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Mike Candrea
Courtesy: Arizona Athletics
Release: 01/15/2007
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Courtesy: Arizona Athletics
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The date was June 7, 2006, less than 24 hours after Arizona was crowned the 2006 NCAA softball champions.

 

Retiring University of Arizona President Peter Likins said to several thousand members of the Wildcat faithful: “I was quoted the other day in the paper as saying, ?'No matter what happens on the field, I will know that we have the best softball coach in the world.’”

 

Dr. Likins had every reason to make the robust assertion as Mike Candrea’s Wildcats won 20 of their last 22 games to clinch the NCAA title, and a seventh national championship in 16 years to go along with a number of feats that only cemented the claim.

 

As though conquering the collegiate world were not enough, Candrea spent the summer of 2006 leading Team USA to a World Cup of Softball title and a gold medal at the ISF World Championships in Beijing, China. Following Arizona’s fall workouts, he coached the U.S. squad to victory in the Japan Cup, its third tournament title of the year. Two years prior, his leadership helped propel the Red, White and Blue to a perfect record of 9-0 and the gold medal in the Olympic Games in Athens, Greece.

 

If Dr. Likins was looking for a debate, he would be hard-pressed to find any takers.

 

Besides the aforementioned credentials, who could argue with the fact that Candrea is the fastest softball coach in NCAA history to amass 1,000 victories?

 

In the last 19 years, Candrea has led Arizona to the Women’s College World Series 18 times. The only year Arizona was absent from the WCWS, Candrea was at the helm of USA Softball’s barnstorming tour of the country prior to the gold medal in Athens.

 

With the 2006 title, another Arizona streak was renewed that speaks to Candrea’s consistent excellence through the years. In layman’s terms, one could paraphrase the streak by saying, “Every student-athlete leaves with jewelry.” With the exception of the 2005 seniors, every four-year letterwinner, beginning with the freshman class of 1988, all the way through this year’s UA team has been a part of at least one national championship team. To put the streak’s longevity in perspective, freshmen Stacie Chambers and K’Lee Arredondo were born after the 1988 frosh arrived on campus.

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While endorsements from former players and forever members of the Wildcat family speak volumes, the results of Candrea’s instruction and leadership render no doubt to his abilities.

I

n terms of team accomplishments last year, Arizona and Tennessee were the only two teams to finish in the top 10 nationally in batting average, ERA and fielding percentage. It should be noted that those rankings are not anomalous to 2006. Under Candrea’s tutelage, the Wildcats have finished with the nation’s top batting average four times in the last 13 years, best fielding percentage three times since 1995 and have featured an All-American pitcher every year since 1992.

 

Candrea’s unequivocal message and desire is to maximize the ability and performance of each student-athlete on the team. What has resulted is team and individual success, both on and off the field.

 

Whether he is instructing one of his 33 All-Americans, who combined for 75 citations, his 18 players who went on to represent the United States of America, or a walk-on who is trying to have more productive at-bats, one thing is clear: Candrea is a teacher.

 

Although there are a myriad of tales and success stories, one recent episode became the stuff of legend in 2006.

 

Then-sophomore Callista Balko was batting a team-low .177 through UA’s first 26 games. Just 10 games prior, the Tucson native had seen her average dip to .105. With numbers like those, an outsider may wonder why any coach, let alone a proven winner, would keep this batter in the lineup.

 

The answer was that Balko was Arizona’s only everyday catcher. Some might say that as long as Balko showed up healthy to the ballpark and caught every day, who cares what kind offensive production she provides? For Candrea, it was a matter making the necessary physical and mental adjustments to allow Balko to be the best player she could be.

 

So on March 17, in Fullerton, Calif., hours after Arizona’s games at the Judi Garman Classic had been postponed due to rain, with the rest of the team relaxing at the hotel, Candrea and Balko went to a batting cage. Just a bat, a bucket of balls, a student and a teacher.

 

What resulted was a .319 batting average with 31 RBI over Arizona’s final 39 games. The culmination of Balko’s 2006 journey came 43 feet away from Honda Award winner Cat Osterman at the Women’s College World Series. In a scoreless game, the Texas ace was working on a no-hitter, and Balko was working with the knowledge that she had struck out in all nine of her previous plate appearances against Osterman. With the odds stacked against his catcher, Candrea watched stoically from the dugout and saw Balko line the game-winning hit into left field.

Although Balko did not receive any postseason awards or honors, she did receive an invitation to represent her country in the World University Games. Certainly, to go from hitting below the Mendoza line to being named arguably the best returning catcher in the country qualifies as atypical results. But to Candrea, maximizing the talent available from each student-athlete is the standard every day of the year.

 

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His message has reached many, and in addition to making The University of Arizona stand second-to-none in the collegiate softball world, his influence has gone far beyond that ?- and the critics have taken notice.

 

In 2004, Candrea’s efforts earned him the United States Olympic Committee’s most prestigious award: the Olympic Shield. With the citation, Candrea became the first coach in any sport so honored. In addition to the Olympic Shield, the USOC tabbed Candrea as its coach of the year.

 

Just last year, the nine-time Pac-10 Coach of the Year was named coach of the Women’s College World Series 25th Anniversary Team. In addition to the fact that he was the only coach cited, four of his former players made up 10 of the exclusive spots.

 

Candrea was honored in 1999 by The University of Arizona Alumni Association with an Honorary Alumnus Degree, a prestigious campus-wide honor bestowed annually by the association upon educators and faculty who help teach University of Arizona students.

 

He was inducted into the National Fastpitch Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 1996, and since then his teams have a record of 635-84.

On April 11, 2005, Candrea’s consistent success throughout the years earned him the distinction of being one of just five Division I softball coaches to win 1,000 games.

 

Arizona’s steady success should come as no surprise, considering the stellar student-athletes Candrea has attracted to UA, and the level he takes his players to once they arrive on campus. Since 1988, his Wildcats have accumulated five Honda Softball Award honors and a total of 75 All-America citations for 33 different players.

 

He has produced five National Player of the Year winners ?- pitcher Susie Parra (1994), infielder Jenny Dalton (1996), pitcher Nancy Evans (1998) and pitcher Jennie Finch (2001 and 2002). He has been named Pac-10 Coach of the Year nine times among 17 league, region or national coaching honors. Of his All-Americans, freshmen, sophomores and juniors earned 49 of those honors.

 

Candrea averages a 54-11 record, more than three All-Americans, at least five NCAA Tournament victories and almost three College World Series Victories every season.

 

Since 1988, UA has won fewer than five postseason games just once, and has eclipsed the 50-win mark 14 times. In the four years the Wildcats have failed to capture 50 victories, UA has still won at least 44 games. Additionally, the Wildcats have yet to lose 20 games in any of the 20 seasons under Candrea’s watch. The fact Arizona has never lost a score of games is particularly notable, as it compares to some of the giants in collegiate softball. Every Pac-10 team, Arizona notwithstanding, and each of last year’s Women’s College World Series participants have lost 20 or more games as recently as 2003. Forget losing that many in the last four years ?- Candrea has never let it happen.

As one would imagine, Candrea is never one to back down from a challenge. On a daily basis he challenges his players, and when it comes to drawing up the schedule of opponents his philosophy is no different. In 2006, for example, UA went 31-11 against teams ranked 18th or better at the time of the game, and had played over a dozen contests with future WCWS during the regular season. The year before, UA entered the postseason with a 30-12 record against teams competing in the NCAA Tournament.

 

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His teams’ victory total of 67 in 1998, plus 66 wins in 1995, 65 victories in 2001, 64 victories in 1994 and 61 in 1997 are among the top 10 in the NCAA record books. Including a five-season stint as a junior college coach at Central Arizona, Candrea has a career record of 1,256-282. That computes to victory a phenomenal 82 percent of the time.

 

That proficiency started at Arizona with the hiring of Candrea prior to the 1986 season, the school’s first season in the Pac-10 Conference. UA finished 27-13-1 that first year, his “worst” record to date. The following year, 1987, the Cats were 42-18 and qualified for their first of 20 consecutive NCAA postseason appearances.

 

Those early years marked the upswing in Candrea’s recruiting skill at the Division I level and, by 1988, the team turned in a 54-18 record and made it to the College World Series for the first time and recorded two WCWS victories. That year, pitcher Teresa Cherry became Candrea’s first UA All-American.

 

The ensuing years provided more of the same ?- UA finished 48-19 in 1989 and 49-17 in 1990, placed third and second, respectively, in the tough Pac-10, but still came up short in WCWS play.

 

The bigger picture jelled in 1991 when things looked somewhat bleak as the Cats finished 11-9 and fourth in conference play ?- tied for his worst such record. Once in the postseason, a gutty and defensive-oriented UA swept Arizona State in NCAA Regional play in Tempe; then played five games pivotal to the history of Arizona softball, at Oklahoma City in the College World Series. Candrea and the Cats earned their first national championship, beating UCLA 5-1 in the title game.

 

The program was off and running, and Tucson became a destination for many of the best young players in the game, finishing the decade of the 1990s with 523 victories against 75 losses. Other national championships followed ?- 1993, 1994, 1996, 1997, 2001 and 2006. Following each of the titles in 1994, 1996 and 1997, Candrea was named National Fastpitch Coaches Association Division I National Coach of the Year.

 

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Candrea knows you don’t win games without players. A succession of top-level players ?- sluggers, hitters, dominant pitchers, Olympians ?- has kept Arizona at the top. For 17 consecutive years, at least two of Candrea’s players earned All America honors in voting by the coaches association. Four times it was six players ?- the only times that many players from one team have been picked. In 1994, 1995 and 1998, the six selections were all first-team All Americans. In 1997, all five Arizona honorees were first-team players, as were the four selected in 2004.

 

In a time that academics all too often find themselves a distant second to athletics, Candrea has stressed hitting the books as well ?- with Autumn Champion (2006, second team), Leah O’Brien (first team in 1994, 1995 and 1997), Jenny Dalton (first team in 1996, second team in 1995) and Nancy Evans (1998) earning Academic All-America honors.

 

Candrea is sought out by softball and baseball coaches around the country and has delivered instructional clinics throughout the nation. He is particularly known for hitting techniques, team fielding drills and squad motivational preparation. In recent years, he has consulted with major league baseball stars and other learned technicians to conduct national hitting clinics. He also participates in dozens of such sessions to help improve the way softball is taught and played. He has written several books and produced a number of videotapes on various softball subjects, and has designed specific practice aids and equipment that are widely used at various levels of play.

 

Still, just watching him work with a hitter, some balls and a batting tee show the true value of his coaching: he loves to teach. He enjoys the work, is able to communicate and uses an encouraging but firm style. His pre-game infield drill is an example. It’s a smooth, fast-paced warm up that’s done exactly the same each time.

 

Candrea’s style of play, public comportment and consistent winning puts Wildcat fans in the stands at Rita Hillenbrand Memorial Stadium. Last year the Wildcats drew an average of 1,292 fans per game and had a season-high 2,388 spectators at Arizona’s super regional-clinching victory over LSU. Arizona is among national leaders in home attendance (and led by averaging 1,755 in 2002, 1,661 per game in 2001, 1,486 per game in 1995, 1,330 in 2000 and 1,316 per game in 1994). Most other years, Arizona checks in at No. 2 in per-game attendance.

 

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Candrea began his softball coaching career at Central Arizona College from 1981-85. His team won consecutive NCAA World Series in his final two seasons, earning him national coach the year honors each time. Prior to coaching softball, he was an assistant baseball coach at Central from 1976-80.

 

A baseball player at Central, Candrea’s playing career was cut short by an elbow injury. He earned an associate’s degree at Central in 1975, a bachelor’s degree at Arizona State in 1978 and a master’s degree from ASU in 1980.

 

Candrea was married to the former Sue Ellen Hudson for 28 years until her tragic death in July 2004, just 10 days prior to the Olympic Games.

Candrea has two children ?- son Mikel, 27, and daughter Michelle, 24. Mikel, a 2004 Arizona graduate, had worked with the baseball team and strength and conditioning programs prior to his graduation. He is currently working as an assistant softball coach at Pacific. Michelle celebrated the birth of her son, Jaylen Mikel on Oct. 27, 2005. Jaylen is Candrea’s first grandchild.

 

Just before celebrating the New Year, Candrea opened a new chapter of his life. He wed the former Tina Tilton on Dec. 30 at The Westin La Paloma Resort and Spa in Tucson, Ariz.

 

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