Jan. 7, 2009

By Lara Boyko
Special to NCAA.com

2009 is being billed as a year of change with a new President set to take office in less than a month, but for several women’s college basketball program, changes started taking place last year. With some assistant coaches getting their shot at being head coaches and other long-time coaches starting over at different programs, change is in the air even in the world of women’s college basketball.

“It was the right time for me to make a change,” said UNLV head coach Kathy Olivier, who is in her first season at UNLV after spending 22 seasons at UCLA. “It was good for everyone involved, including my daughter who got the opportunity to play for me while I was UCLA. It was time for a change though and for me to get re-energized and get out of the traffic. It was all positive.”

While Olivier headed east to the desert for a fresh start, her departure from UCLA opened up the door for an assistant coach to head west and get her first break at being a head coach.

“This has been unbelievable,” said UCLA head coach Nikki Caldwell, who spent the last six seasons at Tennessee as an assistant under Pat Summit. “To be here as the women’s basketball head coach is a dream come true. I love the administration and their support, the other coaches who have also been supporting. It’s been a great first several months as the head coach.”

Change for both coaches has been good, but it has also come with a learning curve in the responsibilities of being a head coach.

“It’s funny because I looked at my staff the other day and commented on how I hadn’t done basic things in so long,” said Olivier, who played at UNLV from 1979-81. “For instance for our first game, we talked about who was doing the timeline for the game. That has been done forever for me so I didn’t know who would handle it. Other things such as game day set ups, you take for granted. I was at UCLA for so long so I didn’t realize that we had to talk about EVERY little thing and who was doing the littlest of things.”

“[Pat] didn’t tell me about all of the meetings you have to go to!” said Caldwell. “[Being a head coach] is a role that she groomed me for and allowed me to grow into as an assistant. Being a head coach is a role that I love being in. I’ve got a great support staff from our academic advisors to our strength and conditioning coach and our assistant coaches are some of the top in the country.”

In addition, both coaches have dealt with the challenges that come with inheriting players who they did not originally recruit.

“It’s been a challenge as we had to get the players to get that trust with the staff,” said Olivier. “They have been really good as they have taken ownership of what we are doing and worked really hard. We have five seniors, which is a lot of players who played with someone else for three of their four years and now they have to listen and make changes. It is going to take some time, but the players who are carry-overs have been great and wonderful. At first I had some concerns, but I think it has been good for everyone involved and it’s going to be good.”

“I think they bought into who we were first as people,” said Caldwell. “Then we bought into who they are as people. No matter how the ball bounces, they are young ladies who we love dearly, whether we recruited them or not. I wouldn’t change any of them for anybody right now as they are doing everything they can in their power to execute our game plan and what we want to do as a ball club.”

Recruiting for a different school has also been a new experience.

“It was different to go out on the trail wearing red after wearing blue and gold for so long,” said Olivier. “With being an alumna from UNLV, I was very proud while out recruiting.

“When you can first call recruits is when it was different for me. It was a different sell as I am big on the whole package and being a team player. I am not just going to talk about women’s basketball, but I will talk about the other things on campus as well as the other teams and the academics. I also talk about my experience here, which was so positive that it is an easy sell, in part because it is real.”

Yet even with all of the adjustments to being a head coach, whether it is from their administration staff or friends in the business, help is just a call away.

“I talk to Pat at least once a week,” said Caldwell of the legendary coach she has on her speed dial. “There hasn’t been anything real crazy yet I have asked her. I have picked her brain on some X’s and O’s as she is very smart in that regard.”

The ball can bounce many ways in the college game, but being a head coach in women’s college basketball is one experience not to be missed. 

“Buckle up because it’s a ride,” said Oliver, on her advice to first year assistant coach Nikki Blue on her staff. “You have to put your seat belt on and run with it because it is very rewarding when things are good, but hard on you when things are not good.”