The Communicator Keeps Drivin'

After the worst year of his life, Mike Candrea looks forward to a new UA softball season

When the Arizona Wildcats take to the softball field at Hillenbrand Stadium tomorrow (Friday, Feb. 5) to kick off the 2005 season, it will be with a subdued sense of urgency and a readiness to be choked up when the inevitable wave of emotion hits.

The stadium will be packed, as always, despite the odd 4 p.m. starting time. And while there was an exhibition contest last weekend, tomorrow's games (against Tulsa at 4 p.m. and Kansas at 6 p.m.) in the Arizona Pepsi Classic will mark the official start of the new season--the first season back for coach Mike Candrea after leading the U.S. Olympic team to the gold medal in Athens; the first season after his powerhouse Cats, in his absence, shockingly lost two straight games on their home diamond and failed to reach the Women's College World Series for the first time in 17 years; and, by far the most important, the first season for Candrea without his beloved wife, Sue.

For a life built around numbers, there is but the one. Not the one season in nearly two decades that the Cats did not end up in Oklahoma City on Memorial Day weekend, playing for another national crown. Not the one run that his juggernaut Olympic team gave up late in the championship game in Athens, the only run surrendered (against 51 scored) in a tour de force performance perhaps unmatched in the history of athletics.

Rather, it is the one who is no longer by his side.

The year 2004 was supposed to be a milestone year for Mike Candrea. His UA softball team was on autopilot. With dominant pitcher Alicia Hollowell on the mound and his able assistant coaches, Larry Ray and Nancy Evans, running things, the Cats weren't just penciled in for another trip to Oklahoma City; they were chiseled in stone. And after the uproar following the NCAA's snit-fit placement of the Cats in regional tournaments far, far away in previous years, Arizona was going to play at home in front of thousands of adoring fans and against competition that simply couldn't stack up to the week-in, week-out stud battles that take place in the Pac-10.

While his Cats were to be rolling toward another shot at a national title (Arizona has won six national championships in the past 16 years and has finished second four other times), Candrea would be putting the finishing touches on an Olympic softball team that would all but redefine the term "greatness."

And perhaps best of all for him, his wife, Sue--his companion and sounding board, his friend and mother of his two children--would be along for the ride. Having recently retired from her job as an accountant, she was going to accompany him and the team as they toured the United States in a seemingly endless series of exhibition games against eager, willing and hopelessly over-matched college teams and then go off to Greece for the Olympic Games.

Yes, 2004 was to be his year, and the obsessively meticulous Candrea had planned for every eventuality, down to the minute. But then Reality intervened with a twist so vile, so unexpected, so utterly wrong that nothing would ever be completely right again.

He and the other members of the USA Softball committee had assembled an all-star squad of athletes that, quite frankly, probably could have won an Olympic medal without any coaching, and had they been able to send split squads, a la spring training, they might have been able to win a couple.

But ever the perfectionist, Candrea wasn't about to stand pat. He had all the parts he needed, but decided to inject some lightning into the collection. He had the squad undergo military conditioning training in Southern California and then put them through a grueling training regimen that involved physiologists, biomechanics, psychiatrists and nutritionists before embarking on the nationwide Just Try to Score a Run on Us Tour. And the monster he created wasn't a lumbering beast, but an unprecedented amalgam of speed, power and determination that had opponents celebrating scratch singles and observers nodding in knowing acknowledgement that this was to be a precision exercise in excellence not often seen in the arena of sports.

The first crack in the Master Plan hit in mid-May, when word reached Candrea that his Arizona team's season had ended short of the College World Series. But this was just a "Huh?" moment, a curiosity that validated the unique nature of sports, a puzzling exception to the long-standing rule.

He has complete faith in his assistant coaches, and when asked about rumors that he was upset that the team lost, he answered dismissively, "That's why I don't read the newspapers."

But then came July. The team was winding up its tour, undefeated as expected, and was looking forward to finally getting to Athens where they could take care of their bidness. They were in Stevens Point, Wis., an outpost that's at least in the vicinity of being as desolate as it sounds.

Sue Candrea suffered a brain aneurism, a bolt from out of nowhere that had put her first into the hospital, then into emergency surgery and then into her grave, decades too soon.

"Sue had retired so that we could go to the Olympics together," says Candrea. "It's not fair, but few things in life are."

Candrea had attended his wife's funeral and then headed for Athens, rightly convinced that his wife wouldn't have had it any other way.

His team put on a masterful performance, putting away one opponent after another--Japan, Australia, China--in a tournament that would have been a hellacious contest were it not for the unbeatable America Monster in their midst. Where the 2000 U.S. team had lost a couple games in round-robin play before righting the ship and winning the gold in something of an upset, this unit was awesome in its approach and frightening in its execution.

Candrea's team won the gold medal (as per Olympic rules, he doesn't get one) and, in the process, probably drove the final nail in the coffin of Olympic softball. There is a strong move afoot in the international community to do away with softball as an Olympic sport, mostly because the United States dominates. The "official" reason given is that there are too many Olympic sports, and some judicious pruning has to be done. Lord knows we can't touch ballroom dancing or yachting, but we sure as hell can stick a knife in a growing team sport that's played by strong, graceful athletes in a beautiful outdoor setting.

Although it hasn't been officially announced, Candrea will almost certainly coach the 2008 Olympic team in Beijing, China, after which the sport will be retired and probably replaced with Armenian cat juggling or something.

All of this is nothing compared to the loss Candrea has suffered. The year that was to be the best year of them all instead turned out to be the year in which a hole appeared in his heart, and the best he can hope for from here on out is that it will calcify somewhat and allow him to reach a state of grief equilibrium in which he can do more than function--one in which he can live.

He knows that he still loves coaching and the day-to-day interaction with his ball players. He has thrown himself back into his work, but not any more so than before. "I've always worked hard and that's no different. I'm just going to have to see what it feels like."

And he looks forward to this season, which he says will be "challenging. We have a lot of young people who will need to learn and improve steadily if we're going to get back to where we want to be, to where we expect to be. There are definitely going to be some highs and lows with this team, but that's often where the real fun comes in."

Mention Candrea to any of his players, past or present, and almost to a person they use the term "communicator." Jennie Finch, the powerhouse pitcher who (ahem) broadened the audience for women's softball with her California surfer-girl looks and her un-hittable fastball, says, "He's such an incredible communicator. He has a way of putting things in such a way that it's perfectly understandable, and he also has a way of knowing how to talk to different people differently, in just the right way, to get the best out of that individual. It's really amazing."

Finch says that she's heard him explain basically the same situation to two different people, using a different approach and different terminology, yet eliciting the same optimum response.

When Laura Espinoza was playing for him and setting national hitting and home run records in the mid-1990s, she initially thought that her time at Arizona would be spent butting heads with her extremely focused coach. But then, "I realized that he wanted me to be the best. I came to enjoy our (exchanges), because I knew he believed in what he was saying and that he wanted to win as badly as I did. You know how it is when somebody is so dedicated and convincing that he can help you change your mind about something? That's actually a good feeling."

Assistant coach Nancy Evans, who was National Player of the Year in 2000, admires Candrea's honesty and integrity. "He's really amazing. And he's competitive in his own way. He loves to compete, but he puts competition in its proper context."

What's odd is that the man who is arguably the greatest coach in the history of the UA doesn't exactly match the vision the average fan might have for someone in that position. Men's basketball coach Lute Olson is right out of central casting. Football coach Mike Stoops looks like he could wrestle a buffalo to the ground and then yell at it for having used crappy technique. Mike Candrea looks like, well ... he looks like a real-life version of The Simpsons' neighbor, Ned Flanders.

Emily Takeuchi-Miller was an eighth-grader at Hendricks Middle School in the Flowing Wells District when she met Candrea. "I always expected him to be the incredible, dynamic giant of a man. But he was so normal. It's really cool, because that means that his greatness comes from within."

He's lost weight and is down to a svelte 175 for the upcoming campaign. He's fresh off a mega-successful softball camp over the holidays and is ready to get going. He's had teams in the past that were as close to a sure thing as is possible in a sport where the average margin of victory is one or two runs and one involving young women in their late teens or early 20s. This, he reiterates, will not be such a team. "They're not as talented as some, but they're going to be fun."

How does he explain his success? Is he, as idealists would like it, merely coaching a sport, or is he, as realists assert, coaching women?

"Both," he says. "Obviously, I'm teaching the strategy and finer points of the sport, but anyone who says that coaching men and women is the exact same thing is just wrong. There are differences between men and women that must be recognized and embraced.

"Women definitely want to win just as badly as men, and they value teamwork and individual play as much as (their male counterparts). I think the main difference is that men have to play well to feel good about themselves, whereas women have to feel good about themselves in order to play well."

Over the years, he has obviously communicated with his players well enough to have them win nearly 1,000 games. His 982-191 record is among the best in the history of college athletics. Over the years, he has had numerous all-Americans and a wild assortment of characters.

Who's the funniest player he's ever had?

"Wow, that's a tough one. We've definitely had several oddballs. Funny kids are great for a team as long as they know when to be serious."

How about the strangest?

"No comment," he smiles.

The toughest?

"Leah Bratz," he says without hesitation. "We've had an awful lot of tough kids, but she was without a doubt the toughest."

And which batter made you most nervous to be standing in that third-base coach's box?

"Wow--Jenny Dalton, Laura Espinoza. A lot of them. But that's a good problem for a coach to have."

Since returning from Greece, he has maintained a routine of "normalcy" that would prove maddening to anyone whose brain was wired differently than his. He still lives in his beloved Casa Grande, the inflated truck stop about halfway between here and Phoenix. He grew up there and attended Casa Grande High School (the directions to which are, "Take Interstate 10 to McCartney Road, then turn left and go to Middle of Freakin' Nowhere, West") and then Central Arizona College ("Take I-10 to McCartney Road and go right to Middle of Freakin' Nowhere, East"). He met Sue at CAC, and after they were married, they stayed in Casa Grande.

Sue got a job, and even after Mike got the job at the UA, they decided to stay where they were, to raise their kids in the smaller town and to have Mike institute and then follow one of the most bizarre routines ever done by somebody who doesn't wear aluminum-foil hats. Every day, Mike Candrea climbed in the car and drove the hour or so into Tucson for work. And he did so in complete silence. No mind-numbing talk radio, no oldies, no Top 40, not even the jazz he loves.

"It was my quiet time," he would say, "the time I ... gather my thoughts and prepare for the day ahead."

People would hear this and nod, according the genius his off-center due, but inside wondering how long it would take before they--in a similar position--would start naming all of the cactuses and communicating with Zoltar the Magnificent.

Candrea has decided to stay in Casa Grande for reasons we could not begin to fathom nor which we would ever deign to question. His son, Mikel, 24, lives in the house with him, and they're getting by, day by day.

"The kids have helped me through this," he says. "Both my children and my players."

He says that he feels Sue's presence in the house, at the stadium and in other familiar places. "I guess it's always going to be that way. At least I hope so."

Maybe tomorrow will make things a little better. Maybe the grueling 60-some game season will help him put the distance of time between the now and the terrible then. Maybe the two games tomorrow and the two on Saturday and the one on Sunday will help a little. And maybe the long drives to and from Casa Grande will help him find the answers to the big Why.

A long season lies ahead and, blessedly, 2004 is fading into the past.