In its “Best of Tucson 2003” issue, the Tucson Weekly had no difficulty picking Mike Candrea as the Best Coach. In fact, wrote the Weekly, “Best coach in Tucson? Next year, he’ll be acclaimed as the best softball coach in the world.” The publication mirrors part of the community’s view in terms of its choices for best in local culture, politics and cuisine. Half the town might answer ‘Lute Olson,’ in such a poll, but his softball colleague is not an unwise selection.
In 2004 Candrea embarks on a global journey as head coach of the USA Softball team that will compete in the Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece. His Arizona team will again contend for all the marbles in the college game, while Candrea spends most of his time helping America’s best players compete for the gold against the world’s best. The team from the United States already boasts the gold from the two previous Olympics at which the sport was featured – the 1996 Atlanta Games and the 2000 Sydney Games in Australia.
Candrea, 48, will keep some of his attention on his University of Arizona team, but will be severely preoccupied with the prestigious role for USA Softball. Nonetheless, the assignment in Greece is an extension of his career at Arizona, as it reflects his national and world-wide reputation as one of the best in the game.
His reputation has come as no accident. Hard work, attention to detail, cutting-edge training techniques and the simple fact of winning have been hallmarks of Candrea’s ascent in the college softball world since he first entered the profession at UA in 1986. His formula is relatively simple: recruit good student-athletes, aspire for the top of the heap, work like a champion, then go out and put it all together on the field – enough times to win nearly 1,000 games at one school in one 17-year stretch.
Candrea’s teams are prepared, confident and talented. Enough so since a humble beginning that first year that they’ve posted six NCAA Championships at the Women’s College World Series, plus seven titles in the best league in the nation, the Pacific-10 Conference. Along the way, scores of individual honors have accumulated – and many in Candrea’s direction. He’s proud of those achievements, but lessens them against the value of the team accomplishments – another trait of a true champion. Hence, his 2003 Pac-10 Coach of the Year honor was accepted with humility, but not an emphasis on the man’s resume.
What 2004 will be like for Mike Candrea and Arizona, while assistants Larry Ray and Nancy Evans take over the bulk of chores in Tucson, remains to be seen. As expected, the head coach knew it would be tough to be away from Hillenbrand Stadium for long periods. As expected, he’ll be surrounded by the top players in the game during another quest for a title. This time, though, it will be a world quest.
He would have won his 1,000th game sometime in March, based on his previous successes. That hallmark will be pushed to the future. He’s stockpiled enough to succeed in his absence. Last year was a bust in Arizona softball terms; a 56-7 season just wasn’t good enough. He’ll be back to try again, shortly, after taking his skills to the world’s stage.
Candrea can recruit -- he’s attracted players who earned a nation-best 43 first-team All-America honors. He knows how to coach — he’s been named Pac-10 Coach of the Year eight times since the league began softball play 17 years ago. He knows how to win — with six NCAA Women’s College World Series titles and seven Pacific-10 Conference championships to his credit.
The Olympic head coach duty only adds more to an already bulging resume. In May 2002, USA Softball selected Candrea, testimony to his ability to teach – in this instance America’s best women softball players for games at the Olympics’ birthplace.
In 18 years as Arizona’s coach, Candrea has established a record of 982-191 and has a .838 winning percentage. The Olympic duty will delay his ascension to the 1,000-victory plateau.
In those 18 years, he’s taken 17 consecutive teams to the NCAA tournament and the last 16 to the Women’s College World Series. Candrea has a winning percentage of .600 — in national championship games. Arizona has played in 10 of those, and won six.
In 2003 he took a young team and did it again, posting a sparkling 56-7 record and reaching the WCWS. It was yet another 50-plus year. To him, it wasn’t good enough, because it didn’t garner an NCAA title game nor the championship itself. That’s the goal.
He has produced five Honda Award winners and been named Pac-10 Coach of the Year seven times among 17 league, region or national coaching honors in his 18 years. He has coached players to 64 All-America honors, 41 of those earned by freshmen, sophomores or juniors.
Here are a couple of yearly averages for Candrea: a record of 54-11; producing 3.4 All-Americans; winning five NCAA games; winning 2.5 College World Series games... the gist is that his abilities put a good team on the field and get it to play outstanding softball, then the postseason comes around and the team continues to perform.
Few teams ever have the opportunity to play for the big prize in college softball — only seven different teams since UA’s first title game in 1991 have played for the College World Series title. It’s UA’s style under Candrea to prepare to be in contention by playing good teams. A year ago, UA was 22-6 against ranked teams.
Exit interviews of student-athletes who have played for Candrea typically reveal that Wildcat players believe in the same principles as their coach, and they know that to work toward his standard of excellence is to improve, help one’s team and achieve unity with a single goal in mind- the national championship.
Still, one of Candrea’s trademarks is that winning, coaching and teaching softball are things to be shared. He’s helped revolutionize the game in recent years by encouraging collegiate coaches to share tips and work together to improve their skill-teaching efforts.
Without question, the goal in mind for Candrea’s teams at Arizona always is the ultimate goal — win the national title. And, his teams are not pretenders to the throne. He’s led UA to six championships — 1991, 1993, 1994, 1996, 1997 and 2001.
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.
But no Division I softball coach currently coaching — or in history — has matched his career winning percentage. He was inducted into the National Fastpitch Coaches Association Hall of fame in 1996 and since then his teams have a record of 481-61 to keep up with his own reputation.
Candrea (Arizona State ’78) was selected as Pacific-10 Conference Coach of the Year in 2003, the eighth time he has been so honored in a league which each year includes outstanding performances by head coaches.
It’s obvious he can recruit quality players and induce them to play to their potential. To underscore that one, in his tenure, his players have earned 64 All-America playing honors, plus six Academic All-America honors. Motivator. Coach. Technician. Leader. Put his six NCAA and six Pac-10 championships against any coach’s mark in any sport, and he’s right up there as a Hall of Famer.
His teams’ victory total of 67 in 1998, plus 66 victories in 1995, 65 victories in 2001, 64 victories in 1994 and 61 in 1997 are among the top five in the NCAA record books.
Including a five-season stint as a junior college coach at Central Arizona, Candrea has a career record of 1167-259.
In 1994, 1996 and 1997 when his team won it all, Candrea was named Speedline/NFCA National Coach of the Year.
Such national proficiency started at Arizona with the hiring of Candrea prior to the 1986 season, the school’s first season in the Pacific-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 17 consecutive NCAA 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 Series victories. Pitcher Teresa Cherry became Candrea’s first UA All-American.
Afterward came more of the same in the ensuing two years — UA finished 48-19 in 1989 and 49-17 in 1990, placed third and second respectively in the tough Pac-10, and acquitted itself well but still came up short in CWS play.
The bigger picture jelled in 1991 when things looked somewhat bleak as the Cats finished 11-9 in conference play — tied for his worst such record — for fourth place. When push came to shove, though, 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. Certainly no team can claim more productivity, with six NCAA championships (1991, 1993, 1994, 1996, 1997 and 2001), seven league championships (1992, 1994, 1995, 1997, 1998, 2001, 2003) and a ’90s winning record of 523-75, a percentage of .875. Four times Candrea’s teams won more than 60 games in a season.
Candrea knows you don’t win games without players, so he gets the finest ones he can find, and coaches them to be the best. A succession of top-level players — sluggers, hitters, dominant pitchers, Olympians — has kept Arizona at the top.
For 14 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 all were first team All Americans. In 1997, all five Arizona honorees were first-team players. In 2001, the Cats had four first-team and one third-team selections. Last year three earned first-team honors and one earned second-team honors.
In 14 of the past 16 years, Arizona players have been named to the NCAA All College World Series team 48 times. That’s good players playing at their best in the most clutch of all times — playoffs.
He has stressed academics as well — with 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 first-team Academic All-America honors recently. Evans and the late Julie Reitan have joined the others in winning Academic All-Pac-10 accolades several times.
Pitcher Jennie Finch won the 2001 and 2002 Honda Softball Player of the Year award. Finch also received Pac-10 Pitcher of the Year honors in 2001 and 2002. Pitcher Evans won the 1998 Honda Softball Award as college Player of the Year. Outfielder Alison Johnsen won the league’s 1998 Player of the Year award for the second consecutive year. Formerly, Jenny Dalton in 1996, Laura Espinoza in 1995 and Susie Parra in 1994, won that league honor, and Parra and Dalton were Honda Award winners.
Former Wildcats Finch, Lovie Jung and Leah O’Brien-Amico were picked for the U.S. Olympic team in 2004 with a fourth, Nicole Giordano, selected as an alternate. O’Brien-Amico already has two Olympic gold medals.
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 participate 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 which are widely used at various levels of play.
His teams’ style of play, public comportment and the consistent winning puts Wildcat fans in the stands at Rita Hillenbrand Memorial Stadium. Last year the Wildcats drew in 49,140 spectators and had 25 crowds in excess of 1,000, including 10 games with over 2,000 fans. 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).
Candrea spent 1981 85 coaching Central Arizona College and 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 a Central assistant baseball coach from 1976 80.
He played baseball at Central, but his 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, and his wife, Sue, a corporate accountant, reside in the Casa Grande area 70 miles north of Tucson. They have two children son Mikel, 24, and daughter Michelle, 22. Mikel has helped UA as volunteer student assistant coach for the past two seasons. Candrea was born in New Orleans, La., on August 29, 1955. He is an avid golfer and major league baseball fan.
(One UA loss part of UCLA's vacated ‘94 participation)
Overall Record 926-184 Pac-10 Record 298-73 NCAA Games 95-26 NCAA Regionals 50-6 WCWS Games 45-20
Some Candrea Feats 1996 64-3 overall, best NCAA % 1997 30-0 home record 1998 31-0 road record 1998 67-4 overall, most NCAA wins 1997/98 45 game winning steak, NCAA best 2001 37-0 home record 2000-01 47-0 live home winning streak
Five Best Pac-10 Records 27-1 Arizona 1998 26-1 Arizona 1997 25-1 UCLA 1993 23-1 Arizona 1994 19-2 Arizona 2001
Winningest Teams Since 1990 Arizona 700-104 Florida State 628-205 Fresno State 624-180 UCLA 600-118 Illinois-Chicago 582-227
Division I NCAA Championships (Play began in 1982) UCLA 8 Arizona 6 Texas A&M 2 Oklahoma 1 Fresno State 1 Cal State Fullerton 1
20 Years of WCWS Title Games Oklahom 1-0 1.000 Arizona 6-4* .600 UCLA 8-6 .571 Texas A&M 2-2 .500 Fresno State 1-4 .200 Nebraska 0-1 .000 Cal State Fullerton 0-1 .000 Cal State Northridge 0-1 .000 Washington 0-2 .000