Despite losing its final conference game against Oregon State University last week — a tight match-up that ended in a 61-58 score — the UCLA women's basketball team is entering the Pac-10 tournament on Friday with a very respectable 18-11 record and a No. 4 seeding. And that makes Head Coach Nikki Caldwell feel pretty good about the Bruins' chances.
Back in January, the first-year head coach took time out of her busy schedule to speak at a Staff Assembly Learn-At-Lunch session in the Morgan Center Press Room. Always eager to drum up support for women's basketball, Caldwell spoke enthusiastically about her journey to UCLA, her coaching philosophy, and her hopes and dreams for the team.
She opened her talk with a comment about USC, whom the Bruins had recently beaten. "The one thing I was told that I must do," Caldwell said with a grin, "wasn't to win a national championship, or win a Pac-10 championship. They said, you must beat 'SC."
She may not have known much about the cross-town rivalry then, but she certainly does now. Raised in Tennessee, Caldwell played basketball for legendary Coach Pat Summitt at the University of Tennessee and later served as Summitt's assistant coach from 2003-2008. During that time, Tennessee went to five Final Fours and won two NCAA championships, including last year's.
Yet only two days after winning that last championship, Caldwell flew to Dallas to interview with UCLA's Athletic Director Dan Guerrero and Associate Athletic Director Petrina Long for the Bruin head coaching job.
"I'd come from this huge high. But I was also excited about the opportunity to be a candidate for the UCLA job," Caldwell said. "And after the meeting, I got all choked up! Something came over me and said, 'You're supposed to be at UCLA.' "
Caldwell said she and her staff — Stacie Terry, Tony Perotti, Tasha Butts and Pam Walker — are grooming their players to be great leaders. The best way to do that, she said, is to be of service to others. "Help your teammates when they break down. Be a great leader by setting a great screen so she can get an open shot. Or be a great leader by making a great pass to a shooter so she can have an easy shot," she said.
One effective tactic is to make the players accountable not only for their own actions, but for those of their teammates. So when a player makes a mistake in practice, her position coaches are made to sprint. Or when a player misses several free throws in a drill, her partner has to run as well. "When they feel accountable, they're going to take full ownership of it," Caldwell said.
With the help of academic adviser Kenny Donaldson, the coaches make sure that the players not only attend class every day, but that they sit within the first three rows. The student-athletes must meet their professors and present a letter on the first day of class, letting them know that they might miss days because of team travel but that they are willing to make them up.
A firm believer in community service, Caldwell and Holly Warlick, associate head coach at Tennessee, established a foundation a few years ago called "Champions for a Cause." The two women have ridden their Harley-Davidson motorcycles across the country, raising money for breast cancer research.
Back at home, the UCLA women's basketball team held a "Pink Out" at their Feb. 14 game against Arizona State and handed out free pink breast cancer T-shirts to everybody who attended the game.
"I've used community service to humble the kids, to make them aware of how privileged they are and to make sure they don't lose perspective," Caldwell said. "I tell them, you're at a fine institution; you're getting your education. Obviously, your sweat equity is what pays for it, contributing to make UCLA athletics the best there is in the country. But you must also realize that you've got to pay it forward.
"The players do have to carry themselves as role models and they do have to give back," she added. "But the beautiful thing about our team is, any time you ask them to do something, they do it."
The 2009 Women's Pac-10 Tournament will be held at USC's Galen Center from March 12–15. The Bruins will play their first game of the tournament against Oregon State on Friday, March 13, at 7:15 p.m. For tickets, click here, visit the UCLA Central Ticket Office or call (310) UCLA-WIN — (310) 825-2946.