LSU coach Nikki Caldwell enjoys new role
Nikki Caldwell, already known throughout women's basketball circles for her impeccable sense of style, is wearing a new hat.
"I was already a coach, a mentor and a teacher, and now I can add parent," Caldwell said, resting at her home in Baton Rouge as her new daughter, Justice, goes down for an afternoon nap. "I think it's going to make me a better coach to my players."
Caldwell, the LSU coach who led the Lady Tigers to the 2012 NCAA tournament in her first season as head coach, will spend Mother's Day with 2-month-old Justice in her arms. And, more than likely, with a few of her players coming through the front door.
"The girls are always looking for a reason to go over there to see the baby," assistant coach Tasha Butts said. "And her door is always open to them."
Caldwell is one of the country's top young coaches. She was hired at UCLA for her first head-coaching job in 2009 and spent two seasons in Westwood before she was lured back home to the South and LSU.
Her first season with the Lady Tigers was a success by every measure. Her team won 23 games, clinched a spot in the title game of the SEC tournament, earned an NCAA berth and reached the second round.
Caldwell was in the stretch run -- nearly three weeks shy of her due date -- of "the easiest pregnancy I'd ever seen anyone have," Butts said, when things suddenly got a little exciting.
After LSU lost to Tennessee in the SEC championship game in Nashville, Tenn., on March 4, the team was gathered on a bus parked on the tarmac at the airport near the charter plane. Caldwell and the Lady Tigers were waiting for word on senior LaSondra Barrett, who had sustained a concussion.
Caldwell was sitting on the bus with her feet up. "We were done," she said, "I had all the adrenaline going, I was excited about how well the team was playing."
Then the contractions started.
"She had never said she was uncomfortable once before then," Butts remembers.
"I was not feeling good, you could see my belly contracting," Caldwell said. "I just knew I wanted to get home."
Caldwell did get home to Baton Rouge late that night, woke up the next morning and headed to the doctor with boyfriend and former NFL player Justin Fargas.
"We went to eat first, this great brunch at a place near campus called Louie's," Caldwell said. "We got the doctor and the tech did an ultrasound and then they sent me upstairs. The doctor looked at my chart and said, 'We're going to have a birthday party.'
"Justin and I looked at each other and said, 'For who?'"
It took them a moment to process. They had just dropped the dog at the vet, the bag for the hospital wasn't packed. Too many hours spent at the gym, on the court, on the road to get everything done. Her due date was still weeks away.
The doctor told Caldwell and Fargas that they could go home for two hours, but they had to be back by 6 p.m. On the way home, she got her assistant coaches on a conference call to tell them the news. Then the couple made a pit stop.
"I told him to stop at Marshalls, that I needed a couple of things, so here we are, walking around the store, shopping for a nightgown and a robe," Caldwell said. "There was a moment there where I froze a little."
By 5:44 a.m. the next morning, Justice Simone Fargas was born.
Caldwell was back at practice the following Monday.
"I missed a couple of practices," Caldwell said. "When I went back, I'd just go and sit in a chair and watch. I really didn't do much until the following week [when the NCAA tournament began]."
LSU served as a host site for the NCAA tournament, so Caldwell felt fortunate that she didn't have to travel.
"In a way, it couldn't have been timed any better," Caldwell said. "Maybe she knew."
The Lady Tigers won their first-round game and lost in the second, ending the season at 23-11. Caldwell's adventure however, was not quite done. Just days later, she was working out when she sustained a tear in her Achilles tendon that would require surgery.
Fargas and her mother are doing the heavy lifting at home for the time being.
"They are doing everything," Caldwell said. "They bring [Justice] to me. It's a good thing that we've never really had to walk her to get her to sleep or anything."
Caldwell, finishing up her maternity leave as LSU goes through spring workouts, will pick up her crutches and head to Colorado Springs next week to help Katie Meier coach the U-18 national team, which will compete in the FIBA Americas U-18 Championship in Puerto Rico in August.
Justice will be making all of the trips with her mom.
"Right now, I can't be away from her for more than a day," Caldwell said. "When I had my surgery, I was having withdrawals."
Butts sees an easy transition to working motherhood for her friend.
"For Nikki, even when she coached me, she's always been that motherly type," Butts said. "She's always been that person who is organized and wants things to be a certain way. And I look at the way she's raising her baby and she has Justice on her schedule. It's the same way she runs the team."
Caldwell and Butts said Caldwell has had a great role model in Tennessee's Pat Summitt. Caldwell played at Tennessee and spent six years on Summitt's staff, watching her raise son Tyler.
"She showed me that every day is supposed to be what it is and you just make it work," Caldwell said. "It's just not an option."
For now, LSU's players are fawning over the baby, offering their babysitting services, and Caldwell is learning how to multitask in a new way.
"It will all come together," Caldwell said. "I have a great team at home with Justin and my mom, and at LSU."
Butts said she's had to laugh when she sees her tough-as-nails head coach display something of a softer side.
"Every five minutes I'm over there, she's saying, 'She's so pretty,'" Butts said. "You don't always see that sensitive side come out."