Mike Candrea, the architect of the Arizona softball program and a legend of the sport, announced his retirement on Monday after 36 years at the UA.
He will hold a press conference on Tuesday at 10:30 a.m. MST in McKale Center. Associate head coach Caitlin Lowe has been named his successor.
“It has been an honor to represent the University of Arizona for 36 years,” Candrea said in a statement. “I am indebted to every player, coach and member of my support staff that has made the Arizona softball experience one that I will cherish forever. When I arrived in 1985, I wanted to build a culture of excellence and compete consistently at the highest levels of Division 1 softball. Most of all, our goal was to prepare our student-athletes for life after softball and build relationships that would last a lifetime.”
Candrea, 65, departs as the winningest coach in NCAA history with 1,674 career wins. He took over the Arizona program in 1986 and led the Wildcats to 24 Women’s College World Series appearances, 11 Pac-10/12 championships and eight national championships, more than any other coach.
Under Candrea, Arizona produced 108 All-Americans, including some of the greatest players in the sport’s history like Caitlin Lowe, Jennie Finch, Jenny Dalton, Leah O'Brien, and Nancy Evans.
Candrea was also a titan on the Olympic softball scene, coaching Team USA to a gold medal in the 2004 Athens Olympics and silver medal in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
When Candrea first took over the program in 1986, the Wildcats played their home games on a recreation field.
After winning Arizona’s first national championship in 1993, Candrea crafted the concept for Hillenbrand Stadium, which wound up being erected two years later as the first-ever on-campus softball stadium in the country. Others around the country emulated it, spurring growth in the sport.
“25 years ago, that was the Taj Mahal,” Candrea said in 2019. “In 1993, I remember coming back from the World Series and drawing a stadium on a napkin and thinking, ‘man, if we could build something like this, we would be the first one in the country and we would put people in the seats and it would really help our recruiting and everything else.’ And all that came to fruition when Bill Hillenbrand came into my office and offered to help me with a donation.”
As much as Candrea accomplished on the softball diamond, former players often rave about the family-like culture he created away from it. They often refer to him as a father figure. Someone who is willing to talk to them about anything at anytime.
“Not often do you get to do something that you love to do and then surround yourself with people that you never want to see leave,” Candrea said Saturday. “Every athlete that I’ve ever been a part of at Arizona, it’s a lifelong relationship, and as a coach, that’s what you hope. I hope that I treat them well. I hope I treat them like my daughter. And I hope that I can continue to be a part of their life.
“I told the kids, the one thing that I realized in my career, you’re really only the gatekeeper at the end of the day, and I just hope that this program is stable,” he said. “I’ve tried to do the right things the right way, and I hope that it has an impact and influence on the kids that I coach. Because I think the one thing that I take very seriously is being a mentor and being a role model. I always tell them everything I do, I always think about how it’s going to affect them for all these years. So I’m honored and blessed that I’ve been able to coach so many great young women.”
Arizona players dedicated the team’s 2019 and 2021 postseasons run to Candrea but, as usual, he pointed the spotlight on his players.
“Well, I appreciate that, but it’s for all of us,” he said after Arizona beat Arkansas in Super Regionals in May. “It takes a village to make this thing work and I really want to thank Caitlin and Taryne (Mowatt) for the job they’ve done. I couldn’t ask for better people on our staff, and there’s a lot of people on our staff that have done the work, so it’s all of us. I’m honored that they think it’s for me but it’s it’s really not. It’s not about me. It’s about the players and it’s about the program. I’m the gatekeeper and I’ve always felt that way. If you really think about it, you’re here for a short time, so I just wanted to do the best job that I can do and keep this program consistent throughout the years. Hopefully I’ve done it.”
Candrea’s retirement is only from coaching, however. Per a news release, he will “continue to be a part of the Arizona Athletics family in an advisory role as well as assisting with coaching development for the athletics department.”