The lasting memory I’ll have about Mike Candrea will be his moment in the sun in Athens, Greece when Team USA won the gold medal in 2004. There, while with Team USA jumped up and down on the diamond’s infield, he watched from the dugout steps, hand on chin and likely a tear in his eye.
The game was never about Mike Candrea. He made sure of it.
“When you win the big one it’s almost a bit of relief that it’s over,” he said on Tuesday. “It’s celebrating them. The players are the ones between the lines. My biggest thrill is watching them celebrate. I’ve never been a coach who wanted to be out in middle of all that. Sitting back and enjoying the moment is pretty powerful.”
Victories, he loved of course, but the victories were never about him. It was all about the team. It’s likely those eight national titles – E-I-G-H-T and unmatched by any current coach – were handled the same way. He watched his players celebrate while he took everything in.
“They (those titles) mean more to the community and the university,” Candrea said after nearly three hours of talking about his retirement on Tuesday. “When we (won) a title it was the culmination of a process that worked. It means that we had a group of players that handled the things you have to handle to be able to win.”
He was well aware that it was one thing to get to the College Softball World Series – a place where he regular took his team and in fact 24 times – to actually winning the thing. That saying: you have to be good, lucky and healthy all apply.
“There’s such a fine line when you get there,” he said. “We’ve been blessed by kids who have embraced pressure and played well under pressure.”
And they embraced him – believed in him – to lead the way. It resulted in 1,674 wins, the most by any softball coach and 11 conference titles. He made winning the norm. Made Tucson and the UA a softball hotspot for more than three decades.
“There’s no doubt that Mike Candrea is an icon,” said UA athletic director Dave Heeke. “He put the sport of softball on the map. He was instrumental in its growth, nationally, and internationally. He made Arizona softball the standard. The standard, the example for any other program in this country to follow. He was a trailblazer … and made an impact on more lives than we can count.”
So, the man who knew nothing about softball when he took over the program at Central Arizona eventually became the John Wooden of College softball.
But he knew he’d be able to pull it off – if no one else did. His first practices he questioned why he even took the job, realizing how far it had to go. He spoke of one player going into his office in the first year to say she was quitting because it was too much like work. He pointed to the door to say goodbye but in a few years he’d guide the team to a national title.
“He is the coach you hope for as an administrator, but most importantly as a parent,” said former Arizona associate athletic director Rocky LaRose, who was also instrumental in luring Candrea from Central Arizona in the mid-1980s. “(He’s) a coach you know cares about your child as a person and as an administrator because he holds education and teaching as his No. 1 goal.
“The cherry on top, of course, is his on-the-field education expertise and ability to coach athletes to the elite level and win championships. We were fortunate to hire him when he was a young coach and grateful to him that he chose UA to spend his collegiate career.”
It’s not like he didn’t have a chance or two or seven to leave UA in his 36 years.
He mentioned there may have been three times Arizona State called. Texas, Alabama, Florida all called too.
“I think the word got out that, ‘you’re not going to get him, he’s staying,’” he said. “I almost hated to (get involved in a job hire elsewhere) knowing I’m not going to take the job. It didn’t feel right.”
The Catalina Mountains and the “quality of life” in Tucson were too much to say goodbye to.
“I went on some interviews, and I just never found anything that I felt like I wanted to leave this place. 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,” he said. “It wasn’t about the money; it wasn’t about going to China and coach the national team for lots of money. I would be miserable. Because I … there’s nothing I like to eat there.”
So, he stayed.
The Phoenix kid who later became the Casa Grande young adult now had officially become a Tucsonan, save for his 75-mile drive from Casa Grande to the softball field for so many years.
Thirty-six years later, he decided to retire – officially. Had there been a 35th year he would have retired then, but COVID hit, and he decided to return for one last hurrah. It ended Tuesday morning when he spoke for 34 minutes to many former players, UA administrators, his current team, the media and onlookers via the Pac-12 Network.
It was part self-effacing roast part emotional lookback at a career and life well spent.
He was at peace with himself. This 65-year-old man – a Mountain of a man in the softball world – was at peace.
“Now that today is almost done, I think I’ll feel a whole lot better,” he said. “Yesterday was probably the toughest day of my life talking to players from 9 am to 6 pm, that was tough. There were a lot of tears and a lot of laughter.”
How could there not be? Hundreds of players came through the program, with more than 100 becoming All-Americans. Hillebrand was and is the House that Candrea built. The literal architect of the program and facility.
He’s part father figure, mentor, influencer, gatekeeper and eventually the gold standard for coaching softball. After all, you don’t coach the Olympic Team because you’re kinda good.
“He’s an amazing man with so many qualities,” said Leah Braatz Glover, a former All-American. “Every person he comes in contact with is impacted in a positive and life-changing way. He’s our amazing coach. He will always be there if we need him. He’s never too busy for his players – past, present of future. Imagine how many of us there are, and I guarantee you each and every one of us think we are his favorite. That’s how special he makes us feel.”
He’s also a dream maker. He made a dream of a local product come true in Stacy Redondo Santa Cruz, who was part of his first national title in 1991.
“Besides my dad, Coach has been the single most influential man in my life,” she said. “When he first got to Tucson, he’d come watch my games at Cholla High. He recruited me with such excitement about building a winning program at Arizona that it was infectious. I actually believed that I could be part of building that team.
“I couldn’t have been happier and prouder when that dream first came true in 1991 and then again in 1993. I love him dearly and wish nothing but happiness in retirement.”
When asked what it meant for his players to wax poetic and think so highly of him and even as a father figure, he got emotional.
“That’s what it’s all about,” he said. “I suppose it’s an honor. I’ve always tried to do what I feel is right. Sometimes you don’t, I mean, I can’t say that every kid that’s been through the Arizona program has left happy, but that’s kind of part of competition. But at the end of the day, I wanted them to know that I cared about them as an individual and I, I realized a long time ago you have, if you can, if you can help the person out, then you can help the athlete out, but you can’t help the athlete out until you help the person and so these young ladies know whether you are real or whether you’re not real and I want them to be able to be a part of my life forever.”