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Front Page - Friday, April 19, 2024

Caldwell's task: Return Lady Vols to game’s elite

Kim Caldwell made the rounds on Rocky Top last week, including throwing out the first pitch before Tennessee hosted LSU in baseball Friday night. She also made an appearance in front of a huge crowd at Tennessee football’s Orange & White Game Saturday morning.

It’s been a whirlwind rise for the new Lady Vols basketball coach, from leading a Division II program two years ago to being hired to guide one of the most prominent Division I women’s basketball programs in history.

Caldwell is the fourth head coach ever for the Lady Vols, the first from outside the Pat Summitt tree. After the late legendary Summitt stepped down, Holly Warlick and Kellie Harper stepped in as her successors. Neither was able to lift the Lady Vols to the heights of national title contenders that Summitt achieved.

 The Lady Vols haven’t reached a Final Four since Summitt led them to a national title in 2008. Harper was fired two weeks ago, leaving with a 108-52 record, including 53-24 in SEC play.

 Caldwell certainly wasn’t on many potential coaching hire lists once the job opened. But she was on the only list that mattered: Danny White’s. The UT athletic director has a record of identifying up-and-coming coaches with exciting offenses.

Caldwell led Marshall to a 26-7 overall record and 17-1 mark in the Sun Belt Conference last season, her first year in Division I. Marshall won the Sun Belt regular season and tournament titles to earn the school’s second NCAA tournament berth in program history.

The Herd had one of the most prolific scoring offenses in the nation, winning nine games with at least 90 points scored and five with more than 100. They led the nation in three-point field goals attempted and were third in three-pointers made per game (10+). Defensively, Marshall forced 24.2 turnovers per game.

Caldwell was named the 2024 Spalding Maggie Dixon NCAA Division I Rookie Coach of the Year.

“The prerequisite for this search, and something I was unbending on, was how was this person going to bring us back to the top,” White says. “We weren’t looking for a possible solution that got us back to being maybe more relevant. We wanted someone with an enormous upside and trajectory. We wanted someone who is competitive and confident.”

Before her short stint at Marshall, Caldwell was extremely successful at the Division II level at Glenville State in West Virginia. She led her alma mater to the 2022 national championship in her sixth year and helped the Pioneers make seven NCAA appearances in her eight seasons. In 2022, she was presented the Pat Summitt Trophy, which goes to the WBCA’s Division II National Coach of the Year.

Just two years later, Caldwell is in charge of restoring the juggernaut that Summitt built to help further the rise of women’s basketball’s growing popularity.

“The part of history that I need no catching up on is Pat Summitt’s legacy and how powerful the Lady Vol family is,” Caldwell says. “I will never be Pat Summitt; nobody can be. I will strive every day to be somebody that she would be proud of.”

Recruiting already underway

Caldwell’s first job is to rebuild the roster. The Lady Vols have underwhelmed in recruiting the last few seasons, failing to bring in even a single freshman last season. They have added key pieces in the transfer portal but will need to begin winning battles for talented high school recruits.

She’s already noticed how much playing in the SEC can increase the awareness from potential players.

“Everyone I text has responded to me, so that’s the difference,” Caldwell says. “It’s really nice, but it’s the same thing. Players are players. People who are transferring and high school players are looking for the same thing but at different levels. They just happen to be taller in the SEC.”

Senior guard Jewel Spear is eager to begin working with Caldwell and implementing the changes her staff will bring.

“She seems like a good personality, fun, upbeat person,” Spear says. “You could tell she really cares for us, and she wants what’s best for us for the little time we got to meet her. When she first got here, we kind of toured her around a little bit.”

Since making the hire, White and UT have promoted the high-energy style of play Caldwell’s teams have possessed. They know some may be skeptical of her lack of experience in Division I. They know some may have expected a bigger name to be hired.

The honeymoon period might be a bit shorter for Caldwell than previous hires, but she says she’s ready for the challenge.

“You want to be somewhere where the expectations are high,” Caldwell says. “I’ve had a lot of opportunities in my career to look at jobs and was never interested in a job that did not have high expectations, did not have a loyal fan base, did not have a hungry crowd that wanted to pay attention to what was going on.

“So I think that was something that makes this program incredibly special, and I’m going to work very, very hard to make sure that we keep it there.”