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Lessons from a Legend: Mike Candrea

Coaches rarely get the opportunity to win a championship in their sport and lead their country to Olympic gold. University of Arizona softball coach Mike Candrea accomplished both.

In 31 seasons, his Wildcat teams have made 21 trips to the Women’s College World Series, winning eight national championships in a 24-year period. In 1994, Candrea served as an assistant to Team USA’s softball squad that captured the world title. As head coach from 2002 to 2008, he led the team to multiple gold medals at the world championships and Pan American Games, two World Cup titles, as well as one Olympic gold medal and one Olympic silver.

“I look at my job as a privilege, to be able to get up in the morning and do something you love to do and not call it work,” Candrea said. “I’ve been very fortunate to coach here at the University of Arizona for so many years and have an opportunity to win a national championship. But ultimately, being able to put on the USA uniform and represent your country is a whole different level.”

A die-hard Yankees fan and the son of a jazz musician, Candrea’s dreams of a major league career ended after suffering an elbow injury during his sophomore season at Central Arizona College. He earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree at Arizona State before returning to CAC as an assistant coach from 1976 to 1980.

It was there that he was approached by athletic director George Young, who asked for Candrea’s help in coaching the school’s women’s softball team. Title IX was still in its early stages. Reluctant at first, Candrea realized this would give him a chance to lead his own program.

He immediately fell in love with the game, and was pleasantly surprised at the passion demonstrated by female athletes. His results were impressive, winning back-to-back NJCAA championships in his final two seasons.

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“The big thing was, none of them had any habits,” Candrea recalled. “They hadn’t played the game long enough; therefore, they were very moldable.”

Candrea isn’t one to back down from adversity. One of his biggest challenges came off the field in July 2004, just 10 days before the Athens Olympics. His wife, Sue Ellen, died of complications from a brain aneurysm. Team USA swept through Olympic competition, winning all nine of its games and outscoring their opponents by a whopping 51-1 margin to capture gold.

One of the biggest lessons Candrea learned early in his college coaching career was parents are part of the recruiting package. The youth sports culture is a bit different than when he was growing up, but the same principle applies. Parents are more passionate and involved than ever. Once a coach has his or her roster in place, it’s important to not only meet with the players, but their parents, and explain what they can expect.

“Open communication is important from day one,” said Candrea, who recently wrote a blog post for USA Softball advising parents to let the coaches coach. “There are parents out there who are very positive, and there are others who are a bit more hostile because they walk around with blinders on. Therefore, they tend to see only what they want to see. Those are the tough ones.”

Another key to putting parents and players at ease is creating a family atmosphere among the kids, teaching the value of being a team leader first and a good player second. Winning doesn’t always come from having the best talent on the field, but many championships have been won through solid coaching and team leadership.

Ultimately, Candrea recommends coaches find ways parents can get involved, whether it’s helping run a drill or bringing pizza.

“The good programs I’ve seen are coaches who have a knack of being able to utilize these parents to get them to buy into and understand the process,” he explained.

From GameChanger and Stephen Kerr.

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