Caldwell: LSU's tradition, commitment won her over
Nikki Caldwell looked momentarily confused when asked about the challenge of ''trying'' to take down her old coach and mentor, Pat Summitt, and the esteemed Tennessee Lady Vols.
''Did you say, 'TRY to take them down?''' Caldwell interrupted, a smile emerging as a handful of boosters laughed and applauded.
Her players, also in attendance, took note.
''I like the confidence,'' forward LaSondra Barrett said. ''Talking to her today was really great. I'm just eager to hear a lot more of her philosophy and for her to help us grow as players.''
Caldwell, who on Saturday agreed to take over for Hall of Fame coach Van Chancellor at LSU, was formally introduced as the Lady Tigers' new coach on Monday. She said it was difficult to leave her first head coaching job at UCLA, where she coached three seasons. But the pull of being closer to family in her native Tennessee, as well as the tradition of women's basketball at LSU, made the opportunity to lead the Lady Tigers too good to pass up.
''LSU has been committed to women's basketball when it wasn't popular,'' noted Caldwell, who won national titles as a player and as an assistant coach at Tennessee.
She said one of her first thoughts, when she learned she was a candidate for the job, was of the late coach Sue Gunter. It was Gunter who made LSU into a formidable rival to the Tennessee teams for which Caldwell played in the early 1990s.
''I was just moved because she has meant so much to a lot of us ... and our choices to go into college coaching because of what she's done for women's basketball,'' Caldwell said. ''I can't tell you enough how honored I am to be a part of such a great legacy.''
Caldwell also will be well-compensated. Her five-year contract includes an annual salary of around $700,000 - about the same as the LSU football team's offensive and defensive coordinators are paid. If she hits a variety of performance bonuses, it could climb closer to $900,000.
''That's the market value for a good coach at LSU,'' athletic director Joe Alleva said. ''You get what you pay for.''
Alleva called Caldwell's hiring a ''bright new day'' for LSU women's basketball, lightheartedly adding that the purple blazer he wore to her introduction is something he would only break out on a ''special occasion.''
LSU's steak of 12 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances ended this season, after which Chancellor stepped down and into a role as an adviser to Alleva.
In Caldwell, the Lady Tigers not only have a proven winner, but a charismatic young coach whose reputation for camera presence, fashion sense, an affinity for high-heel shoes and Harley Davidson motorcycles precedes her. Because the news of her hiring over the weekend sparked calls from fans interested in when 2011-12 season tickets go on sale, the athletic department decided to start selling them on Monday - far earlier than usual.
While she made no effort to hide her enduring affection for Summitt and the Lady Vols, she also spoke of her eagerness to go up against Summitt during games and in recruiting.
''First off, you have to have a mental attitude where you're ready to stand toe-to-toe,'' Caldwell said. ''Competing for a recruit or competing for a game - it's no different. It starts with your attitude.''
Caldwell, 38, said Summitt was among the first to call her with congratulations over the weekend and she compared her old coach to a ''proud mom.''
That's how Summitt sounded when she released a statement on Caldwell's hiring.
''I am absolutely thrilled for Nikki,'' Summitt said. ''It's UCLA's loss and LSU's fantastic gain to get a brilliant, rising coach of Nikki Caldwell's caliber. ... The Southeastern Conference will become much stronger with Nikki joining the league.''
Under Caldwell, UCLA went 72-26, reaching the NCAA Tournament twice. Caldwell was named Pac-10 Coach of the Year in 2010, when the Bruins reached the second round of the NCAA tournament and finished 25-9.
Caldwell expects success to come quickly for an LSU team that showed her how good they can be in person, when they beat the Bruins on the road, 55-53, last December after arriving later than anticipated to the arena because of Los Angeles traffic.
''I'm excited, the fact that I get to work with unbelievable young ladies,'' Caldwell said. ''I remember when they came to Westwood and I remember when they beat (UCLA) in Westwood. So that tenacity, that type of passion, that type of will, we're just going to dial that up another notch and keep this thing rolling.''