From the day LSU introduced her as its new women’s basketball coach, Nikki Caldwell has been a girl about town.
She led her new team on a bike ride from the LSU Recreation Center to the State Capitol back in April and sat in with her players on a House of Representatives special session. She surprised a group of more than 50 principals in the East Baton Rouge Parish School System who had gathered for a retreat last month and spoke to them about the impact they make on prospective college students at the grassroots level.
She worked for tips July 7 at the Baton Rouge Advocacy Center’s annual “Celebrity Waiters” fundraiser.
Always promoting her new basketball program. Always reaching out.
Tuesday night, as LSU hosted the inaugural Lady Tiger Lagniappe meet-and-greet, Caldwell donned a white T-shirt and blue jeans at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center and invited the Baton Rouge community onto her turf.
A crowd of 1,163, by LSU’s count, took her up on the offer.
“She knows the value of a strong fan base,” LSU Senior Associate Athletic Director Herb Vincent said. “She’s really reached out to everybody to embrace the community, and hopefully the community returns the favor. I think that’s what you’re seeing. To see a crowd like this on July 19, in the middle of the summer. ... She has breathed life into the program and hasn’t even had her first practice yet.”
Tuesday’s event got many LSU fans their first up-close and personal look at Caldwell, a striking 39-year-old from the Pat Summitt coaching tree who earned her degree from Tennessee in public relations.
Caldwell, who led UCLA to national prominence from 2008-11 after serving as a Tennessee assistant for six years, has a background in broadcasting.
“She just passed me,” Morganza resident Debbie Gustin said as the LSU season-ticket holder waited for Tuesday’s event to begin. “She looks like one of the players.”
Gustin and her daughter, Julie, arrived at the PMAC a half-hour early to make sure they got the free LSU visors that went to the first 400 fans.
By the time Caldwell stepped before the crowd to talk about the season ahead, she could see the impact she’d made at LSU in the three short months since taking the job. Purple and gold decorated a large chunk of the lower bowl on one end of the arena.
“I hope all these people start coming to the games,” Gustin said. “I really do.”
Caldwell takes over a proud LSU program that reached five straight Women’s Final Fours earlier less than a decade ago but hasn’t been back to the Sweet 16 since 2008 and missed the NCAA tournament last season.
After leading UCLA to a 72-26 mark in three seasons, she inherited an LSU team that returns five seniors among 10 returning letter-winners.
She has a base salary that will pay her $700,000 in guaranteed money. She could make as much as $1 million by reaching a number of incentives predicated on her team’s success.
Is she worth it?
“I think it’s about time we paid our female coaches a decent salary,” season-ticket holder Ann Campbell said with a wry smile.
Campbell’s mother, Elizabeth Stevens, has been watching the Lady Tigers for years. She went to the Women’s Final Four three times when LSU was there.
In November, the Lady Tigers surprised her at her 90th birthday party and presented Stevens an autographed jersey with her name on the back. Stevens wore the jersey, and a pair of LSU earrings, Tuesday night.
“I’m ready for her to teach my girls how to play,” she said. “I want them to be stars.”
Caldwell said it’s a team affair.
She spent Tuesday morning speaking at the Louisiana High Coaches Association’s Coaches Clinic at the Crowne Plaza hotel. She said when she finished, she invited the coaches to come see her at practice this season to speak more extensively about her philosophies.
“I was able to meet a lot of great coaches in the Louisiana area,” she said.
She’s met her share of people in three months. She plans to keep it up.
“I think it’s important for me and my staff and our team to go to their turf and be a representative and supporter of them whenever we can because we obviously want them to come back and support us,” Caldwell said.