Nikki Caldwell cultivates success

LOS ANGELES -- UCLA's Darxia Morris knew right away. Words she'd known before suddenly carried more meaning. She was intimidated, intrigued.

Oh, and motivated.

In just a few moments, Morris had heard enough; she wanted to lace up her shoes, right there on the spot. Three years later and she can still recall Nikki Caldwell's introductory news conference.

"The way she was talking, I was ready," Morris said. "I knew it was going to be a whole new start."

With belief instilled in players such as Morris -- now a senior with the Bruins -- Caldwell began to rebuild the UCLA women's basketball program. It hasn't been a slow process -- UCLA (15-1, 5-0 Pac-10) is off to its best start in more than three decades.

The Bruins' up-tempo, defensive style of play has been a thing of beauty, landing them No. 9 in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll heading into Thursday's game at Stanford.

"Coming into this program, I thought, 'There's definitely talent here,' " Caldwell said. "My mindset was to cultivate that talent, get them to trust and buy into the system and our philosophy. It began with our cohesion as a unit. I wanted to make sure that they understood that you don't play this game as individuals, you play this game together."

Caldwell passed along the competitive mindset that helped her become a three-time NCAA champion -- once as a player at Tennessee and twice as an assistant under legendary coach Pat Summitt.

But building a dynasty requires more than the right attitude. You need to win.

Caldwell has done that early, going a combined 59-22 (.728) in two-plus seasons since replacing Kathy Olivier, who resigned in 2008 after spending 15 years at UCLA. Olivier was 51-44 in her final three seasons.

"In any transition with new coaches and new players coming in, getting a team to be on the same page is probably the biggest challenge," Caldwell said. "It's not necessarily what you run as far as X's and O's -- it's how you run it. … The challenge was getting this team to buy into all that."

Having spent the previous nine years as an assistant, Caldwell knew her own staff would be critical to the rebuilding process. She brought on former Lady Volunteers scout team player Tony Perotti to make sure practices were intense and productive; she hired former collegiate standout Tasha Butts to make sure players learned how to balance the student-athlete life; and she rounded out the group with one of the nation's best recruiters, Stacie Terry.

"We do everything together," Perotti said. "I think that's one of the great things Nikki has done as a boss and a leader. ... When it came to building a program she said, 'Look, we're in this together.' She made it a part [of] our responsibility and our ownership right from the get-go. It was very inclusive."

Getting a first-hand look at the Bruins a year before being hired couldn't have hurt. Caldwell caught a glimpse of then-freshmen Morris, Doreena Campbell and Nina Earl when the top-ranked Lady Vols visited Pauley Pavilion in 2007. They make up the core of today's successful group.

"Coach Olivier was a good coach, I can't say that she wasn't," Morris said. "But Nikki came in and showed us a whole different system. … If you play under her you can't think about losing. That's not in your mindset. If we lose it's like the world is over."

Caldwell was so upset after UCLA's only loss this season -- to LSU on Dec. 29 -- that she joked about hiring a psychiatrist. Keep in mind the Bruins had lost by only two points, with Morris missing a potential game-tying jumper at the buzzer.

Malcolm Lee, a junior guard on the men's basketball team, has witnessed a number of women's practices. As a player under coach Ben Howland, Lee knows a thing or two about discipline.

"Nikki Caldwell came in here and changed that program around," Lee said. "Their practices are real disciplined. She doesn't care about a player's stardom, she'll treat everyone the same. The star player can get kicked out of practice if Caldwell doesn't feel like the player is contributing. The discipline has a lot to do with their success."

Some observers saw a tone-setter in Caldwell's dismissal of senior Tierra Henderson near the end of the 2008-09 season for repeated violations of team rules.

The difference between Caldwell and Olivier was evident to a former scout player who was around for both eras. Things simply changed when Caldwell entered the fold. Olivier matched her girls against a men's scout team too, but Perotti demanded intensity from the start, the scout team player said.

"We're on the guys as much as we are on our own players about playing hard, being tough, being aggressive," Perotti said. "We don't get better unless the guys bring it every single day."

You want discipline? Ball security? Mental toughness? According to Morris, the team has a rack of 12 balls to work with during a typical practice. If they turn all 12 balls over, they spend the remainder of practice running. It doesn't matter how much time is left.

"We play winners and losers, too," said Morris, who is tied for the team lead with 11.6 points per game. "If you lose, you're running."

Call it tough love, but it seems to be working. Caldwell has juniors Jasmine Dixon (11.6 points) and Rebekah Gardner (8.7 points) for another year and sophomore Markel Walker (9 points) for two.

More talent is on its way -- Caldwell's November recruiting class was ranked fourth nationally. Local stars Justine Hartman (Brea, Calif./Brea Olinda), Kacy Swain (Temecula, Calif./St. Bernard) and Sheila Boykin (Long Beach, Calif./Poly) will be in Westwood next fall.

"I get goose bumps when I walk into our Hall of Fame room and see 106 national championships," Caldwell said. "You sell recruits on being a part of something that's never been done before at any college."

Summitt (eight titles) didn't win her first title until her 13th season at Tennessee. UConn coach Geno Auriemma (seven titles) needed 10 seasons.

Winning programs may not be built overnight, but Caldwell is proving that it can be done in quick fashion.

"The potential for it was always there," she said. "They're starting to understand what hard work means."

Blair Angulo is co-author of the UCLA blog on ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.