Standing on a podium in front of family, friends, administrators and dozens of his former players, longtime Arizona softball coach Mike Candrea officially announced his retirement at a press conference Tuesday in McKale Center.
He leaves after 36 years and an NCAA record 1,674 wins and eight national championships,
Here are some key takeaways from the day.
Candrea delayed his retirement for the seniors
Candrea wanted to depart with this senior class, which he has referred to many times as the Gold Standard because of their excellence on and off the field. He had promised them that he would see their careers through.
The coronavirus pandemic cancelling the 2020 season meant coaching for an extra year.
“I wanted to come back and finish this,” Candrea said. “We fell short and we all hurt, because one of the standards that these young ladies set was you go to the World Series, you win the World Series, and it’s getting tougher and tougher. But I can promise you one thing. I told every one of them I can look them in the mirror right now and I love what they did for this program this year. It was a tremendous ride. They did it with class, did it with dignity.”
Arizona’s seniors were informed before the season that this was going to be Candrea’s last. The secret was mostly kept under wraps until the Women’s College World Series when ESPN reporter Holly Rowe asked Candrea if the network could make an announcement.
“I go, ‘No, I’m going to make it on my own terms. I’m going to do it my way,’” he said.
Candrea waited until the end of the season to announce his retirement so that he would not be the focus of the season. He spoke with his players from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Monday until he was “blue in the face.” Among other things, he reminded them that he was still going to be part of their lives even if he was no longer coaching.
“I felt like I was speaking at my own funeral,” he said. “It was tough, but I’m happy, I’m elated. It’s the right thing. I’m looking forward to the next chapter.”
Candrea will still be around the UA, just in a different capacity
Candrea will step into an advisory role at Arizona, serving as a mentor for coaches and student-athletes. While athletic director Dave Heeke said the exact specifics still have to be ironed out, Candrea will still have a prominent presence around the UA. (Yes, he still plans to be at Hillenbrand Stadium for softball games.)
“Part of your job as a coach at this level is to mentor and so I’m looking forward to being able to hang out with our coaches here in McKale and in other places,” Candrea said. “I’ve never had a chance to really observe a lot of practices. And that’s something that’s on my bucket list. I want to see how other people do it and continue to learn.”
Candrea also said his next venture is to keep growing the sport, to “try to get people around the world, around the country, the NCAA to realize they have a special product. Sometimes they don’t care of the product, they care of everything else.”
In May, Candrea criticized the NCAA Tournament’s selection process and the Pac-12 for not providing enough exposure for its program. Now that he’s no longer coaching, he will be even more outspoken.
“What can they do to me?” he said in an interview with AllSportsTucson.
Some suggestions Candrea made: expanding the Women’s College World Series so that teams are not playing twice in one day and erasing some of the inequities between college baseball and softball.
“When we have a regional, baseball gets 44 dozen baseballs for regional and 22 dozen for Supers. We get eight for a Regional and six for a Super Regional,” he told the Arizona Daily Star. “I go to the (Women’s) College World Series and it’s the worst hotel that I had to stay at all year. That shouldn’t happen. I go to a practice and there’s two buckets of balls and screens that aren’t really protected screens. That shouldn’t happen.”
Still, Candrea is optimistic about the sport’s future. He has seen it grow tremendously over the last 36 years. When he first took the job, Arizona’s home field was a recreational field. They had to wait for P.E. class to finish it before they could practice. He had to drag the dirt and pick up rocks, too.
Eventually, after a pair of national championships, Hillenbrand Stadium was built in 1993, fans filled it up, and the rest of the country noticed the potential in the sport.
“I think now people are starting to listen because softball has come a long ways, and it’s a lot of the people are in this room right now that are the reason why I’m so proud,” Candrea said.
Candrea’s other post-retirement plans include Italy, visiting Major League Baseball stadiums, and a lot more family time
Candrea is heading to Italy next week for a month where he will serve as an advisor to the Italian National Team, whose head coach died from COVID-19 a few months ago. Candrea is of Italian-descent, but there is no doubt where his allegiance lies.
“The only way I’m going to be the Olympic Games is if I have red, white and blue on,” he said.
Candrea is also planning to treat his wife Tina to some time in Tuscany.
“You know, observe some of the vineyards and see how they grow grapes,” he said, causing the McKale Center crowd to erupt in laughter. “Very interested in that.”
At some point, Candrea plans to visit all the MLB ballparks he hasn’t had a chance to frequent yet and get more out of his membership at Pinetop Country Club in Flagstaff.
Most importantly, though, he will have more time to catch up on all the family time he has missed over the years. He is excited to watch his grandsons in Chandler play football. His stepson Sean is expecting a baby boy in January so “we’ve got something to be excited about in the near future.”
Candrea said it was difficult to maintain a healthy work-life balance during his coaching career, especially early on. He lived in Casa Grande for his first 21 years at Arizona when he was married to his first wife, Sue.
“We lived out in the country and raised some pigs and had some horses,” he said. “I thought that was kind of cool until I get the vet bill the first time when a horse got sand colic. But I want to thank her for actually raising our kids.”
Candrea spent most of his time working or commuting. He would wake up at seven o’clock, drive 71 miles to Tucson, get home at 8, eat dinner, go to bed and do the whole thing all over again the next day.
“One thing about coaching is you spend more time with other people’s kids than your own,” he said. “And there’s times I can’t get back but I’m going to try like hell to try to get it back.”
Retirement won’t be a completely new experience. The pandemic, and the work-from-home culture it created, allowed Candrea to get a sneak peek.
“It’s hard because when you’re so invested into something, it’s like trying to find balance yet you’re trying to be the best at what you do,” Candrea said. “It’s hard to have that balance but I’ve tried to work very hard at trying to find it.”
Candrea explained why Caitlin Lowe is the right choice to be his successor
Candrea said he has targeted Lowe for the head coaching position for a long time. He offered her the director of operations job in 2012 just to get her back in the program in some capacity.
“She wasn’t very good at that,” he joked.
She has been at everything else.
“From the time she was a player here, till the time she was in the NPF, to the time she played in the Olympic team, I mean, if you really go back and look at her accomplishments they’ve been phenomenal,” Candrea said.
“But I have been overly impressed with her ability to lead, her ability to communicate. She’s got strong principles that are a lot like mine. I think she’s got a great grasp of what we want the program to be. She was just a shoe-in. I mean, I didn’t have to think twice about it. And she’s a very good teacher, and she’s been there, so she’s been on the field, she’s been in the batter’s box. And to me, I think that’s really important for these young ladies today because they’re getting so much information and the information that’s available to them sometimes needs to be deciphered.”
Lowe’s ability to do that became evident over her four-year stint as an assistant coach. Candrea gave her more and more responsibilities in Arizona’s hitting approach and when she talked, the players would listen.
“There’s many moments where I’ve seen her get the girls together and call a timeout and talk to them about an approach at the plate, and watch the approach work,” Candrea said. “That catches your eye saying, ‘well, number one, when she communicates you see eyeballs to her. ... And then number two, the quality of the information that’s going out is spot on.”’
Candrea had plenty of opportunities to leave Tucson
Candrea said he interviewed for other jobs during his time at Arizona. He told AllSportsTucson.com that included big-time schools like Alabama, Texas and Florida. Arizona State, his alma mater, too. Eventually the calls stopped coming because everyone knew pursuing him was a fruitless endeavor.
“I just never found anything that I felt like I wanted to leave this place,” Candrea said. “I traveled around the world with the national team and every time I came back to Tucson I wanted to stop and kiss the ground. For some reason, those Catalina Mountains started to get to me and that beautiful golf course I live on. This place provided me the best quality of life. It wasn’t about the money.”
It wasn’t about the championships, either
Though Candrea retires as the NCAA softball leader in wins and national championships, the individual accolades meant less and less to him as his career progressed. For a while there, they consumed him.
“I thought the sun came up and went down whether I won or I didn’t win,” he said. “And I’d beat myself up. And that’s one poor thing about coaching is you kind of blow through the victories and you agonize over the defeats.”
Eventually—Candrea can’t pinpoint the exact moment—his perspective changed.
“I said, you know what? My goal here is to make sure that these kids are prepared for life after softball,” he said. “And that really kind of took a lot of pressure off kids, off myself, off everyone is to enjoy it, enjoy the process.”
And enjoy the time spent together. Candrea’s players often say he was like a second father to them. He cared about their softball talent, yes, but he cared for them as people first and foremost.
Candrea’s entire press conference, sans the media Q&A portion, was a long thank you note to everyone who helped him become a Hall of Fame coach. To George Young who encouraged him to coach softball at Central Arizona College even though he didn’t know much about the sport, to Arizona for hiring him at age 29 even though Candrea is sure he wasn’t their first or second choice.
Candrea even went so far to thank the trainers, operations staff, grounds crew and media relations members by name.
“It’s the little people that really make a difference in your program and will run through walls for you,” he said. “And it’s how you treat them.”
Candrea needed to look no further than the press conference crowd to see some of the many lives he’s touched at Arizona. His legacy was staring right back at him.
“I’m looking forward to cheering on these young ladies as we move forward and Caitlin Lowe will do an outstanding job leading this program, and at the end of the day that’s all I really wanted,” Candrea said. “I wanted to be the gatekeeper and I wanted to make sure that I did the right things for the next generation. And I really believe that this program is better off than it was when I found it. It’s been so much fun. I owe all of you for this great career. And I just want to say thank you and God bless each and every one of you because it has been truly an honor to be called Coach at the University of Arizona.”