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New Lady Vols coach Caldwell vows to get historic program back on top

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Kim Caldwell and the Tennessee Lady Vols are taking a very big leap together with the young coach tasked with turning the historic program back into title contenders.

Quickly too.

Caldwell, who has coached only one of her eight seasons as a Division I head coach, will be working in the shadow cast by the late Pat Summitt and her eight national championship banners hanging in the rafters. Caldwell addressed how Summitt changed women's basketball when introduced Tuesday.

“I will never be Pat Summitt,” Caldwell said. "Nobody can, but I will strive every day to be somebody that she would be proud of.”

Tennessee announced the hiring of the fourth Lady Vols coach in 50 years Sunday just before the women's national championship game. Athletic director Danny White said Caldwell stood out in her interview during the weeklong search.

“We have a very competitive new coach and someone who wasn’t afraid of the challenge to restore this legendary program to where we all want it to be,” White said.

Caldwell will need to be more than confident. She's making the jump from the Sun Belt Conference to the Southeastern Conference — home to the past three national champs.

She also is the Lady Vols' first coach not from Tennessee since Summitt took over in 1974 at the age of 22. Summitt went 1,098-208 in her vaunted career with her Lady Vols also finishing as the national runner-up five times.

Caldwell replaces Kellie Harper, who won three titles playing for Summitt in the 1990s only to be fired April 1 after going 108-52 in five seasons. Her predecessor, another Lady Vols former player in Holly Warlick, took Tennessee to three Elite Eights — a place Tennessee last reached in 2016.

Tennessee's last Final Four was in 2008 when the Lady Vols won their eighth and last national title under Summitt, who retired in 2012 after being diagnosed with early onset dementia, Alzheimer's type.

The SEC that Tennessee used to dominate put eight teams in the NCAA Tournament, and the Lady Vols finished just outside the final AP Top 25 released Monday. The SEC only gets tougher next season with No. 7 Texas and No. 21 Oklahoma joining the league in July.

White said Caldwell will build a program that competes with the “extremely formidable opponents” in the SEC and “get back to competing for national championships.”

Her five-year contract paying $750,000 a season makes very clear what is expected. Caldwell winning a national championship will result in an almost immediate pay hike at least matching the Division I's highest-paid women's coach.

Caldwell won the 2024 Maggie Dixon NCAA Division I Rookie Coach of the Year award for going 26-7 at Marshall, earning the program’s second NCAA Tournament berth ever and first since 1997. She is 217-31 in eight seasons as a head coach with NCAA Tournament berths in each season.

She led her alma mater Glenville State to the 2022 Division II national title. Caldwell won the Pat Summitt Trophy for the 2021-22 season as the WBCA’s NCAA Division II coach of the year. She runs an up-tempo style she'll need to keep Tennessee as the only program never to miss an NCAA Tournament.

At Marshall, the Herd led the nation in 3-pointers attempted and third in 3s made per game, making 10.6 per game under Caldwell. The Herd also ranked fourth nationally in averaging 85.3 points a game. On defense, they were second nationally in forcing 24.2 turnovers per game.

White compared her style on the court to football coach Josh Heupel whose Vols routinely run one of the nation's fastest and highest-scoring offenses in the country.

“If you like what you’re seeing in Neyland Stadium in terms of the amount of points we score, I think you’re going to like what you see on the basketball floor," White said.

Caldwell said she will draw on her experience a year ago at Marshall taking over a program to help her hit the ground quickly.

“We want to make people proud," Caldwell said. "We want to really make sure that we get back on top.”

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