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Column: Kim Caldwell Might Actually be a ‘Home Run’ Hire for the Lady Vols

Photo via Marshall Athletics

Imagine for a moment that you’re a baseball player, and you’re up to the plate in the pivotal stages of a game. It’s not the bottom of the ninth just yet, but you’re beyond the seventh inning stretch, and your team is within striking distance of pulling out a hard-fought victory. Your team is down a couple runs, and you step to the plate with two runners on and two outs.

You’ve worked the count full, and the pitcher nods his head and gets into his windup to deliver the 3-2 pitch. You notice immediately that it’s a heater that’s slicing a little low and outside, but there’s going to be enough of it over the plate for you to get a lot of bat on it.

You kick your leg, torque your hips, and swing for the fences.

Did you strike out? Or did you blast a moon shot to give your team the lead late in the game?

That’s where Tennessee Athletic Director Danny White finds himself right now after making an extremely important hire for the Lady Vols basketball program. He’s mid-swing on a cutting heater late in a monumental game, but unlike an actual baseball game, we won’t know the result of that swing until a few more years.

White made the decision to move on from Lady Vol head coach Kellie Harper after five seasons at the helm last week. Those five seasons saw four NCAA Tournament appearances (her first season was cut short due to the COVID pandemic), a couple trips to the Sweet Sixteen, and 100-plus overall wins. Unfortunately for her, though, her tenure never saw the Lady Vols finish better than third in the SEC, nor did it include any SEC Tournament titles or a return to at least an Elite Eight in the NCAA Tournament.

For that, and the lack of results on the recruiting trail, White decided to move in a different direction for the program. And his choice to replace Harper is about as big of a swing on an unknown candidate as you can make for a program as storied as the Lady Vols.

Kim Caldwell of Marshall is Tennessee’s new women’s basketball head coach. She’s a proven winner as a head coach, that much is true, with a career winning percentage of 87.5% in eight seasons as a head coach. The vast majority of those wins have come at the Division II level, however, as her time at Marshall this past season was her one and only year with the Thundering Herd and thus far her lone season at the Division I level of college basketball.

Bringing in a young head coach with one year of Division I head coaching experience is a giant risk for any Power Five basketball program. But for a program with the prestige and history of the Lady Vols, it’s hard to imagine a bigger, more whiplash-inducing change than what Caldwell is about to experience.

So, is she up for the challenge?

The pressures of coaching at the Division I level after coaching D-II is one thing. Moving into the SEC from a smaller conference is another thing. Coming to coach at a program that boasts eight national titles, a list of All-Americans longer than a CVS receipt, and arguably the Founding Mother of women’s college basketball who directed the ship for nearly four decades adds so much more pressure than is possibly imaginable, unless you’ve been in that position yourself. Thus far, only two others have been in that seat that Caldwell now holds in the post-Pat Summitt era, and neither of them (Holly Warlick and Kellie Harper) were able to produce results worthy enough of the Lady Vol brand.

What made Danny White believe Caldwell can succeed where her predecessors failed?

In short, Caldwell fits White’s billing when it comes to the types of hires he typically makes for his major programs. While at Buffalo as AD, he made some off-the-wall hires in basketball, starting with bringing in Bobby Hurley — who had never been a head coach — as the head coach of the men’s basketball program. That worked out well enough for him that he turned his two years at Buffalo into a job offer from Arizona State. White decided to replace Hurley with his assistant coach, one Nate Oats — who you might’ve heard of. Oats came from Romulus High School before joining Hurley as an assistant, and White trusted him enough to be head coach despite a very clear lack of experience at the D-I level.

That worked out even better, as Oats led the Bulls to multiple MAC championships, three NCAA Tournament appearances, and a couple NCAA Tournament wins. Oats turned that success into a job offer from Alabama, where he just took the Tide to their first-ever Final Four appearance.

On the women’s side, White hired Felisha Legette-Jack, but she had coached at Hofstra for four years and Indiana for six before coming to Buffalo. Despite failing pretty hard at Indiana, she came in and turned things around for the Buffalo women’s program in just a handful of seasons, going 12-20 in her first year but then taking the team to three NCAA Tournament appearances in four years from 2016-19. She’s now leading the Syracuse women’s program, and she’s helped dig them out of a hole they had fallen in for a few years.

At UCF, White hired basketball coaches for both the men’s and women’s programs with plenty of Division I experience prior to their time with the Golden Knights, but both Johnny Dawkins Jr. and Katie Abrahamson-Henderson turned around struggling programs and returned them to the NCAA Tournament.

At Tennessee, White hasn’t made many hires yet, but his most important one to date is working out so far. He brought Josh Heupel along with him from UCF to lead Tennessee’s football program despite Heupel only having three years of head coaching experience prior to that. Heupel also boasted a high octane offense and chose defensive coordinators who focused on creating havoc and turnovers to help mitigate the extra possessions opposing offenses would get.

In that respect, Kim Caldwell and Heupel have a lot in common. Her “up and coming” nature as a head coach and inexperience at the D-I level fit the same track records of Heupel, Hurley, and Oats as well.

Still, even all those don’t exactly feel like comparing oranges to oranges.

Caldwell is a young and passionate head coach who likes to lead fast-paced offenses and a pressing defense that causes a lot of turnovers. That type of play is going to be a lot of fun to watch on the court, and it will undoubtedly attract some prospects and players in the transfer portal.

More From RTI: See The Contract Details For Kim Caldwell’s Tennessee Contract

The question is, how many of those elite recruits and transfers can Caldwell and her soon-to-be staff end up landing?

Caldwell has had exactly one year of recruiting experience at the D-I level, and it wasn’t noteworthy at the high school level. The Herd haven’t signed a single 2024 recruit, which unfortunately is a familiar feeling for the Lady Vols after Harper failed to sign a high school prospect in the 2023 cycle. Caldwell did bring in several transfers who played a big role for her 2023-24 Marshall squad, most notably Breanna Campbell from Glenville State (Caldwell’s former school) and Aislynn Hayes from Mississippi State.

Still, we’ve just seen a coach struggle with high school recruiting but have success in the transfer portal. And that didn’t exactly work out long-term.

A program like the Lady Vols should be able to recruit itself to a certain extent, but that line of thinking can be dangerous and lead to some complacency. The brand along wasn’t strong enough for the previous staff to overcome more enticing offers and better situations at other schools over the last several years, and that lack of recruiting success is part of the reason Caldwell is now in charge of the program.

Will she be able to bring in the elite talent — some “racehorses,” as someone once said — the Lady Vols need in order to compete with the best of the best in the women’s game? Time ultimately will tell, but we’ll found out in a hurry if things go south in that regard.

One major difference between Caldwell and her predecessor at UT, though, is that Caldwell has been a big-time winner everywhere she’s coached. And that kind of winning pedigree definitely plays well in recruiting.

You can discount Caldwell’s success at the D-II level if you want, because D-II success is very hard to replicate at a Power Five program. But Caldwell’s winning ways at her alma mater, Glenville State, were highly impressive and unprecedented for that program. She took a program that had been a somewhat consistent face in the D-II NCAA Tournament and turned them into a powerhouse, winning the MEC regular season or tournament title in six of her seven years there, winning the school’s first-ever D-II national championship in 2022, and taking them back to the Final Four of the D-II NCAA Tournament the following year.

In her seven years at Glenville State, Caldwell’s teams averaged over 91 points per game every single season she was at the helm. She amassed a 191-24 record in seven seasons leading the Pioneers, including a 132-12 mark in conference play.

At Marshall, she took largely the same roster (with the exceptions of the two aforementioned transfers) that went 17-14 in 2022-23 to a 26-7 record in her lone year as head coach and a 17-1 mark in Sun Belt play. She led the Herd to their first NCAA Tournament appearance in over 25 years. Their last appearance came back in 1997, when Caldwell herself wasn’t even a teenager yet. This year’s Marshall squad averaged 85.3 points per game after averaging just 63.7 the year before, again, all while having a pretty similar roster makeup to the prior season.

Among those 26 wins at Marshall were victories against Chattanooga, an NCAA Tournament team, and the Florida Gators. The Herd ultimately got blown out by Virginia Tech in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, but for a program with exactly one NCAA Tournament appearance prior to 2024 and zero NCAA Tournament wins, that wasn’t necessarily a surprise.

Caldwell will most certainly bring a major change of pace to the way the Lady Vols have been playing basketball over the last decade-plus. According to HerHoopStats, Tennessee’s fastest pace-of-play over the last 15 years was when they averaged 75.1 possessions a game in 2017-18, which also saw UT put up their most points per game in the last seven years (77.6).

In her lone season as head coach at Marshall, Caldwell’s team ran a blistering pace of 80.3 possessions a game, which was tied for the fastest tempo in women’s college basketball this season. Her Herd squad also shot the most three-pointers per game in Division I, putting up nearly 32 threes per game and making just over 33% of them. They also grabbed a ton of offensive boards, averaging 16 a game with an offensive rebound rate of 36.6% (29th in the country).

For comparison, the Lady Vols tempo this season ranked 48th in the country with 74.2 possessions a game, and they shot 21.1 threes per game, making just 32.1% of them.

On the defensive side, Caldwell’s team forced an eye-popping 23.4 turnovers a game, the third-most in women’s basketball this season. Their steal rate of 13.3% was 9th-best in the country, and they also averaged the third-most steals per game with 12.4.

The Lady Vols best steal rate over the last 15 years was 11% back in 2014-15. They had a steal rate of just 5.5% this past season, which was in the bottom 10 in the entire country.

Will all these stats and schemes translate to the SEC? Will Caldwell be able to replicate the winning ways she’s been able to produce at Glenville State and Marshall, two programs not exactly known for their history of winning titles, at a program with eight national titles, 18 SEC regular season championships, and 17 conference tournament crowns?

I don’t know.

There are a lot of factors in play here that are giving me hope, though. And maybe I’m wearing some orange-colored glasses while writing this, or maybe some of my sheep’s wool is covering my eyes while I look at my laptop screen. But I’m starting to believe more and more that Danny White’s talent is identifying rising stars and scooping them up before the competition can. And I’m starting to believe more and more that if you can win at a very high level consistently at any collegiate level of a sport, at least some of that is able to transfer as you continue to move up.

Danny White is mid-swing with a full count, two outs, two runners on base, and his team down two runs late in a ball game. And from my angle, it looks like his bat might be about to make contact with that ball.

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