Nikki Caldwell says decision to leave UCLA wasn't easy

The coach who used a mirror as a practice gimmick faced her own moment of reflection.

Should Nikki Caldwell stay at UCLA, where she had built the Bruins into one of the top women's basketball programs on the West Coast in only three years?

Or should she go to Louisiana State, returning to her beloved Southeastern Conference and moving closer to her Tennessee roots while tripling her salary?

"It wasn't an easy decision," Caldwell said Sunday in a telephone interview. "It's one that I obviously wrestled with because there's a genuine love for UCLA in my heart and having turned this thing around in such a short period of time, there's an investment with the team of wanting nothing but the best for them."

That said …

"It was an opportunity for me to get back closer to my family," said Caldwell, a native of Oak Ridge, Tenn. "And having played in the SEC and having coached there, there's a familiarity about it."

Ultimately, Caldwell went with the Lady Tigers and the opportunity to roam the same court where mentor Sue Gunter once coached. Caldwell's contract will pay her more than $900,000 per year, according to a person who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment publicly on salary matters.

Caldwell, 38, said her departure wasn't about the size of her contract.

"I started at ground zero and made $650 a month," Caldwell said, referring to her days as a graduate assistant at Tennessee. "It's not about just money for me. I coach because I love this game and I love giving back to this game."

Caldwell said she appreciated UCLA Athletic Director Dan Guerrero's efforts to keep her in Westwood with a multiyear contract offer that included a raise from her salary of around $300,000 per year.

"Dan did everything he could possibly do," Caldwell said.

Caldwell called telling her players she was leaving "the hardest thing I've ever had to do in my life." The Bruins have the core of the team that finished 28-5 and advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament returning next season.

Add a highly rated recruiting class, and there was plenty of reason for pause. Not that Caldwell isn't already moving ahead full speed.

"I don't make decisions and not be sure," Caldwell said. "It was one that was extremely, extremely hard to come by, but it was one that, once made, I'm looking forward to what is in store for me at LSU.

"You don't leave great people and not put yourself in position to be around other great people."

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