By Steve Rivera
To say Mike Candrea has inspired through more than a quarter century of coaching at the University of Arizona would be an injustice – as would calling him just a winner.
He’s so much more because he has accomplished so much more.
From his first softball players in the mid-1980s to today’s stars, he’s been their guide to greatness and a beacon with the bat.
Candrea has prodded and pushed. Convinced and consoled. He has incensed and inspired. It all depends on the moment and the memory. Some parts father figure, other parts philosopher.
“Coach was really the first leader I had treat me like an adult,’’ said Debbie Day, Candrea’s first star recruit and the first pitcher to deliver him an NCAA title in 1991.
“He didn’t micromanage and make decisions for us all the time. He trusted us to do the right things and we in turn did them,” Day said. “We knew what was right and that he expected us to live up to our responsibilities. It impacted me because I felt so trusted, so believed in, and so much in control of my own performance. Coach kept it fresh, new and very challenging.’’
The result? UA has won eight national titles, and he’s added Olympic Games gold and silver medals to his resume. He’s the winningest active coach and second all-time in victories, becoming the fastest coach to reach 1,300 victories for a career. At the start of this season he stood at 1,310 and is second only to former Fresno State coach Margie Wright (1,457).
“Winning 1,300 games in a career is a milestone that should be celebrated by the program and not just the head coach,” Candrea said. “I have been blessed to have coached many great athletes that have performed due to their passion, character and love for the University of Arizona.”
The Arizona State graduate is tried and true Red and Blue. This season is his 28th at UA. He’s also inspiration guided by preparation.
Well-accomplished doesn’t begin to describe one of the world’s foremost experts in coaching softball and the art of motivating student-athletes.
He knows what motivational buttons to push. If he wasn’t coaching, he’d be teaching – but isn’t that what he does every day?
“I’m very process oriented so I enjoy the people side of it,’’ said Candrea, 57. “I also enjoy helping people grow.’’
For Candrea, it’s who he is. It’s what he does.
“Coach Candrea is like a second father to me – first and foremost he cares for his players,’’ said former UA star pitcher Jennie Finch, and one of four national Players of the Year Candrea has coached while at UA.
“He gets the best out of his players,’’ Finch added. “He exudes confidence in you and expects nothing but 100 percent from you. He gives that daily. I love his consistency, passion, competitiveness, heart, energy, fire, preparedness, love of the game and so much about him. I’m so very blessed and grateful for the opportunity I had to play for him at Arizona and again on Team USA.’’
For Finch, it was like catching lightning in a bottle – twice.
For the UA, the journey continues and is expected to grow. As its softball CEO, Candrea sees – expects – improvement with his ever-present, eye-on-the-prize outlook. But as he puts it, if you’re not looking at the newest and latest ways to get your team motivated, you’re not looking to get better. Any business leader knows that.
It’s about discipline. It’s about being held accountable. He also thinks out of the (batter’s) box.
Not too long ago, he used a SWAT analysis, a technique used in business to identify strengths and weaknesses among individuals. More recently, he’s used vision testing and yoga. Anything to get better – and not just as players.
“You’re always looking for that edge,’’ he said. “Everyone does a pretty good job of coaching the people with the physical skills. The mental part of the game has grown so much, but if you look at businesses today, they are doing a lot of things in management that we are doing, trying to find what buttons to press to try to make the most out of the people you have. That’s what success is all about.’’
No coach at UA knows more about success than Candrea. None is more decorated. Candrea has:
• Won 82 percent of his games
• Coached 50 All-Americans
• Been named the United States Olympic Committee Coach of the Year in 2004 and honored with the Olympic Shield
• Been named a four-time time national Coach of the Year
• Been named a 10-time Pac-10 Coach of the Year
• Coached four Players of the Year
• Coached UA to 21 NCAA College World Series trips
And yet, he wants more, especially after failing to get to the World Series for the last two seasons. The College World Series is where Candrea has made his mark – Super Regionals are just pit stops on the journey. Yet, that’s where Arizona has finished the last two years.
“The last two years have been very difficult but through difficult times you feel the urgency to identify the factors that cause those difficulties and regain the passion to change the environment and re-establish the foundations for success,’’ Candrea said.
“Recruiting players that fit your program are crucial. And they must not only be good athletes but good people with great character.”
It’s about embracing the process – and Arizona hasn’t done that the last couple of years. There wasn’t the passion, he said. “It caught up with us.”
Seemingly plenty caught up with Candrea last season. He fell ill in Tempe, and was rushed to the hospital. Chest pains, likely stress-induced.
“Last year’s visit to the hospital was a combination of not eating, sleeping or hydrating well,’’ he said. “All is under control and definitely a wakeup call for finding time to take care of the only body I will receive in my lifetime. I learned my lesson and am feeling better than ever.”
And ready for another year and the run for title number nine.
“Currently, we are at a point where he has gone back to the drawing board and made some changes within the program and I think you will see this squad back in national contention,” said Erika Barnes, a former UA player and now a UA athletic administrator. “He continues to enjoy the challenge and not reaching the WCWS has only strengthened that fight.”
Failure is not an option. Then again, how is failure and success gauged when 30 to 40 victories are the norm for one of the most respected programs in the country?
“The beauty of coach’s leadership is that he is so respected he hardly has to say anything to get his players to follow his direction,’’ said Callista Balko, one of his star players just a handful of years ago.
“He’s only vocal when the situation calls for it, which is rarely,’’ she said. “The man has the most intimidating presence that I’ve ever witnessed.”
Barnes appreciated the discipline then and appreciates it now, as an athletic administrator.
“The respect I had for him as a coach has carried over to the respect I have for him as a leader in our industry, colleague, and especially, as a friend,’’ said Barnes. “Having a balance in your life is something he tries to instill in his athletes and he is a model of that. Having a plan is one of my favorite take-aways from him and I have carried that on into the areas of my life.’’
Top Five Leadership Qualities
Competency: Be competent at what you teach, and be a student of the game. Try to be innovative and stay ahead of the curve. Be strong enough to make tough decisions.
Consistency: Have consistency in how you handle people and react under pressure. Be enthusiastic and passionate about your role, and control your attitude, effort and focus.
Communication: Develop the ability to communicate a vision and spread that vision.
Integrity: Be a great role model. Encourage balance between family, profession and spiritual connection.
Caring: Build relationships around trust and mutual respect.