Commentary

Caldwell returns to comfort zone, SEC

Originally Published: November 10, 2011
By Mechelle Voepel | ESPN.com

Nikki CaldwellSteve Franz, LSU Sports InformationLSU missed the NCAA tourney field last season for the first time since 1998.

Nikki Caldwell is a Tennessee native who played for the Lady Vols and spent six years as an assistant coach in Knoxville, too. But her move for the 2008-09 season to UCLA actually was not much of a stretch: She was always suitably cosmopolitan for Los Angeles.

To say that by taking the LSU job in April, Caldwell returned her to her comfort zone in the SEC is true. But it also shouldn't suggest she was somehow uncomfortable on the West Coast and in the Pac-10 (now Pac-12). Because that's really not the case.

What was difficult for Caldwell at UCLA had little to do with the location on one hand … but also everything to do with it. She was used to being part of a "brand-name" program, if you will: Whatever goes on in Knoxville reverberates around the state. Tennessee athletics means the world in Tennessee. It's essentially the same way with LSU in Louisiana.

But that just isn't the case with any program, pro or college, in any sport in California. The state is simply too big, with too many passionate constituencies. While there are many, many recruiting advantages to being at UCLA, feeling that you're at your state's sports epicenter isn't one of them. There's no such thing in California.

[+] EnlargeLaSondra Barrett
Steve Franz/LSU Sports Information LaSondra Barrett, a 6-foot-2 senior forward, says Nikki Caldwell arrived with a vision in hand "for LSU and for each one of us."

"I really cherished my time at UCLA, and I appreciate everything that Dan [Guerrero] and his staff did," Caldwell said of the Bruins' athletic director. "I'm taking every experience at every program I've been affiliated with -- including my days with Debbie Ryan at Virginia -- and bringing it to this.

"I keep coming back to the level of commitment to women's basketball here. It's recognized by the community, by the fans, by the state of Louisiana. LSU is the staple, the entity, here in this state. LSU is everywhere in Louisiana."

And, certainly, her familiarity with LSU and the region meant there wasn't too much of an adjustment for Caldwell.

"Coming back here is a comfort with how the people are and the pace of Baton Rouge," she said. "It's not the pace of Los Angeles; not that one is better than the other. But I am used to it, having grown up in the South."

Neither have the LSU players had much difficulty adjusting to Caldwell.

"Before the first time I met her, I would say it was nervous excitement," forward LaSondra Barrett said. "Because I was going into my senior year, and you have all these relationships with the people who recruited you and coached you.

"But she's been nothing but great. She's a person you can talk to about anything. And when she first talked to us, it was all team-oriented. She didn't talk about herself or her résumé or career. She just told us what she wanted to do to help us. And that was something the team noticed: She had a vision for LSU and for each one of us."

The previous four seasons, Van Chancellor was LSU's head coach. Last season, for the first time since 1998, LSU didn't make the NCAA tournament, and Chancellor -- who'd previously coached at Mississippi and with the WNBA's Houston Comets -- wanted one more season to try to change the tide. He didn't get it, and took on an administrative role with the athletic department.

LSU's women's basketball program had been through rough patches before. From 1992-96, LSU did not make the NCAA tournament, and then-coach Sue Gunter came close to losing her job. But she and the Lady Tigers rebounded.

[+] EnlargeNikki Caldwell
Steve Franz, LSU Sports InformationNikki Caldwell, an NCAA champ as a player and assistant at Tennessee, was 72-26 in three seasons at UCLA.

LSU made it in the NCAA field for 1997, missed in '98, but then was back in for the next 12 seasons in a row. But during that time, Gunter fell seriously ill. Longtime assistant Pokey Chatman took over, and Gunter passed away in August 2005. Chatman resigned in March 2007 after charges of an alleged inappropriate relationship surfaced, and Chancellor became the coach for 2007-08 team.

The Lady Tigers made their fifth consecutive Final Four appearance in 2008, losing painfully in the last seconds of the national semifinal to Tennessee. Caldwell, who'd won an NCAA title as a player with the Lady Vols in 1991, won a second straight championship with them as an assistant coach in 2008. Then it was time to spread her wings to L.A.

She was successful there, with a 72-26 record and two NCAA tournament appearances. She was a needed boost of coaching energy in what was still the Pac-10 … yet it was hard to see her staying there for the remainder of her career. UCLA is certainly what you'd consider a "destination" job. But most observers didn't see it as that for Caldwell.

When the opportunity came at LSU, it seemed like a natural fit for her. Understandably, you can chuckle at the irony that a Tennessee grad/former coach is now going to try to battle the Lady Vols for recruits and supremacy in the SEC. But that's just the nature of college athletics.

"I'm reaping the benefits of being in the place that Sue Gunter was once in," Caldwell said. "And the hard work that she put into this program to allow there to be this buzz surrounding women's basketball and for people to realize what it can do at a national level."

There is an important tie-in to what LSU has meant to the WNBA, too, because that's a part of recruiting now. It helps to have alums such as WNBA Finals MVP Seimone Augustus and fellow Olympian/WNBA star Sylvia Fowles. Even though they didn't play for Caldwell, she goes back quite a ways with both players. She tried to recruit them to Tennessee.

"To have them say, 'Coach, we're here to support you and this program; we definitely want to come in and see the team' -- that meant a lot," Caldwell said. "They were a very important part of history here. And I want to make sure our current players and future prospects know about those who came before them, the people who paved the way. Without Seimone and Sylvia, maybe we wouldn't have a LaSondra Barrett or Adrienne Webb right now."

Webb, a 5-foot-9 junior guard who averaged 12.8 points last season, and Barrett, a 6-foot-2 senior post player who was at 12.2 ppg, are LSU's top returning scorers. Senior Destini Hughes, who has come off the bench more than started in the past, is poised to be LSU's full-time starter at point guard.

There could be a big step forward for 6-5 center Theresa Plaisance as a sophomore. All three freshmen -- 6-4 Krystal Forthan, 6-2 Sheila Boykin and 6-1 Anne Pedersen -- should have an impact this season.

Caldwell inherited a team that didn't make the NCAA tournament last season, but she's not crying poor about it. To the contrary, she said, "I like this group a lot. I think every year, you've got to go into the season looking at yourself as a potential favorite. There were times in my playing career where we actually weren't the favorite, but that's been my mentality from Day 1 to think we are."

When asked the most important thing she learned from becoming a head coach at UCLA, Caldwell laughed and said, "The importance of having good assistants."

Unlike Chancellor, Caldwell did not keep longtime LSU assistant Bob Starkey, an X's and O's guru who was interim head coach when Chatman left, on the staff. Starkey is now at Central Florida. Caldwell brought all three of her assistants from UCLA: Tasha Butts, a former Tennessee player, Tony Perotti, who was on the Lady Vols' men's practice team for two years, and Stacie Terry.

Caldwell knew right off the first thing she wanted to address with LSU when she took over. She'd been through the same thing with UCLA, of course. Because there's one need that is universal, no matter what part of the country you're in.

"Team cohesion, and that includes our staff and our support team," Caldwell said. "To me, that was the very first thing we wanted to work on. No one -- myself included -- is bigger than the program. There's not a job too small or too big that we all wouldn't do. I wanted to make sure they understood that we're all in this together."

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at mechellevoepelblog.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.