The late Lute Olson is thought of as God in Tucson with his four Final Fours, 1997 NCAA title and numerous former players who went on to the NBA in his 24 seasons as Arizona’s basketball coach.
Two other legends who have passed — Dick Tomey and Jerry Kindall — are symbolic of unprecedented success in their respective programs. Tomey won more football games than any other coach in Arizona history and Kindall coached the Wildcats to three College World Series championships.
Rick LaRose was Arizona’s golf coach for 39 years, which is the longest coaching tenure at the school behind Fred Enke’s 41 seasons mostly as the men’s basketball coach. LaRose is the only coach in NCAA history to win both men’s (1992) and women’s (1998) national championships. An incredible 13 times Arizona was ranked No. 1. He coached seven national players of the year and won seven NCAA regionals and four Pac-10 titles.
Jim Gault (Arizona’s gymnastics coach for 18 years), Dave Murray (who spent 34 years as the head coach and director of the cross country and track and field programs) and Dave Rubio (entering his 30th season as Arizona’s volleyball coach in the fall) are known at McKale Center for their longevity and honorable personalities.
No coach at Arizona is more legendary than J.F. “Pop” McKale, the father of Arizona athletics. He served as athletic director from 1914-57, football coach from 1914-30, basketball coach from 1914-21, and baseball coach from 1915-19 and again from 1922-49.
In terms of athletic directors at Arizona, Mary Roby and Cedric Dempsey are in an elite class. Rocky LaRose is a legendary athlete who became a successful associate athletic director at Arizona.
If her first five years on the job are any indication, Adia Barnes is staking a claim for the most visible and successful women’s coach in Arizona history.
Joan Bonvicini is certainly deserving of mention in that regard as is Laura Ianello, a former Wildcat herself who led the women’s golf program to a national championship in 2018.
Becky Bell is worthy of mention leading the women’s tennis program from 1985-97 and having five top-10 finishes, a Final Four team (1993), and a national championship doubles team (all firsts in Arizona tennis history).
The greatest coach in Arizona athletics history, when factoring success, longevity and impact on players and the very sport he coaches, has to be Mike Candrea.
Candrea, of course, would shy away from this discussion because he is as self-effacing as it gets.
This quote by Candrea of his senior class is indicative of his principles: “They’ve proven to me that they’re going to be great people the rest of their life, and to me, that’s important.”
Since taking over Arizona’s program in 1985 at 31 years old after attending ASU and coaching at Central Arizona College, Candrea has become the John Wooden of college softball.
On Saturday, in his 36th season as the Wildcats’ coach, his program earned a 24th trip to the Women’s College World Series by beating Arkansas 4-1 in the Fayetteville Regional.
His teams have won eight Women’s College World Series titles.
So what if the last one occurred in 2007?
The stature of the sport that he developed — creating the opportunity for other coaches and programs to thrive nationally — makes it a bear to win national championships at the kind of rate he enjoyed early in his career.
He won the eight titles in a 17-year span (1991 to 2007) and has none in the last 12 years (2008 through 2019).
He can look at the recent stretch with a sense of pride, ironically, because as the Godfather of college softball, he put in motion that kind of parity that has boosted the game’s image by leaps and bounds.
ABC-TV, for example, televised the Washington-Oklahoma Super Regional game on Saturday, the first time one of three major networks (NBC and CBS the others) have broadcast a live college softball game.
“For a long time, I took these moments for granted. I don’t think people understand how tough it is just to get there, so I’m enjoying this moment. Very much so,” Candrea said after Saturday’s victory, wearing an “OKC Bound” cap.
Candrea (with a career record of 1,674-431-2) has the most wins in NCAA softball history, a distinct honor at Arizona.
Many of his former players, including ESPN analyst Jenny Dalton-Hill, say Candrea is “the man we simply call Coach.”
“Hard to hold back tears,” she mentioned in a tweet, “when you talk about someone as special as Coach Candrea.”
Whenever he decides to retire — he says he still has fire in his belly — Candrea will be deserving of his name placed at Hillenbrand in some fashion. Perhaps Candrea Field at Hillenbrand Stadium. A statue of him outside of the park’s entrance should already be in the plans.
He is the greatest not only in victories and championships but in matters of the heart.
In a tweet directed at Candrea, senior ace Alyssa Denham mentioned, “Thank you for the countless hours you invested to give me the confidence and courage to be who I am. I am forever fearfully and wonderfully made.
“I love you Coach Mike.”
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon. He became an educator five years ago and is presently a special education teacher at Gallego Fine Arts Intermediate in the Sunnyside Unified School District