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She’s a chip off old Vols

Gas just doesn’t seem to stretch as far on these California roads. Which is why Nikki Caldwell found herself stranded on the side of one last Friday night.

Thankfully, the UCLA women’s basketball coach had just finished eating dinner with her staff. A couple of quick calls and her assistant coaches hustled off to find a gallon to go.

As Caldwell waited, she was approached by two police officers who wanted to know what a young woman was doing alone in a dark car near Marina del Rey. The 36-year-old coach opened the door, flashed them a smile strung with shiny metal braces and introduced herself.

I’m Nikki Caldwell. Nikki who? Caldwell. What do you do? I work for UCLA. Doing what? I coach women’s basketball. Oh.

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Not exactly the kind of reaction Caldwell used to get back in Tennessee when strangers discovered she was an assistant to the legendary Pat Summitt.

In Knoxville, the Lady Vols bask in the glow of celebrity.

In Los Angeles, women’s basketball languishes in obscurity.

But that night Caldwell did what she has been doing for years: She sold someone on her team.

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By the end of the night, she had enough gas to get home and two police officers’ promise to come to the next UCLA game.

Caldwell sure is convincing. And not in that Southern hospitality kind of way, although her raised-in-small-town-Oak Ridge-Tennessee drawl can be lilting.

No, convincing as in powerful. Conclusive. As if she has all the answers and if you’re receptive and willing to listen, she’d be happy to hand them out.

Take that first Los Angeles news conference where Caldwell spoke last April. She had just been hired to replace Kathy Olivier, who resigned after 15 years with the Bruins. Behind her signature red glasses, Caldwell looked directly at the crowd and fielded queries with cool elegance -- and the team that finished 16-15 last year took notice.

“We’re sitting there listening and she just answered all the questions with confidence,” sophomore forward Nina Earl recalled. “She’s like, ‘Yes, we’re gonna do this, we’re gonna beat USC.’ She was just so confident and ready to start. She hadn’t even really met us yet. It was like, ‘OK. We’re gonna follow this lady.’ ”

Afterward, in the first official team meeting before the summer break, Caldwell broke it down. Everyone had something to contribute. Everyone was to set a personal goal and state it aloud. Yes, the last couple of seasons had been disappointing, but there was heart and character and drive on this team, which meant the possibility of championships and tradition. No one would ever be able to take their college years away from them, and if they took that ownership seriously, a change would come and come soon.

Something else happened that afternoon: The players began to believe.

“It’s her demeanor, attitude, the way that she carries herself,” sophomore guard Doreena Campbell said. “If you meet her, it’s just like ‘Wow. This woman’s on a mission. She knows what she wants to do. She has a plan.’ ”

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Caldwell says she just wanted to make sure she connected with the team.

“It’s about seeing the game through their eyes, seeing what they think their strengths are and letting them know that we’re doing this together,” she said.

“Their opinion or their decisions on what their goals are, they have a lot of value. . . . I’ve already won my title, so I want to make their college experience the best it can be. It’s about their four years here. I’m just the mentor trying to help them achieve as much greatness as possible.”

Caldwell actually has three championships. The first came as a freshman guard at Tennessee in 1991. The others were earned the last two years as a Lady Vols assistant.

After playing four seasons with Tennessee, Caldwell graduated in 1994 with a degree in public relations. She worked as a color analyst, hosted the sports segment of a local cable network show and was a graduate assistant with the Lady Vols for one season.

She left to assist Coach Debbie Ryan at Virginia for three years before getting a call from Summitt in 2002.

“When she went to Virginia, I’d watched her,” Summitt said. “I told Debbie, if I have an opening, I just have to be honest with you, I’m coming after her. . . . She knew the game, she was passionate about it and I just thought she would be a great teacher.”

At Tennessee, Caldwell was the primary recruiter, renowned for her living-room savvy. She knew how to make a girl feel like fate had a hand in their meeting. In 2003, she helped sign a freshman class that included Candace Parker and five other high school All-Americans, and in 2007, the Women’s Basketball Coaches Assn. named Tennessee the best recruiting school in the nation.

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On the court, Caldwell earned the tag “Little Pat” for her stringency and straight talk. Summitt came to think of her as a daughter and would often attend Caldwell family gatherings.

Then UCLA came calling. The offer was hard to ignore: sunshine, palm trees and the chance to build a program with a team that had talent but lacked luster. Summitt had groomed her for a moment like this and Caldwell felt ready.

A five-year, $1.5-million contract was offered and Caldwell accepted.

“She knew going in that they didn’t have the fan support that we have and that she had to recruit and motivate and inspire and teach,” Summitt said.

“It speaks volumes about her confidence in her abilities to make that move and to leave all her family.”

So what if last season UCLA averaged less than 2,000 people at its home games while Tennessee ranked No. 1 in attendance with an average of 15,000, according to the NCAA.

Caldwell says that’s all a matter of geography, not potential.

“In Knoxville we weren’t competing with the pro teams, the beaches or the social scene,” she said. “But the UCLA team puts in just as much sweat equity as the next team in the country. And they play this game with great passion.”

Besides, UCLA just felt right.

“I know why I coach. I know why every day I’m able to get up,” she said. “This is what I’m supposed to do. I always feel when you’re in your God-given talent that he’s going to take care of everything. First you’ve got to believe in what you’re doing.”

Caldwell hosts team potlucks and karaoke sing-offs at her condo near the Pacific Ocean and is known for her macaroni and cheese. She loves to play golf and watch martial-arts flicks with her cocker spaniel, Princess. And this spring, she’ll hop on her orange Harley and head to New Orleans for an event called Cruisin’ for a Cause. Created by Caldwell and Tennessee assistant coach Holly Warlick, the motorcycle road trip has helped raise more than $100,000 for breast cancer research.

Next season, when the Lady Vols meet the Bruins, the friends will be in opposite corners.

“She’s recruiting kids that we’ve been recruiting for a while, and rightfully so, that’s part of coaching,” Warlick said. “It’s about what a young lady wants -- do they want to come to tradition or to somebody building a program? And Nikki, trust me, she knows how to work it to her advantage. She’ll do good things out there -- as long as it’s not against Tennessee I’m all for it.”

But there’s more than one Tennessee alum on the Bruins’ side. In addition to Stacie Terry, who last coached at Southern Mississippi, Caldwell’s assistant coaches are Tony Perotti, a 1999 Tennessee graduate, and Tasha Butts, who played four seasons with the Lady Vols.

So far, so good. The Bruins are 11-3, their best start in four years. And they beat USC, 87-75, on Sunday for the first time in regular-season play since 2004.

It’s just as Caldwell said they would. She always says they can win. But it’s the way she says it.

“Every time we go into the locker room she always comes up with a wonderful analogy that gets us pumped, whether it’s us being little ants working together, or Spartans or warriors,” junior guard Erica Tukiainen said.

While establishing her head-coaching style, Caldwell often channels Summitt, whom she speaks with often.

“I feel like I am an extension of her,” she said. “I still want to make Coach proud.”

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corina.knoll@latimes.com


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