Mike Candrea enters his 28th season as the head coach of the University of Arizona softball team in 2013 and under his guidance reaching the pinnacle should once again underscore a record of success almost unparalleled by any program in any sport at any level.
Candrea is one of the most respected coaches in the nation, with the accomplishments to supplement: eight national titles in 22 seasons, 21 trips to the Women's College World Series in the last 23 seasons, 1,310 career victories, a mind-boggling career winning percentage of 82%, 50 All-Americans, four national players of the year and stewardship of Team USA to an Olympic gold medal, to name a few.
Candrea earned the 1,300th victory of his career in 2012 when Arizona defeated Utah 4-2 on April 11. Like many milestones before this, Candrea was the fastest coach in NCAA softball history to 1,300 wins. Only one other coach has eclipsed this mark, Margie Wright of Fresno State, who accomplished the feat in her 30th season, while Candrea did so in his 27th season of coaching.
The aforementioned gold medal came with his stint as the head coach of Team USA in 2004. His second Olympic squad took home the silver in 2008. Softball has since been erased from Olympic competition, but Candrea's work in the sport's final two Olympic years will not soon be forgotten. Under his tutelage in 2004, the team posted a perfect 9-0 record, outscoring its opponents 51-1 on its way to a gold medal in one of the most dominant team performances in Olympic history. In 2008, the team came just short of winning its fourth consecutive gold medal.
Since 1988, UA has won fewer than five postseason games just twice and has eclipsed the 50-win mark 17 times and won at least 38 games in the other years. No one talks about losing around Arizona softball, but even in lean times the Wildcats did not lose 20 games in any of the 27 seasons under Candrea's watch. Avoiding a "down" year has been a trademark of Candrea's program, and one not universally shared even among the game's elite.
Candrea is not 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. He builds schedules as tough as any in the country. A recent sampling shows years where Arizona won 30 games against NCAA Tournament-bound squads.
His teams' victory totals of 67 in 1998, 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 1440-351-2. That computes to a phenomenal winning percent of .804.
That proficiency started at Arizona with the hiring of Candrea prior to the 1986 season, the school's transition in Pacific West Conference play before the start of Pac-10 ball in 1987. UA finished 27-13-1 that first year, his "worst" record to date. The following season, the Cats were 42-18 and qualified for their first of 26-straight 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, made it to the Women's 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 finish. Once in the postseason, a gutty and defensive-oriented UA team swept Arizona State in NCAA Regional play in Tempe and went on to play 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, 2006 and 2007. Following each of the titles in 1994, 1996, 1997 and 2007, Candrea was named the National Fastpitch Coaches Association Division I Coach of the Year.
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 22-consecutive years, from 1990 to 2011, 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 time that many players from one team were chosen. 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.
Candrea has stressed academic success, as well, with K'Lee Arredondo (2010, first team), Autumn Champion (2006, second team), Leah O'Brien (first team, 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, and he 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 and his love of teaching. 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 the consistent winning puts Wildcat fans in the stands at Rita Hillenbrand Memorial Stadium. The Wildcats set the NCAA record for attendance in 2011, attracting 77,129 fans over 30 home dates. The Wildcat faithful have led the country in home attendance per game in five of the last seven years and have earned the distinction nine times since the stadium's opening in 1993.
Candrea began his softball coaching career at Central Arizona College (CAC) from 1981-85. His team won consecutive NJCAA 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. On January 18, 2009, Candrea was inducted into the inaugural CAC Hall of Fame Class.
Also a baseball player at CAC, Candrea's playing career was cut short by an elbow injury. He earned an associate's degree at CAC 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.
On Dec. 30, 2006, he wed the former Tina Tilton at The Westin La Paloma Resort and Spa in Tucson. Candrea has a son Mikel, 33, and daughter Michelle, 30, in addition to stepsons Ryan, 35 and Sean Tilton, 22. Mikel, a 2004 Arizona graduate, worked with the baseball team and strength and conditioning programs prior to his graduation. He is currently a private hitting instructor in Sacramento, California. Michelle celebrated the birth of her son, Jaylen Mikel, on Oct. 27, 2005. Jaylen is Candrea's first grandchild. Both Ryan and Sean are students at the University of Arizona, and Ryan works as a personal trainer.