Nikki Caldwell thinks of Pat Summitt as a mentor, a confidant and a second mother.
Now Summitt, the longtime women's basketball coach at Tennessee, also is the main competition for her former player and assistant coach. Caldwell made her first public appearance Monday as the new women's coach at LSU. After three seasons as the coach at UCLA, Caldwell takes over an SEC program with the resources and apparently the renewed commitment to joust with Tennessee, which has swept the conference regular season and tournament championships the past two seasons.
"Championships are won here,'' Caldwell said. "We want to make sure we're doing our part."
Caldwell is replacing former Lady Tigers coach Van Chancellor, who was reassigned after the season. She received a five-year contract and an annual salary of $700,000. In introducing Caldwell on Monday, LSU vice chancellor and director of athletics Joe Alleva described her as "a star" and "a role model" and said, "This is a bright new day for LSU basketball."
In a UT release, Summitt said that she was "absolutely thrilled" for Caldwell.
"Like any proud mom, she's excited for me,'' Caldwell said. "She's excited I'm back in the SEC."
Summitt said as much on Monday by calling competition "a great thing."
"It's not like we're not going to continue to be great friends,'' she said. "When the game's over, the game's over. Win or lose, we're going to have a great friendship. Whoever gets beat is not going to be happy. You have to move on, learn from it."
During her news conference, Caldwell spoke of going "toe to toe" with a program like Tennessee. Later, she compared her presence at LSU with then-assistant coach Mickie DeMoss leaving Tennessee in 2003 to become the coach at Kentucky for four seasons.
"It's going to be good,'' Caldwell said. "It's going to be an added element of competitiveness."
Caldwell led UCLA to 72 victories and two NCAA tournament appearances. The lure of LSU and being closer to her family in Oak Ridge was irresistible to her. Still, Caldwell, an Oak Ridge High School graduate, said the decision "wasn't easy by any means" and that saying goodbye to the UCLA players left her feeling "very, very torn."
She wasn't alone. Caldwell said that her three assistant coaches - Tony Perotti, Tasha Butts and Stacie Terry - and her director of operations, Pam Walker, will be moving to LSU as well. Butts also is a former Tennessee player while Perotti is a UT graduate and former practice player.
"In order to get a team to become a family,'' Caldwell said, "you better represent it yourself."