the second round in last year's NCAA Tournament, UCLA is positioning itself for an even deeper run.
Caldwell came to UCLA as a new head coach, but with a bevy of championship experience. She won two titles as an assistant under Summitt at Tennessee.
"This team is more settled with my coaching style," Caldwell said. "They are buying into our philosophy of the game on and off the court."
Caldwell said there are three main points in her coaching philosophy and they have little direct correlation to X's and O's, but impact everything her players do on the court.
1) Maintain a positive attitude. 2) Be an effective communicator. 3) Be prepared to give.
Caldwell inherited a UCLA program that had seen its share of success. The Bruins had outstanding players in their recent history such as Noelle Quinn (now playing in the WNBA with the Los Angeles Sparks), Nikki Blue and Lisa Willis.
That trio led the Bruins to a Pac-10 Tournament title in 2006.
The roster she inherited included highly-touted talents like guards Doreena Campbell and Darxia Morris.
"The cupboards were not bare," Caldwell said. "When I got here, there were some pieces to the puzzle that were missing. This program had athleticism, people who could defend and players who could make shots and score the basketball."
Caldwell said it was her goal to put together a versatile, hard-working group. Additions such as transfer Jasmine Dixon and sophomore Markel Walker have gotten UCLA closer to the elite than they've been in a very long time.
"The talent is here. We just have to change the mindset and belief," Caldwell said. "We need to have them believing in each other and believing they can not only play with the best, but they are one of the best teams in the country."
Caldwell said she can sense when a team is "on a mission." She learned that from Coach Summitt. Summitt's influence on Caldwell is pervasive.
"I have been at the best program in the women's game. I played for Coach Summitt and I worked for her six years. I was a sponge, watching her work," Caldwell said. "As an assistant, she gave us so much responsibility. She really helped me formulate who I want to be as a coach."
Who is that, exactly? Caldwell is a preacher of discipline and focus - on the court and off. She has built this Bruins team with an emphasis on defensive intensity.
But that's where she diverges from her mentor.
"Coach Summitt was a man-to-man coach and we're a zone team with man-to-man principles," Caldwell said. "We apply the intensity of man-to-man, which I've always known, to a zone."
Caldwell finds herself sounding like Summitt every once in a while.
"I've used phrases I remember her using in the early 1990's. Things like 'It's not about you' and 'No one player is bigger than the program.'
"I definitely pull out the Summitt-isms when I need them. We're a team that likes to play defense and that is what they do at Tennessee, defend and rebound. 'Delay and disrupt' is all that she preached."
So now at practice, when she talks about 'delay and disrupt', her own assistant coach, Tasha Butts, who played at Tennessee as well, will look at her and smile and say, "You know you sound like Pat."
Caldwell responds, "Thank you. Because that's the ultimate compliment."