Commentary

Nikki Caldwell has high expectations

Updated: March 15, 2011, 5:19 PM ET
By Ramona Shelburne | ESPNLosAngeles.com

There is, of course, no formula to be followed, no precise measurement to ensure success.

Too much in a team sport like basketball is left to chance and circumstance. And yet, there are people who, no matter what is put in front of them, will find a way.

[+] EnlargeNikki Caldwell
Kirby Lee/US PresswireBruins coach Nikki Caldwell tries to cultivate a winning attitude at UCLA.

Maybe it's their attitude, their confidence, or maybe it's the feeling they leave when they exit the room.

UCLA Bruins athletic director Dan Guerrero saw that the first time he met Nikki Caldwell.

"We interviewed five or six coaches," Guerrero said. "But when we brought her in, she just blew me away.

"When you talk to her, she's just so compelling. She's driven. She's classy."

Guerrero isn't the type to gush over anyone. He wears a serious expression most days. But he can't stop himself on this subject.

"You can hire a coach with 30 years of experience, or you can hire a coach that's never been in the chair," he continued. "There's no guarantee that any one of them are going to be successful. So you go with the person you think is going to give you the best chance, and for us, it was clearly Nikki."

Caldwell's ears might have been ringing as he spoke, but not because Guerrero was talking about her.

For the third time this season, her team had lost to Stanford, this time in the Pacific 10 tournament championship game, a contest the Bruins led by as many as 11 points in the second half.

UCLA (27-4) has come a long way since Guerrero hired her three years ago. But it's that next level Caldwell is focused on.

How to get there? How to stay there? How to teach her team to own air up there?

Because she's been there. She played for, and then coached alongside, legendary Tennessee coach Pat Summitt.

UCLA earned a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament this year, its highest seed since 1998-99. But where Caldwell comes from, that's an off year, not a breakthrough.

Being very good, but not great, is almost more frustrating than being terrible.

After the game, as the Cardinal were honored at midcourt, Caldwell calmly walked over to Guerrero and said something in his ear.

Guerrero held up his hand and shook his head when asked what she said. But seconds later, he looked up and said, "She expects to be cutting down the nets, and she expects our team to be cutting down the nets, as well."

UCLA probably doesn't have the talent to do that this year. But it's the expectation and the attitude that matters most to Caldwell.

It's how she has been able to elevate UCLA so quickly, and how she's planning to take the Bruins to the next level sooner rather than later.

Her confidence hints at her ambition, as does the fact that she and her staff are impeccably dressed for each game.

"That's the one thing we teach our girls," assistant coach Tasha Butts said. "We teach them to handle themselves with class … to present yourself how you want to be seen."

Former Vols star Shyra Ely, one of Butts' closest friends who works as a stylist and plays professionally overseas, offers suggestions for the coaches' wardrobes. Every week or so, Ely e-mails them images of outfits. Every game, Caldwell and her staff dress for success.

"I think it's a representation of your program, and I think it's no different than when you see Rick Pitino in a custom-made suit," Caldwell said. "My clothes are off the rack. But you know what I mean. … It's a girly-girl thing, but I think it also shows these young ladies that you need to represent yourself at all times."

It hasn't taken long for Los Angeles to take notice of Caldwell. She has been invited to model, act and work as a television analyst on Lakers broadcasts.

She is, in many ways, an amalgam of this town's greatest female stars: the presence of Cheryl Miller, the grace of Lisa Leslie and the talent of Candace Parker.

Now all she needs to do is win.

And it's obvious how much time and energy she's spent figuring out how to bring her team to that next level.

There's a balance between prodding and pushing. A difference between knowing where limits lie and accepting them.

Caldwell is still wrestling with those issues, trying to teach her team how to internalize her distaste for failure while making sure their self-confidence is still stoked.

"I have to say that our coaching staff does get very frustrated with losses," senior guard Doreena Campbell said. "We used to run like crazy when we'd lose games that we were not supposed to lose.

"But over time that rubbed on us. A loss isn't acceptable anymore, where before we were like, 'OK, whatever, we lost.' But our mindset has changed."

It hurts when UCLA loses now. It hurts even when the other team is favored. But to get to the next level, the only level Caldwell will accept, it can't just hurt to lose.

It has to hurt to be anything other than great.

Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow her on Twitter.

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