- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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UCLA's 9-1 start under first-year coach Nikki Caldwell didn't escape the attention of a recent "visitor" to Los Angeles. But neither did the sparse local media coverage of the Bruins' success thus far.
Don't think that Kathy Olivier, now the coach at UNLV, was raining on a parade she used to lead. Her observation about the Bruins' relative invisibility in the sports-glutted L.A. landscape is not inaccurate, nor did it sound bitter. Olivier is not the bitter type. It's just not in her personality.
She was back in Los Angeles last week during the brief holiday break. Her daughter still attends UCLA, and Olivier admits she misses some things about her former program and about living in L.A. But she says she's very happy to be at UNLV, where she played her final two seasons of college basketball.
"I love it," she said. "I put my heart and soul into my work, and I love going into practice and seeing the players' faces -- that they're excited to see me."
That said did she really want to step away from UCLA last spring? Or was it strongly suggested by her then-bosses that taking an "opportunity" to be in administration would be a wise move?
Oh, I think you can figure that out.
Still, after 15 years as head coach (she'd also been with UCLA as an assistant for seven seasons before that), Olivier wasn't kicked to the curb by the Bruins' brass. She was given a soft landing: one of those "special projects to be determined" jobs.
Likely, she wouldn't have had to do a whole lot beyond spreading her sunshinelike personality around while fundraising. It could have been a way to fade comfortably into the sunset.
But Olivier didn't keep up the ruse that she was ready to "take the next step in my career by moving into administration," as her prepared statement in a UCLA press release said in March. By April, she'd moved on to another coaching job.
In Vegas, she notes, UNLV athletics is a big sports-page staple. It's just a four-hour drive from L.A., but a very different world in that regard. Plus
"It's a bonus because people here are excited," Olivier said. "We're in the honeymoon period, of course. But still, it's nice to be liked."
It's not that she wasn't liked at UCLA. She was, in fact, very well liked as a person. But as a coach, she had a 232-208 career record and made it as far as the Elite Eight only once, in 1999. Then -- just a game away from the Final Four in a regional final being played in L.A. -- the Bruins didn't give Louisiana Tech too much of a battle, losing 88-62.
That came on the heels of a 1998 season in which Olivier's team was victim of the most embarrassing officiating and scorer's table gaffes in NCAA tournament history. Alabama beat UCLA by one point in the second round. The officials allowed the Crimson Tide to run illegally along the baseline before inbounding the ball, and then the timekeeper allowed eight-tenths of a second to stretch into mind-boggling proportions. Long enough for Alabama to take the shot that won the game.
The Bruins also put a bit of a scare into Final Four-bound Minnesota in 2004's first round but beyond those examples, there wasn't a lot to talk about regarding UCLA in the postseason.
Olivier got some talented recruits over the years there. But for a school that has had greater success in other women's sports, the hoops program's inability to break through on the national stage was disappointing. Ultimately, the buck had to stop at Olivier, who had a long time there to make things work.
She now acknowledges that her departure was beneficial to UCLA and to herself.
"I loved UCLA," she said, "but the program needed a change, and I needed a change."
Olivier started her college playing career at Cal State Fullerton but finished at UNLV.
It's a program that went to the NCAA tournament seven times from 1984 to '94 under coach Jim Bolla, who moved to an administrative role at the school in 1996. He's now the coach at Hawaii.
UNLV reached its peak under Bolla in 1990, when it entered the NCAA tournament as a No. 4 seed at 27-2. But it was upset by No. 5 seed Mississippi in the second round that year.
UNLV then fell into the abyss before Regina Miller took over in 1998 under a lot of protest due to her 60-100 career record. Then in 10 seasons in Vegas, she went 175-125, which was better than many of her initial doubters expected.
However, the program made the NCAA tournament just once, in 2002.
Miller was let go at the end of last season, and Olivier stepped in. So far, UNLV is 6-5. Olivier likes the positive vibes of the other programs in the "can-do" Mountain West Conference, which -- let's not forget -- came close to sending a team (Utah) to the Final Four in 2006. She has high hopes about what UNLV might become, but she knows the program has a ways to go.
"I've got to make sure my players understand what this whole team thing is all about," she said. "We're a new family. I like that. I take a great deal of pride in how we're doing things."
Meanwhile, Caldwell, the longtime assistant at Tennessee, is off to a strong beginning at UCLA.
So, at least for now, it appears everything did work out for the best.
Mechelle Voepel is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
17dBonnie D. Ford