By: Sean Cartell
SEC Digital Network
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Nikki Caldwell couldn't have scripted a better weekend to come home.
The former Tennessee Lady Vol player (1990-94) and assistant coach (2002-08) will make her first return trip to Thompson-Boling Arena – a venue she clearly knows well – since taking over as the head coach at LSU when the two teams square off on Thursday evening (7 p.m. ET, CSS).
And while that would be significant enough to be the storyline of the game in most seasons, the match-up will be even more meaningful to Caldwell on this week, in this season.
The two teams are meeting as part of “We Back Pat” Week, a Southeastern Conference-wide initiative focused on bringing awareness and recognition to the Pat Summitt Foundation Fund of The Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee and its fight against Alzheimer’s disease.
Summitt is in her 38th season at Tennessee as the all-time winningest coach in collegiate basketball, but her first since disclosing last August that she is battling early-onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type.
Still, while Summitt understands the sentimental significance of this week’s game, she also knows that Caldwell will have her Lady Tigers (13-4, 4-1 SEC) ready to play.
“From a competitive side, I never would have played and been successful at Tennessee if we didn't look at every opponent like you wanted to beat them,” Caldwell said. “I contribute that competitive spirit to Coach Summitt and her staff. The first thing I learned was to respect everybody and that there is a loyalty to your staff, team and yourself.”
Summitt wouldn’t want it any other way.
“Nikki Caldwell is coming back home and we know that she is going to have her team ready to play,” Summitt said. “She’s going to come in here wanting to take care of business on her side. It should be a great game and, obviously, a great crowd, and that’s what it’s all about.”
Caldwell has spent the majority of her life as a Lady Vol.
She grew up in nearby Oak Ridge, Tenn., and while she spent three seasons as the head coach at UCLA, she and Summitt were never out of touch.
And Summitt has always answered the call. Yes, figuratively, taking a fierce and determined approach to any challenge that has stood in her way. But also, literally. And, because of that, she has always been one of the first people that Caldwell has called when she has needed advice.
Summitt encouraged Caldwell to pursue her current position at LSU.
“I reached out to her when I was going through this process because I wanted to get her feel and her take,” Caldwell said. “And I have done that on any major decision I have made pertaining to basketball. Her being that type of resource for me has just been so valuable.”
Caldwell’s mentor was one of the first people to call and congratulate her on her new coaching position. It’s something that Summitt has always done. For all of the players she has coached, the legendary figure has always made time to keep up with the happenings in the lives of each of her former athletes.
It would be just a few months later – following the disclosure of Summitt’s illness – that Caldwell would be the one picking up the phone.
“She’s the one who’s always congratulating people and I just wanted to make sure she understood how proud we were – so many of us who have a very personal relationship with her,” Caldwell said. “Coach is a movement. I have always said that about her. She is a movement for the game; she is a movement for so many of us in a positive way. She is just a remarkable person to be so courageous to talk about something so personal.”
The best analogy that one could make about Caldwell’s time as an assistant coach in Knoxville would be one that compared her to a sponge.
She worked hard and she worked smart. And she took advantage of the opportunity to learn everything that she could from her mentor and everything she could about the game of basketball. That shines through in everything the understudy does in her daily life.
“I have definitely taken a lot from her, having spent six years with her as an assistant coach,” Caldwell said. “I was just like a little sponge. I know what it takes to put together a staff because she did such an amazing job of that, but also implementing her philosophy and her game plan that she wants her teams year in and year out to run. I want to make sure that we play the game in a way that people are going to respect the way we play.”
And while Summitt’s announcement this past summer shocked the basketball community, Caldwell knew it would be a diagnosis that her mentor would take on like none other.
“It didn’t really hit me in quite the same way because I still see her as ‘Coach,’” Caldwell said. “I don’t see her as anybody different than that. I see her as somebody who is still hungry as a teacher for the game who still loves the game. She is someone who is still passionate about preparing her team for greatness. She mentors me still to this day.
“She’s going to take on this challenge and do everything she can to be the best coach she can be like she has always done.”
Summitt’s Foundation Fund has already started to make a huge impact on bringing awareness and raising money for Alzheimer’s research. It is absolutely characteristic of Summitt that she has turned a difficult health obstacle into what may become one of the greatest parts of her legacy.
But it is also characteristic of Summitt that her only concern on Thursday night will be getting her Tennessee team (13-4, 4-1 SEC) ready to face off against Caldwell’s Lady Tigers.
“We’re waiting to see if we are going to be where we need to be and I think we are; we’ve had great preparation,” Summitt said. “We’ve had some nagging injuries, but that’s all part of the game. I think they’ll be ready to play and they’ll have really good focus. That’s what we expect.”