Caldwell carries UCLA to 2-0 conference start
Back in 1999, UCLA had its best NCAA tournament finish. The Bruins made the Elite Eight with the West Regional there in Los Angeles. One more victory and UCLA would have headed north to San Jose for the Final Four. But the Bruins lost to Louisiana Tech 88-62.
Meanwhile in Tennessee, Nikki Caldwell was finishing her first season on Pat Summitt's staff in 1999. She'd completed her playing career at Tennessee in 1994, then worked in broadcasting for a few years before deciding that coaching was really her calling.
Now, at the time, UCLA's Elite Eight season of 1998-99 had no connection at all with Caldwell having made a career change at that same time. It's only now that we would think to link the two. But since we can, it's interesting to look at both her path and that of the program she'd eventually take over.
In the decade-plus since '99, UCLA has made just three NCAA tournament appearances, never advancing past the second round. The Final Four hasn't been on the West Coast since then, either. And it's not in the mix for that event until at least after 2016, as sites already have been awarded through that year.
It's always frivolity to some degree to speculate, but did UCLA -- and by extension the Pac-10 -- miss some kind of window in '99? Would UCLA, benefiting from the visibility of the Final Four, have stepped up to a higher level in the ensuing years?
Only two other Pac-10 programs not named Stanford have made it as far as the Elite Eight since 1999, but they didn't realistically get any closer to the Final Four than UCLA did. Arizona State lost in regional finals in 2007 (by 19 to Rutgers) and 2009 (by 19 to UConn). Washington made it that far in 2001 but lost by 17 to Missouri State.
All of which is to say that the Pac-10 is still looking for somebody besides Stanford to make a "modern-day" Final Four. UCLA won the AIAW national title in 1978. And Southern Cal made the NCAA Final Four in 1983, '84 and '86, winning the title in each of the first two trips. But the Pac-10 didn't start sponsoring women's hoops until 1986-87.
Is there a chance that UCLA eventually could be that "somebody"? That's what Caldwell hopes, but the immediate goal is returning to the NCAA tournament, which the Bruins haven't reached since 2006.
UCLA is off to a good start in Caldwell's second season; the Bruins are 9-4 overall and 2-0 in the conference. Caldwell began Pac-10 play coaching against a fellow former Tennessee player, beating Niya Butts' Arizona squad 67-58 on New Year's Day. Then the Bruins topped Arizona State 74-56. Both those games were on the road.
"I thought that was a great start for our team," said Caldwell, whose team hosts Cal on Friday and No. 2 Stanford on Sunday. "But there's still much, much work to be done. All coaches talk about putting together 40 great minutes of basketball. We have not been consistent in doing that."
After getting her feet wet in the coaching world at her alma mater, Caldwell spent three years as an assistant at Virginia. Funny how it sometimes works that way: As a player, you beat a program for an NCAA title (Tennessee topped the Cavs in '91, Caldwell's freshman season) and then you end up working for them.
A position opened for Caldwell at Tennessee in 2002, and she returned to be part of Summitt's seventh (2007) and eighth (2008) national championships.
Caldwell then took over at UCLA when longtime coach Kathy Olivier left. So Caldwell missed Tennessee's "down" season in 2008-09, but had her own challenges to deal with in an inaugural 19-12 season at UCLA.
"I felt like Nikki was going to be a great head coach," Summitt said. "A lot of people say she's more like me than anyone who's been on my staff. I don't know if that's true, but I do know that she is very focused on doing things the right way.
"When she's had some issues and had to make some tough decisions after getting to UCLA, she would call me, and we would talk about some situations. I just saw a young, talented coach that would not compromise."
Summitt put UCLA on her schedule this season. The Bruins visited Knoxville, falling 61-47 on Nov. 28. It gave Caldwell a chance to spend Thanksgiving with her family -- she's from nearby Oak Ridge, Tenn. -- and get a warm welcome back from all the fans at Thompson-Boling Arena.
Summitt wasn't happy after that game because she thought her Vols had not competed well, but she knew at least some of that was because Caldwell understood so well how to at least try to best attack Tennessee.
Of the continually growing number of her former players/assistants who are now coaching elsewhere, Summitt laughs and says, "They know all my secrets."
Well, maybe, but the ultimate "secret" to Tennessee's success is obvious to any observer: Summitt's ability to both recruit great players and develop them. Caldwell is really just beginning that process now at UCLA.
Her leading scorer and rebounder is Markel Walker, a 6-foot-1 freshman forward out of Philadelphia. She's the younger sister of former Pitt standout Marcedes Walker.
"It was difficult in luring her to come [from the East Coast]," Caldwell said of Markel, who is averaging 12.9 points and 8.5 rebounds. "But when she stepped foot in Westwood and was able to meet the team and get to know the staff, she felt very much at home here. She didn't want to leave after she took her official visit."
Caldwell hopes she can build UCLA into a strong program that those top prospects already living in California won't want to leave, either. Former blue-chip recruit Jasmine Dixon of Long Beach did decide to go away before Caldwell took over, committing to Rutgers. But after a semester out in New Jersey last year, Dixon came back home and enrolled at UCLA.
Dixon, a 5-11 guard, became eligible to play for the Bruins at semester break and already has made an impact, averaging 12.7 points and 7.7 rebounds in six games thus far.
"Jasmine really brings a toughness to our team," Caldwell said. "She's undersized, but she plays so much bigger than what she is. She's someone who is a 'go-to' for us. Markel Walker has done a phenomenal job for us in being that 'go-to' inside. But she and Dixon form a great tag-team for us."
Caldwell is barely getting started with all she wants to do at UCLA, but you-know-who approves.
"What I've seen from her as a coach, it's been very telling and impressive," Summitt said. "When they came here, it was like 'Wow.' We had a tough time early and managed to win late.
"With all the former players [in coaching] it's interesting for me to watch. It's a great source of pride."