The University of Arizona has seen “legendary” coaches with historic resumes come through the athletic program in the last 30 years. Dick Tomey, Lute Olson and Jerry Kindall have forever cemented themselves into UA’s legacy.
But while many of these generational coaches have gone through the Arizona athletic program, one historic coach has stuck around the longest.
Mike Candrea is embarking on his 35th season as head coach of the UA softball team, and his accomplishments during his time have been nothing short of excellent.
For over three decades Candrea has inspired other coaches to live up to his greatness. One of those being women’s basketball head coach Adia Barnes.
“He’s one person that I look up to. I follow what he does,” Barnes said. “I would be crazy if I didn’t look down the hall and talk to someone like him. He’s one of the best coaches there is in the world.”
Barnes played basketball at UA from 1994-98 before becoming the head coach and said she’s been idolizing him ever since.
“He was here when I was a player. I have so much respect for him, and I just love being in the same building as him. If I can be just half of as great as he is, I’ll be happy.”
So, how does a coach become an all time great? Well if you ask Candrea, he’ll tell you it starts with creating a culture that players can buy into from the moment they arrive on campus. His solution was implementing a process he calls “Earning the A,” which he explained on Barnes’ podcast “Made For It”:
-“Back a few years ago, I decided, well, we give these kids so much stuff and maybe that’s part of the issue is that they expect it. So, I decided number one, I don’t think these kids really have bought into the tradition. In fact, the tradition at one time was scaring kids, which really frightened me. They were just, ‘We want to do our own thing. We don’t want to be matched up against Jennie Finch.’ It was kind of swallowing them up. And so I had to kind of go back and say, all right, how can we get them to understand really what the core principles are? And what are the things that we want? We talked about character. We talked about discipline. We talked about being a good teammate, but what does that really look like? And how do I get them to understand that that’s important. And so we put them all in blank uniforms, and they had to earn the A.”-
“Earning the A” has been a tradition within the softball team that is founded on the idea of obtaining respect from not only your coaches, but from your teammates as well.
The way to acquire the official UA equipment and uniforms is simple: Your teammates vote for you by telling coach Candrea that you are worthy of “earning the A.” Candrea then sends out a message to the rest of the team and puts it to a vote. The player must receive a 95% approval rating before they are given their uniform. Once they are considered, the process is finalized with a team-celebrated ceremony in the locker room.
Candrea said he also lives by another philosophy, getting one percent better every day.
“Most of the time I don’t even talk about the World Series. I just talk about getting one percent better every day,” Candrea said on the podcast. “Paying attention to detail. How you go about your craft. I want them to be professional and there’s a difference between playing for the New York Yankees and playing for someone else. I want to be the New York Yankees. I want to be the best.”
Barnes loved the idea so much that she has since adopted that philosophy and uses it with her players.
“It was really effective in the offseason and in our preseason, so I was happy I did it and I’ll be calling him up next year and getting more input,” Barnes said.
Candrea’s influence has also spread outside of the Arizona athletic program as Ken Ericksen, the head coach of Team USA’s softball team, has also idolized Candrea for a long time.
“The guy has meant a lot to me. The things that we’re still doing are coming out of his playbook and his philosophies,” Ericksen said. “It’s just a great relationship. I still talk to him, he knows I’ll be calling him probably a few times before now and Tokyo, so he’s just a great guy. He’s a life-skills coach more than he is a coach of the game.”
Eriksen and Candrea coached together on the USA team back in 2001-05 where the two won a gold medal in the 2004 Olympics.
Eriksen said that Candrea offered him a coaching job back in 1995, but he and his wife respectfully declined.
“My wife said: ‘It’s a nice beach, but no water out there in Tucson.’ It kind of worked out really well because if I had come out here and taken the job then, he and I probably wouldn’t have coached together on the national team,” Eriksen said.
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