Nikki Caldwell is living the dream in Los Angeles, hired in April as women's basketball coach at UCLA. When the press conference was over to announce her as the new coach, she hit the ground running.
"I went straight from the podium to a meeting with my team," Caldwell said. "I told them that I was their new head coach and that they were my focus right then and there. I think it was an easy transition for them because I made them my number one priority."
Taking over a program hasn't been as big of a transition as Caldwell initially thought it might be. She was an assistant for Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt from 2002-08 and played for Summitt from 1990-94.
"There is no question that my time under Coach Summitt prepared me for what I'm doing now," Caldwell said. "She always said that a head coach is only as good as the assistants. She was always open to our ideas. There were many times that she allowed me, (assistants) Holly (Warlick) and Dean (Lockwood) to lead practice or take the lead in recruiting. She let us lead in the scouting of future opponents.
"She provided us that experience and it groomed me to be where I am today. So, now I know how it is to run a program. She taught us how to handle media relations. She taught me how to be a head coach. Because of all that she taught me, I haven't felt at any moment that I've been thrown to the wolves. I feel like I've been able to handle everything that has been thrown my way."
Caldwell has handled all that has been thrown her way beautifully so far. The Bruins were 13-4 and 2-2 in the Pac-10 before Saturday night's game at Arizona. It's been a quick turnaround for a program that was .500 last season.
"We have a lot of talent here, that's the strength of our team," said Caldwell. "I think the difference here is that we don't have a Candace Parker. We have a young lady, Doreena Campbell, who has the same mentality in that she wants the ball in crunch time. At Tennessee, we ran every play through Parker. At UCLA, since we don't have a superstar like Parker, we're running things a little bit different."
Seeing the confidence level go up for the Bruins has been the highlight.
"Something that stood out for me early in the year was during our individual workouts back in April," said Caldwell. "We have a 6-foot-6 post player named Moniquee 'Mo' Alexander. I laughed to her that she would play some point guard for us. She looked at me like I was crazy. So, we started working on her getting the rebound and starting the break. Well, in a game earlier this season Mo came out of a rebound and took a few dribbles and started the break. We executed and converted on the offensive end. Our bench went crazy. It wasn't because we had scored, it was because she did something that she didn't think she could do."
It's stories like that that are quickly letting UCLA fans know that the future might hold some special moments.
"The last time UCLA went to the dance was a couple of years ago," said Caldwell. "I want to break down the season for our teams in three parts. We have the pre-conference part of our schedule, then our conference, and then March Madness. We are kind of like this year's Lady Vol team. We are using the first two parts of that three part plan to get our team ready for the third and most important part. We'll be ready when we get there.
"I think what's helped is the confidence my girls have in what we're trying to do because they've been able to see that the plan works. Any time we ask them to do something, I think they realize that this plan got us those national championships at Tennessee. I reference Pat all the time because they respect all that she stands for. They respect where I've come from."
Caldwell may have moved all the way from Knoxville to L.A., but she already knows one of her neighbor's extremely well.
"Candace Parker and I live in the same neighborhood," says Caldwell. "She comes over to my place and I've been over to hers. I needed a dog friendly neighborhood because I have three dogs. Candace started telling me one day about this great neighborhood where she and (husband) Shelden (Williams) bought and how much they loved it. I told her that that's where I was buying a condo. Small world, I guess."
As for life in L.A., Caldwell says it is what you make it.
"There are always big sporting events, beaches and quaint restaurants," she said. "L.A. life is what you want it to be. What's funny is that my assistant coaches and I have gotten into a routine of going to a little bowling alley on Friday nights. We go to a jazz spot. We just kind of keep it low key, but it's been a lot of fun."
Lady Vol fans may think Caldwell is getting her experience with the hope of replacing Summitt some day. That may be the truth, but for now Caldwell has her entire focus on UCLA.
"Tennessee is such a special place," said Caldwell. "It's home and rich, rich in tradition. To have been able to play and coach there was amazing. I love UCLA and hope that we'll be able to do 1/10th of what Coach Summitt has done at Tennessee. If we do that, we will have been very successful in L.A."
Mark Packer hosts the Locker Room, presented by Parkwest Medical Center, on Sunday at 10 p.m. on MyVLT2.