Cherish him, Wildcats fans, because there won’t be another one like him.
Mike Candrea, the iconic University of Arizona softball coach, finally called it a career Monday after 36 years leading the program. He not only took the Wildcats to unprecedented heights, he also played a bigger role than anyone in growing the sport into what it is today.
Born in New Orleans, Candrea and his family moved to Phoenix when he was 7, and he attended Sunnyslope High School. He had a passion for baseball and wanted to someday play in the major leagues.
A middle infielder, Candrea played baseball at Central Arizona College before an elbow injury — and subsequent surgery — derailed his playing dreams.
But he became an assistant coach on the CAC baseball team, helping lead the Vaqueros to the NJCAA national championship in 1976 — his first season as coach — under head coach Kenny Richardson.
George Young, a four-time Olympian and then-athletic director at CAC, told Candrea he should coach the softball team. After initial objections, Candrea relented and took over the softball program in 1981.
The rest is history.
Candrea led the CAC softball team to back-to-back national titles in 1984 and 1985. Then Tucson and UA came calling.
When he began coaching in Tucson, the Wildcats played in the Pac-10. Games were not on television. The sport wasn’t taken seriously on a national level. He changed all that.
A good comparison is former Tennessee women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt. She took women’s college basketball to another level of competitiveness and exposure.
Candrea did the same for softball at Arizona, setting a standard of excellence that very few coaches ever achieve. He won eight national titles at UA — including five in seven years between 1991 and 1997 — and his 1,674 wins are the most all-time.
This goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway. Candrea needs a statue outside Rita Hillenbrand Stadium, and pronto. And while you’re at it, Arizona, name it Mike Candrea Field at Rita Hillenbrand Stadium.
Speaking to PinalCentral in March for an episode of the Retro Rewind podcast, Candrea said winning used to consume him to the point of being detrimental on and off the field.
Time taught him some valuable lessons, and he came to understand that teaching his players how to succeed in life after softball, and also remaining part of their lives, was the most important and rewarding part of his job.
As for how much the sport has grown since he began at UA in 1986, Candrea explained the evolution in TV coverage.
“I remember our first World Series (title in 1991), we had one game on TV, and it was the championship game,” he told PinalCentral. “And now it’s not uncommon for us to be on television 35, 40 times during the year. The neatest part about my adventure is I’ve lived it, and I’ve watched the sport grow from ... just above a recreational level to now, where I think college softball is one of the most popular sports that is played around this country.”
Speaking of country, he also represented Team USA Softball as its coach in 2004 and 2008, winning gold in ’04 and silver in ’08.
Assistant coach and former Arizona superstar player Caitlin Lowe was announced Monday as the program’s new head coach. It’s an excellent choice, and the Wildcats will continue to succeed at a high level with her at the helm.
But there’s only one Mike Candrea, and just like the late Lute Olson, his towering legacy is forever cemented in Tucson. So get to work on building that statue.